AMARILLO, Texas (AP) - Lance Stuart bounced from place to place, regularly getting evicted by police while living in tents at various locations around Amarillo, before coming to the Christ Church Camp of New Beginnings about two months ago.
The Amarillo Globe-News reports the 42-year-old said he has been trying to rebuild his life amid a cycle of homelessness that started in 2009 when he could no longer pay rent working as a self-employed construction worker. Things got worse when he lost custody of his son.
“I just kind of gave up,” he said.
For $30 a month, he and his wife Mandy stay at the camp, a privately-owned, nearly half-acre residential lot on Southwest First Avenue in north Amarillo that has become a safe haven for people who don’t stay at homeless shelters in Amarillo.
“At least now, we’ve got someplace stable for a couple months,” Stuart said.
“I don’t have to worry about where I’m going to be that night, or who’s going to come rob my tent and steal from me, or if the city is going to come along and demolish all our stuff.”
Established in early November, the camp has become a popular spot for Amarillo’s homeless, drawing regulation but acceptance from the city.
To advocates for the homeless, it’s also as a sign that Amarillo needs low-barrier shelter services as alternatives to places like The Salvation Army. Low-barrier housing places a minimum number of restrictions on residents with a goal of allowing greater access to services.
“Some people, for whatever reason, can’t go” to traditional homeless shelters, said Amanda Brown Hunter, a 45-year-old retired firefighter who founded and operates the camp.
“They’ve maybe been barred in the past. I have a lot of people in my camp, or who have come through my camp, who are dealing with addiction. Also, there are certain rules and regulations in the shelters here that, for whatever reason, they aren’t willing or can’t comply with. Some don’t go because they can’t take their pets.”
Stuart said he prefers the freedom of living on his own to the regimented lifestyle in a shelter.
Hunter said she rented the land - for $400 a month - to bring homeless people there after they were moved off another property nearby dubbed the Ice House campground.
Ultimately, the tent city is supposed to be a temporary place for residents to stay and access a number of resources nearby, Hunter said.
The camp is walking distance from Guyon Saunders Resource Center, where people can go during the day to take showers, do laundry and use the internet to find work. Guyon Saunders also recently started hosting a warming station during frigid temperatures, which some campers use, and has space for pets.
Hunter’s camp is also not far from a day-labor stop downtown.
There recently were 19 residents at Hunter’s camp, she said, but at times more than 30 have been there. More than two dozen tents are set up there, along with heaters, gas generators and mountains of donated food, clothes and blankets. Tables are littered with boxes of doughnuts, trays of turkey and piles of foil-wrapped baked potatoes.
There have been some basic rules instituted. Residents have to pass a basic background check and be older than 21. Families are not allowed to have their children there.
Drug use is not allowed either, Hunter said. People who are caught using are given a chance to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings and get clean before they are evicted from the camp. But, the camp is not overly strict about what goes on behind tent doors.
The relatively laid-back setting is why many people stay there instead of the Salvation Army or Faith City Missions, where residents can’t come and go as they please.
Demetrio Galvan, a 31-year-old resident at the tent city who said he was left without a home and struggling to hold a job after a stint in county jail, said he didn’t like the strict hours at the shelters. Galvan said he felt at home and safe in his tent.
“Waking up before 6 a.m. is just is not my thing,” Galvan said. “I usually work overnight, so I’m used to sleeping during the day.”
At the Salvation Army, which with 230 beds is the largest local emergency shelter, intake hours are from 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Bedtime is at 10:30 p.m. Men have to wake at 5:30 a.m. and women and children at 6:30 a.m. After breakfast, men have to be out of the shelter at 7 a.m., and women and children leave at 8 a.m. On the weekends, they get an extra hour.
They have to leave during the day, and many go to Guyon Saunders or try to find day labor. Others come to the tent city for a meal and conversation by the fire pit.
Maj. Harvey Johnson, corps officer for the Salvation Army of Amarillo, said the local shelter “tries to make it as low-barrier as possible” while still caring for general safety.
“I think everything needs structure,” Johnson said. “If not, you have chaos.”
The Salvation Army relaxes its intake rules when temperatures drop to 38 degrees or below, he said, taking in people who they would normally turn away - those who are inebriated, high or have been problematic in the past.
Still, Johnson acknowledged a need for more options, mentioning concerns about mentally ill people who are homeless and also those with pets, but he worried about shelter providers becoming too lax.
In 2012, a tent city in Amarillo started under the overpass at Pierce Street and Southeast Second Avenue, just west of Faith City Mission, which operates a 39-bed emergency shelter.
The tent city swelled, and charities struggled to provide services to the people there as conditions deteriorated.
Eventually, the city enforced trespassing laws at the state’s request. The Amarillo City Council that same year passed an ordinance prohibiting camping during certain hours on public property.
Controversy about the ordinance flared up in 2015 and 2016, as homeless advocates pushed for it to be repealed. At the time, the Obama administration was contesting such ordinances as unconstitutional and arguing they amounted to criminalizing homelessness.
“It’s not a sign of a new problem,” Vince Hernandez, executive director of Guyon Saunders Resource Center, said of the newest iteration of tent city.
“They were in tents somewhere before they came to tent city. The difference now is they’re all in one area.”
Hernandez said the visibility of the camp could spur positive new discussions about homelessness and finding a permanent solution for the people there.
Hunter said she eventually wants to build a village of tiny homes on a plot of land nearby and has already been in talks with the property owner.
She said she’s fundraising $37,000 to buy the land and needs a $20,000 down payment to starting moving residents. The proposed wooden homes would have running water and electricity and would be surrounded by fences for safety.
Hunter said she intends for that shelter to also be low-barrier. Places like Dallas and Austin have implemented similar tiny-home communities with success.
In the meantime, city officials have been keeping a close eye on the tent city, which is legal in Amarillo. Public workers visit the site regularly and inspect it to make sure it is meeting health and safety code. The city monitors things like trash buildup and conditions that could cause fire to spread uncontrollably.
On New Year’s Eve, one of the tents caught on fire at the camp after a catalytic heater exploded inside of it, according to Amarillo Fire Department and campers. No one was hurt.
The city has issued notices of code violations at the property, but it has not cited the property owner or Hunter. At one point, the camp didn’t have portable toilets on site, but four of them have since been brought there.
“We’ve tried to work very proactively with them . to their credit, they have been fairly good at stepping up and addressing those concerns,” said Kevin Starbuck, Amarillo assistant city manager.
“The challenge is as the camp continues to grow and continues to operate, those challenges become greater and greater.”
Starbuck said people who live in the nearby neighborhood and people who drive by the tent camp have expressed some concern with its existence and the welfare of people there. Motorists crossing the DeVaughn/Cortez bridge, which connects South Adams Street to North Hughes Street, get a clear view looking down on the camp.
Starbuck said there is enough capacity at existing faith-based and community outreach organizations for all of Amarillo’s homeless population. Official numbers suggest the current capacity may not be quite enough.
According to the most recent housing inventory report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Amarillo has 655 year-round beds designated as either emergency shelter or transitional housing.
A single-day headcount of homeless in the city in January 2017 tallied 678 homeless. Of those, 566 were in a shelter and 112 were unsheltered.
Starbuck said the city’s emergency program could provide extra cots, blankets and space as needed.
It appears tent city is here to stay for now, but for exactly how long is unclear.
City Councilman Eddy Sauer said as long as the camp met city code, “then that’s the way it is at this point in time.”
He declined to say whether he supported the camp and said he didn’t think its existence pointed to a lack of resources in the community.
“Why they have chosen not to use the services that are available, I can’t explain that, because I believe there’s plenty of services available for them,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting them into the system.”
The collection of homeless people has made it an ideal place for resource providers to connect with people they might not normally reach. Once there, residents can be directed or introduced to various services.
Chris Seright - executive director of Amarillo Housing First, a group that provides homeless with permanent housing without requiring initial psychiatric treatment or treatment for substance abuse - said he held outreach efforts at the site and that some campers entered that program.
“Personally, it’s my goal to disassemble the campground one camper at a time as we find a permanent solution,” he said.
City Councilwoman Freda Powell said she didn’t want the camp moved until its residents have somewhere to go.
“I’m not an advocate of just moving the homeless out without another place being secured,” she said.
She said she thought it was important to keep them near the resources downtown.
Of the tiny-home plan, Powell said it was “something I would definitely like to see.”
Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, http://www.amarillo.com
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