A shower is one of the last intact pieces of Tent City. It’s tipped over and settled in, a boxy, plywood boulder. Bulldozers have crunched remaining sheds. Dirt veils tiny fossils of camp life: shaving cream, toothbrush, teacup. Trees and debris have been brushed aside to make way for repairs on the Silliman Evans Bridge.
That construction would’ve shut down Tent City this past fall, but last May’s flood swept in instead, clearing out the encampment ahead of schedule. One year later, some of the roughly 100 displaced campers have returned to the streets. A few disappeared. Many found housing. The Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency freed up 60 vouchers for homeless flood victims; an MDHA spokesperson said 37 are being used.
Pedro Webb moved into his apartment on 12th Avenue South in October after months of finalizing Section 8 paperwork and inspections. When he lived on the outskirts of Tent City, he grew accustomed to the lawlessness: fights, excessive drinking. Now, when he puts up old friends from the street as he did recently, he requires that they sign a contract that lists house rules, rental rates and a damage deposit.
When winter hit, Webb let homeless friends crash on his couch and found the limits of generosity. He says his guests were drinking too much, getting loud. Eviction crossed his mind. So he penned the one-page agreement.
“They were helping themselves to my food,” says Webb in his raspy voice, stripped by years of smoking. “I don’t have enough to take care of somebody.”
The 49-year-old sits at his kitchen table puncturing a homemade spinach, portabella and cheese omelet with a fork. Steam curls out elegantly. He picks up the contract that’s loosely clinging to the corner of the table.
It starts: “I agree to abide by all the lease rules. If I pay by week, I agree to pay 55 dollars …”
“They hate it,” Webb says. “It’s responsibility they’re not looking for.” And responsibility is something to which Webb is acclimating.
“I had more freedom when I was homeless,” he says. Now he’s bound by bills. He’s had to learn to save the cash he makes from selling The Contributor. And he’s finally addressing an old DUI charge.
After a decade on the streets, the scaffolding is in place for Webb to have a stable life. He says he’s drinking less and sleeping better. He’s finally gotten the eyeglasses he’s been without. Life’s improved in his compact, one-bedroom apartment. But it’s meant furloughing friendships.
He points to a shoebox full of love letters from his girlfriend, who’s in jail. Webb says she’s getting out soon. He’s not sure he wants her — and her destructive behavior — moving in. His shoulders slump forward.
“But I’m all she has,” he sighs.
His old community along the river still holds a bond with the tightness of a pinky-swear. The formerly homeless typically don’t want to close their door to someone in need.
That’s evident over on Lewis Street in the Cameron-Trimble neighborhood. At a two-story brick apartment building, former residents of the encampment occupy 10 of the 16 units. At one point, an upstairs unit had four people and five pit bulls. Each apartment is less than 500 square feet.
Homeless guests frequently land on Hannah Foster’s couch. She’s a friendly woman with blond hair that nearly reaches her elbows. On cold nights she says her apartment operates like Room In The Inn, a winter sheltering program.
“We were gonna go to Madison,” she says, remembering her decision to move to Lewis Street last July. “But since we knew a lot of people here, we knew that there would be people we were close to.”
Foster, who landed in Tent City a few months before the flood, is meticulous about her place. She sweeps a couple times a day. Citrus air freshener always lingers. But she and nearly every former Tent City resident describe Lewis Street as chaotic.
Police, residents and outreach workers say drugs and violence are problems. It’s always been a troubled area of town — not an ideal location for a population with many battling addiction. That’s the reality of a lot of low-income housing.
“It’s a mess,” says Ingrid McIntrye, executive director of Open Table, a nonprofit that’s kept tabs on homeless flood victims.
Orange extension cords dangle from apartment to apartment because utilities have been cut off. McIntyre’s in the building’s parking lot staring at a grocery cart stuffed with empty beer cans. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, and two cans land on the pavement, tossed from the second floor.
“There’s no case management. Some people are just squatting here,” she says. “Nobody even really knows who the landlord is.”
G & G Consulting Co. Inc. out of Parsons, Tenn., has owned the building since July 2009. Its CEO, Alex Gohman, wants the property off his hands.
“I wish I had never spent a penny in that area,” he says by phone. “My whole day is ruined now that you’ve mentioned these properties. They stress me out so much.”
Gohman says his company spent $650,000 refurbishing the building after if was flooded last May. He says his contractors were held up at gunpoint, and that he’s had trouble retaining a property manager willing to enforce rules and rent. Therefore, problems like sewage backups often fester, tenants rotate in and out, and rent goes unpaid.
“We’re not putting any pressure on rents,” Gohman says. “Only two or three people are paying.”
Many residents say a Section 8 housing voucher they received post-flood is paying their rent. But housing records show only three of the 10 units occupied by former Tent City residents have a Section 8 voucher actively in use. A few have been revoked or have expired.
“Everyone recognizes there’s a real problem on Lewis Street,” says Brent Elrod. He develops projects for Urban Housing Solutions, a nonprofit affordable-housing provider. Urban Housing has a contract to buy the Lewis Street property. Their goal is to create a safer, orderly housing situation with federal dollars from a Neighborhood Stabilization Grant. But the building is in a floodplain, so the federal government is resistant to move the project forward.
Clifton Harris is the director of the Key Alliance, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the Metropolitan Homelessness Commission. The commission helped free up vouchers for homeless flood victims. He says their initiative now is to raise money for case management services, to help avoid situations like that on Lewis Street.
“Case management is critical,” Harris says. “You have someone working with you on a daily, weekly basis — whether that’s medical, transportation, employment.”
That “wraparound” case management can cost about $17,000 per year for one person. The Key Alliance has set a goal of raising $20 million from private donations. In the last year, they’ve brought in just under $92,000. Almost $6 million in grants and government money has been secured.
“It’s a breeding ground for chaos,” says a 33-year-old former Tent City resident who left Lewis Street to camp in nearby woods. He’s built a shed with carpet flooring, a waterproof roof and foam insulation. Shoelaces, wire and string hold together every scrap of wood. There are no nails. His nickname is MacGyver.
“If I’m going to be homeless, I want it to be as close to home as possible,” he says.
MacGyver is lean with pale skin. Orange stains mark the two fingers that hold his cigarettes. He left Lewis Street a month ago. As someone who’s struggled with addiction, he says he couldn’t be around the drug use.
He gets up to chop firewood. A martial arts fanatic, he kicks the wood to pieces with his feet. In the past year, MacGyver has gotten a job as a line cook, quit that job, and moved in and out of a community house run by Open Table. That was followed by a winter spent on Lewis Street. For now, he says he’s happy in the woods. His camp is peaceful, sewn into a canopy of stubby, full trees. Another former Tent City resident camps nearby.
“What I observe, everyone thinks that after the flood everyone got situated and everybody’s supposed to be okey-dokey,” he says. “A lot of people will end up back on the streets.”