Bright rays of sunlight pierce through gaps in the tree canopy.
Finding shade underneath, a loosely clothed group of men clamor on about the humidity and the morning they’re having. Trash cans nearby are overfilled with days’ worth of garbage and the smell of an almost stagnant creek fills the air at Glenwood Park in the eastern part of Historic Southside.
The men are indifferent to the smell and heat because there are bigger challenges. The park is a refuge for homeless people, most of whom don’t have anywhere else to go.
Smiles appear on the men’s faces when Paris Scarbrough, who also lives in the park, walks toward them. Drenched in sweat, she gets greeted with gentle hugs and “good morning” wishes.
“It’s never a dull moment. There’s always something going on over here. There’s always a lot of people,” she said. This is just pretty much where a lot of people come just to sit and relax during the day.”
Other park inhabitants know Scarbrough as “big little sister.” On more pleasant days, she’s over by the grill barbecuing for anyone who joins her. She said the park community also comes up to her for support in times of mentally taxing situations.
About 100 homeless people regularly spend their days at the park’s public pavilion area simply chatting or figuring out ways to get food, water, or other stimulants.
“There’s not a lot of places for the homeless to go,” Scarbrough said. “I honestly believe a lot of newer buildings that they’re putting up now in this specific area are only pushing the homeless back into one small area.”
In the works on the park is a new commercial project that would impact – for better or for worse – the people living there semi-permanently.
Fort Worth psychiatrist Dr. Brian Dixon wants to build a $2 million state-of-the-art facility focused on providing mental health services, which the developer says would boost the area’s economy and provide access to much-needed mental health care.
But an area advocacy group that provides aid to the park’s inhabitants asserts the project would displace the homeless population there. The planned development spotlights the competing challenges the country’s 12th-largest city faces as it grows.
A special place
From the park’s playground, Scarbrough walks some 900 yards south through the knee-high meadows to a heavily wooded area. A clandestine cranny in the grove leads up to a colony of homeless encampments.
Each one of the encampments stands within its own fixed boundary connected by a dirt trail. Some have a small front-yard-like area where various collected items – like tires, soda cans, shopping baskets – are on display.
Scarbrough meticulously unzips the front entrance to her tent, where she and her husband, Dwayne Brown, have lived in for over a year. She brushes away a few cigarette butts with her feet and smirks.
“Home is wherever me and my husband feel comfortable, ” she said, as she dusted off her makeshift bed. “Whether it’s in the tent, in a house or in our truck, home is really just where you make the place that you lay your head. It’s not about what it’s made of. It’s more of what you make it.”
City officials come by periodically to check and remove all camps present because it is an unpermitted settlement. The tent community gets erected again each time.
On the other end of the park, Dr. Dixon is planning what he describes as a one-of-its-kind mental health complex. He has been in the planning stage of his Mindful at Glenwood Park project for a couple of years now.
“(I’ll) build a building with therapy at the core,” Dixon told the Fort Worth Report. “You make sure that safety is especially foremost. Then you add in other elements of life and nature, so that when therapists are doing their work and working with clients or working with patients that everybody benefits from that experience.”
The mental health clinic will operate as a coworking space for therapists where they can see their clients. The clinic will also have the ability to take walk-in appointments, either inside the building or outside in the park.
Glenwood Park spans 36.9 acres in space. The 50,000-square-foot building project would take up about five acres of a corner space and open up toward the greenery of the park in three directions.
Dixon said the complex will add to the park’s usage and aesthetics.
“This is a unique opportunity to be a standard-bearer for how therapists do their appointments,” Dixon said. “They can be outside, they can be moving. They can be inside in a secure area, there’s a soundproof area. So this building is just kind of on the front end of creative spaces.”
He added that no such concept or dedication for mental health exists anywhere else in the country.
A place called home
Lizzie Maldonado, an associate director for National Harm Reduction Coalition and creator of Fort Worth-based O.D. Aid, has visited the park regularly since 2018 in her professional capacity.
Harm Reduction and O.D. Aid, Maldonado’s homelessness project, regularly distribute opioid overdose medication naloxone, as well as organize syringe access programs and training for other direct service providers.
Maldonado calls Dixon’s planned development an “imposing” structure that she said would eventually drive the homeless population out of the park.
“There’s no money or any investment for the people who live there now,” she said. “But there is money if you want to remove those people and grab that very-close-to-downtown affordable land.”
She said she was upset the homeless population had not been consulted or thought about before planning the project.
The homeless people have set up about 25 individual tents and temporary sheds in the encampment area. Most of the people living in the space share their tents.
Hundreds more stay in the park in the daytime because of the location’s close proximity to the several homeless shelters and resource centers on Lancaster Avenue.
“It will have huge impacts on (Glenwood Park’s homeless population),” Maldonado said. “When people drive their Lexuses to the parking lot to go to a ‘WeWork’ office, they’re going to start calling the police if they see unhoused people walking around.”
Fixing homelessness goes “beyond the scope of what I can do or any of us could,” Dixon said.
“If they do their job, then this question is not even relevant,” Dixon, founder of Progressive Psychiatry, said of city and social service officials. “They need to do their role in making sure that people have resources. And then that allows private businesses to do their role, which is to increase the amount of mental health access to anybody who wants it, whether they are a person experiencing homelessness or not.”
The district’s then-council member, Kelly Allen Gray, was supportive of the mental health clinic two years ago when the project idea was first proposed. Dixon had initiated the process of land procurement and gaining building permits before the pandemic.
However, because of the pandemic, the administrative paperworks could not be filled in time and work on the project halted. Dixon was not able to buy or lease the land in Glenwood Park to build Mindful.
Resetting the plan, Dixon said he is confident the planning and construction of the project could commence this year under the new City Council leadership
Chris Nettles defeated Gray in the June 5 runoff election to become the new council member.
Dixon said he soon would hold discussions with the new council member and the city of Fort Worth, which owns the property.
If Mindful is to be built within the park property, it would require the council’s approval.
Placing the homelessness issue
According to Tarrant County Homeless Coalition‘s point-in-time survey, the county saw a 42% decrease in homelessness in 2021. The survey, conducted over a two-weeks period on Jan. 28, identified 1,234 people with homelessness. Out of which, 479 were unsheltered homeless.
Reasons for the decrease in homelessness
- Federal eviction moratoriums
- New housing developments
- Fear around congregate settings
- Coordination between government and nonprofits
- Increased funding for homelessness
- Increase in eviction prevention funds
Source: Tarrant County Homeless Coalition
The coalition, an umbrella organization that works with 40 different partner agencies concentrating on homelessness, receives about $33 million a year in funding. The federal economic relief, CARES Act, allocated about $45 million to Tarrant County in homelessness-specific funds.
Coalition executive director Lauren King sees the recent decrease in annual numbers and windfall in federal and local funding as an opportunity to address the larger homelessness issue in Fort Worth.
There are various layers to the homelessness problem that needs untangling. King proposes having more effective conversations within the larger community and making compromises.
“The barrier every community faces is that neighborhoods, citizens don’t want people living on the streets. They don’t want to have to look at (homeless people),” King said. “That makes them uncomfortable, I understand. I don’t want people living on my own streets. As a community, I just think, we can do better. We should not be at a point where we’re OK with people living outside.”
Her organization is trying to find the balance and pushing for developers and the community to build more housing complexes, like smaller-scale duplexes, if not larger apartment complexes.
King promoted the idea of building more permanent housings rather than focusing on short-term solutions, which may include shelter homes and encampments.
“I totally understand why business owners don’t want someone sleeping on their front step. I get it,” she said. “It’s not good for business, for the neighborhood, I totally understand. From our perspective, I will say, if we can get people connected to the services, we can do a lot more for them than if they are not.”
The coalition’s data shows about 90% of the homeless population in Tarrant County had previously lived in the area, meaning they aren’t from elsewhere. About 20% of the homeless population reported having mental health and substance abuse problems. Most of them became homeless within the last couple of years, King said.
‘Emotionally and mentally broken’
Scarbrough fits into some of these categories. The first from her family to graduate high school, she was enrolled in a technical engineering program in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, university a decade ago when she lost her scholarship. She said she “slacked off” and didn’t value the opportunity she had.
She ended up in Fort Worth, where some of her siblings live, after separating from her ex-husband. By then, she said, she was “emotionally and mentally broken.”
She and her current husband, Brown, got evicted from a housing unit in Fort Worth because they could not pay the expenses two years ago. Scarbrough has several criminal charges against her, which she said has hampered her ability to find jobs.
Brown recently got a new job doing carpentry and remodeling work for a local store. The couple saved a few hundred dollars to buy a car.
“There was something in my life before this that I wasn’t seeing or something that I was taking for granted,” Scarbrough said. “And I won’t get any of that back until I appreciate everything. For me, it feels like this is just the opportunity for me to try harder, put a lot more effort into things.”
She said she sees more people like her falling into homelessness and getting trapped without realizing it in recent months. She is seeing new faces at Glenwood Park regularly now.
The data from the coalition suggests the same.
The point-in-time survey, which functions as the official account on homelessness trends for the year, provides only a snapshot of the issue.
Since the start of 2021, the coalition has recorded 2,454 people experiencing homelessness in Tarrant and Parker counties. On average, 15 people are becoming newly homeless a day.
The increased number of homeless people shows the issue of homelessness is larger than what the point-in-time study reported.
“People get addicted. They lose their jobs every day. The extremely low-income households in our city, they’re most at risk just because of their financial situation,” King said. “So I think, until that is changed, I don’t think that we can say, ‘OK, there will be zero people out on the streets.'”
New developments, like Mindful, are exciting and bring new opportunities for economic growth in the city, King said. But there is a larger need for affordable housing, she added.
“I see the issue,” King said. “I see neighborhoods around Fort Worth trying to balance that issue of how do we revitalize our neighborhood and also not displace everyone who’s lived here for generations. I think it’s a hard balance to hit.”