Flashlights in hand, Fort Worth police officers Mike Kuzenka and Andrew Johns checked every room and corner of the abandoned R. Vickery School, a historic Black school on the Southside. They identified themselves as police and waited for a response.

On the second floor, Kuzenka and Johns met a 46-year-old who goes by the name Vee Black, living between blue and white walls covered in graffiti and haphazardly patched floor holes. Still waiting for housing, Black has been in and out of the hospital a few times. The officers connect Black with a housing assessor. 

“You just got a couple of days. You need to get your stuff out, OK? They’re going to be coming through, cleaning this house again, boarding it up again,” Kuzenka told Black.

Officers Andrew Johns, left, and Mike Kuzenka surveyed the abandoned R. Vickery School on 2000 E. Vickery Blvd. on May 12 where several individuals experiencing homelessness were reported camping inside the former classrooms. (David Moreno | Fort Worth Report)

The officers are part of the police department’s Homeless Outreach Program and Enforcement, or HOPE. These rounds are how the HOPE unit locates homeless people and informs them they cannot stay in that area, per city and state law, while bringing them the resources they need to eventually find housing or get help. 

By 10 a.m. that day, the HOPE unit found 15 people camped out across two sites in the city. The camps are part of an increased number reported in Fort Worth, attracting the attention of residents and officials. The police department projects it will receive more than 1,000 complaints about homeless camps in 2022. 

Last year, more than 500 complaints were submitted. In 2020, over 350 complaints were reported. Chris Gorrie, an officer with the HOPE unit, has already requested eight more homeless officers for the next 2022-23 budget.

A person living unsheltered for a year can cost the city between $30,000 and $40,000, according to city documents. 

Officer Mike Kuzenka, right, talks with Vee Black, 46, and jots down a name and date of birth. (David Moreno | Fort Worth Report) 

In the past six weeks, Kuzenka has already received over 300 complaints reporting homeless camping grounds throughout the city — a number higher than he has seen at this time of year during his six years on the team. And those complaints are just the ones that came through the city’s MyFortWorth app. 

Kuzenka is the only officer on the HOPE unit responsible for the entire city. The other officers tend to stay around E. Lancaster Ave. where a large population of the city’s homeless are. This means it sometimes takes longer for him to get to the submitted complaints and reported camps. 

Chronic Homelessness

The Tarrant County Homeless Coalition identified people experiencing chronic homelessness as the community’s priority population for 2022. Those categorized as chronically homeless tend to suffer from a disability, such as mental illness, substance abuse disorders, physical disabilities or other chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Those conditions often worsen as a result of lack of housing.

Surveying the sites

Kuzenka’s job as the city liaison is a delicate task. Every morning, the HOPE unit officer puts on a tactical vest over his FWPD uniform, places a FWPD baseball cap on his head and grabs a notebook and pen, ready for the day ahead. 

He also loads a small blue cooler full of water bottles into the back of his Ford F-150 police truck parked in front of the unit’s small office on 1509 E. Lancaster Ave. The waters come in handy for the team and the homeless people they encounter, especially as the days get longer and hotter. 

A large computer sits in the middle of the truck. Kuzenka opens a database and six pages of complaints reporting homeless camps across Fort Worth show up on the screen. He opens one of the addresses, turns on the truck and heads to the Southside.

Kuzenka and Johns spend most of the day informing the individuals on the sites that they need to clear out the area before contractors and code compliance officers come to clean. Sometimes, residents submit the requests through the city’s various means of communication: MyFortWorth app, calling the department, complaining to City Council or code compliance. Other times, a property owner will reach out to help clear their private site. 

Officers Andrew Johns, left, and Mike Kuzenka, at the police station on 1509 E. Lancaster Ave. Both work on the police department’s homeless outreach team. (David Moreno | Fort Worth Report)

“(The homeless are) really responsive,” Kuzenka said. “There are a handful that sort of get upset, but a lot of them understand that it’s not their property.”

Kuzenka and Johns are not alone during their drives out. Going with them are members of the DRC Solutions’ street outreach team who help connect people on the street with housing opportunities and other services. DRC Solutions helps locate and connect people with housing programs and acquire documentation. There also is someone from MHMR’s Integrated Outreach Services team to provide mental health services.

‘It is tough sometimes’

The HOPE unit met with the owner of a property at 3220 Ennis Ave. The owner, who did not want to be named, contacted the police department to help him clear out several camps set up on his private property before the cleaning crew he contracted showed up. 

The unit found 11 people living on the property. The owner gave them 24 hours to clear the site. If they did not, they could be charged with criminal trespassing.

Kuzenka acknowledged that it can be hard to balance the enforcement part of the job and the resource outreach part of the job. 

“It is tough sometimes,” he said. “It depends on the property owners sometimes, too. They can be a little more aggressive.”

In June 2019, the city of Fort Worth unanimously passed an ordinance banning camping of any sort on private grounds. A 2021 state law banning camping on public property without permission has led to recent further restrictions on where homeless people can stay.

Councilwoman Gyna Bivens said the ordinance was passed in response to residents complaining about an increase in homeless camps around the city. 

“I wish we were proactive enough to project and predict what might happen. But this came because citizens complained about it,” Bivens said. “When you have homeless camps popping up in various parts of the city, you will not find staff just sitting at the ready. It takes citizens to report them to us.”

Tara Perez, Directions Home manager for the city, said staff has noticed an increase in camp cleanups and reports. During the pandemic, the number of people without homes remained roughly level despite the number of people in emergency shelters declining, she said. 

“As the city responds to the increase in camp reports, camps are being moved more frequently,” Perez said. “Unfortunately, this can result in sites being vacated and popping up in other places more frequently. Instead of one person being on one site for months, the person is in a dozen places.”

About the Homeless Outreach Program and Enforcement Unit

The HOPE unit was established in September 2019, three months after the city passed an ordinance banning camping on private properties. Before the creation of the unit, Mike Kuzenka was the sole city liaison for homeless outreach. Now the team consists of four officers, one corporal and one sergeant. Members from DRC Solutions and MHMR also accompany the unit during the day.

The recently added feature on the city app to report camps may also be another factor contributing to the increased reports, Perez said. 

Officers have to decide to issue a citation as either a violation of the no-camping city code or as criminal trespass. Often, the people camping leave on their own after a warning. If they don’t, the unit can charge them with a misdemeanor and/or fine them up to $500. 

Most of the time, they are just given the warning and leave so actual charges are never done, Kuzenka said.

Gorrie, a HOPE unit officer, said homeless people have the same rights as any other individual. A lot of neighborhoods, he said, have a “not in my backyard” attitude towards housing resources that could be helpful to those living on the streets. 

“Even though they want everybody to be treated with dignity and respect, they don’t want to see them. We’re kind of reaching a point where it’s going to be more and more difficult to house these individuals and get them off the street because they’re growing,” he said. 

The majority of the folks who end up on these sites are already registered to receive housing assistance but are just waiting, Kuzenka said. But the wait can quickly become unbearable for many folks, especially the younger population. A lack of affordable housing accepting rental assistance is one of many contributing factors, he said. 

“If you’re young, no physical disabilities or anything like that, you can be on that list for a couple of years,” Kuzenka said. “A lot of them get frustrated because they’ve been on it for a year, and then I try to tell them don’t give up because it will come up eventually. But there’s just not enough housing for them all.”

Lack of documentation and identification is another issue. Nick Llorente, one of the DRC Solutions members with the unit, said homeless people’s identification documents tend to either get stolen or lost during camp clean-ups. Without it, they can’t get housing. 

A homeless camp located on private property at 3220 Ennis Ave. The property owner contacted officer Mike Kuzenka to help him notify the campers that they had 24 hours to vacate before a contractor came to clean up the site. (David Moreno | Fort Worth Report)

The city of Fort Worth is working to add additional affordable housing options to tackle the issue. The City Council is planning to use $10.5 million in allocated American Rescue Plan funds to develop up to three permanent supportive housing developments throughout the city. 

In total, the city will invest $22 million in public-private funds to tackle this issue. Tarrant County is looking at $32.5 million in investments. 

“Tarrant County’s very interested in also getting housing outside of Fort Worth and Arlington,” Tarrant County Homeless Coalition Executive Director Lauren King said. “In reality, it’s not just a Fort Worth and Arlington problem. People come from other parts of the county because there’s no services there, so they’re gonna come here.”

Resource connections

While waiting for the owner of the private property on Ennis Avenue to arrive, Kuzenka wrote down the name and date of birth of two individuals leaving the site. That information was later entered into a database and serves multiple purposes. First, it keeps track of the people they meet across the city and whether a trespassing warning was issued. But, more importantly, it has helped reunite families across the country.

“There are all kinds of reasons why and how they got here and just can’t get back,” Kuzenka said. 

Several years ago, the unit was able to reunite a homeless woman in Fort Worth with her mother in Phoenix, Arizona. Her parents found out where she was after contacting the Fort Worth Police Department. The family ended up sending Kuzenka photos of the reunited family. 

“She was in a relationship with a guy that she shouldn’t have been in with and they ended up here. She went back to her mom, and everything’s been going good since last I heard,” Kuzenka said. 

Officer Mike Kuzenka writes the name and date of birth of an individual near a homeless camp on private property in East Fort Worth. (David Moreno | Fort Worth Report)

It’s not uncommon for the HOPE unit to encounter familiar faces while surveying camps and properties across the city. Over time, the team has learned the signs of whether someone wants help or not. A willingness to have their name added to a housing list is one way the officers know people want help.

“They have to do it. We can’t force them,” Kuzenka said. “If they act like they’re really interested, we’ll spend a little more time on them.”

If someone does want or need the help, that’s where HOPE’s embedded DRC and MHMR team members step in. 

“It makes it a lot easier because Mike knows a lot of them, where they’re at. So if we need to find somebody, we can use each other’s resources,” Llorente said.

At the R. Vickery School, the HOPE unit spent 40 minutes wandering the halls and grounds of the abandoned building. Johns and Kuzenka found four people living among piles of trash and discarded clothes across three floors. On average, the HOPE team finds between five and 10 people on a daily basis. 

Leaving the school, Kuzenka hopped back into the black and white F-150. He settled into the seat, inserted his key and started the truck. Next stop: Riverside. 

Fort Worth Report fellow Sandra Sadek may be reached at sandra.sadek@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Sandra Sadek

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Houston, she graduated from Texas State University where she studied journalism and international...