This summer, homeless shelters in Tarrant County are at or above capacity. And that means crowds along East Lancaster Avenue, just a 10-minute drive from downtown Fort Worth. That’s where homeless people go to find shelter, health services, and hot meals.
Candice Barton knows East Lancaster well. As an outreach specialist for Catholic Charities, she helps clients get their bus passes and health checks. When she meets new people, she’s got hygiene kits and socks ready to hand out from the back of her car.
“Do you think anybody else is back there that needs bug spray?” Barton says.
On this day, she’s taking 48-year-old Michael Buffington, who walks with a cane, from East Lancaster to his temporary home, a campsite, in the woods, about five miles away.
“I don’t think you y'all can get that…I don’t know what’s so heavy besides the Bibles,” Buffington says.
He’s got a grey goatee, tattoos on both arms and legs, and a wooden cross that hangs on a thin black string. Even with a cane, he’s already walking way ahead of Barton, anxious to show off his new digs.
“For me, it’s about building rapport and trust in the homeless community,” Barton says. “And also a lot of times, just talking with somebody, and having a conversation, you can expose a need that we may know a resource to help them.”
This summer, she says, it’s been crazy busy, with a lot of new faces, young and old.
“They watch,” Barton says. “They see if you actually do what you say you’re going to do. If you really know what you’re talking about. If you really know the resources. And then if they feel comfortable, they’ll finally expose their need or a desire.”
Inside Candice Barton’s car, en route to his camp-site, Buffington says he spent 12 years in prison for aggravated assault and illegally carrying weapons.
“We all have our problems,” Buffington says. “We all have something we do that somebody’s not doing something right. And they’re drinkers, they’re smokers, they’re drugees, there’s whatever you can think of. And I’ve been a little bit of everything.”
Right now, he’s concentrating on painting. His latest work is an angel standing in front of a rainbow.
“All this little stuff here in this detail, that’s all little faces and stuff,” Buffington says. “And I see it everywhere. In the trees and everything.”
His paintings are colorful, pinks and purples, lots of lines, complex. He says he lives with homeless artists who wove trees together to make walls and hallways. It's almost like a fairy-tale, with stuffed animals everywhere, large and small. There’s even a place to have tea, like Alice in Wonderland, with a mirror hanging from a tree. Buffington says he prefers the outside.
“I usually won’t go in unless the weather is real bad,” Buffington says. “I made my first winter out here, and I thought I was going to die. I’ve got a steel rod in my leg, gunshot wounds in my wrist, chest and head. And it hurt when winter got here.”
Good weather may mean more people prefer to stay outside. But Cindy Crain with the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition says emergency shelters are at capacity at night.
“We are running at 100 to 110 percent occupancy in our emergency shelters,” Crain says. “And that’s the first time that’s ever happened. Normally we’re in the upper 80s, mid 90s occupancy rate.”
In the last 23 days, the shelters reported 83 new homeless people.
“Almost 40 percent of the persons who are in shelter have some type of work. It may be day labor, part-time work; for some, even full-time employment. We do not have a very specific homeless employment program.”
Another client of Catholic Charities’ Candice Barton says the system needs to change. Mark Peterson was born in Nebraska. He says he’s been homeless in Fort Worth for three years.
“Locally, down on East Lancaster Avenue, where the homeless community gather, I think it’s horrible,” Peterson says. “Because the criteria is you have to be an addict, you have to be a felon, mentally changed. You have to be something to get assistance, otherwise you hit a brick wall if you’re a normal person.”
The 50-year-old says he has family in the area, but has had a hard time finding work in his field, data entry, because buses only go so far.
“A lot of the homeless shelters have programs,” Peterson says. “But those programs are almost designed to keep them there, in my opinion, but a lot of others too.”
The city of Fort Worth has been addressing this and other concerns, but chronic homelessness continues to rise. This year the number of homeless people in Tarrant County is up 3 percent, but the number of chronically homeless has jumped by 60 percent.