The city of Dallas threatened a local unhoused encampment with displacement and destruction of personal property on Wednesday, January 27th. This encampment, near the Austin Street Shelter, is named Camp Rhonda after a beloved community member who tragically passed.
The camp has grown because of the involvement and leadership of several houseless individuals, including Rhonda, in coordination with groups like Diaspora United, Dallas Stops Evictions and several other organizations. This development began during the summer of 2020 uprisings against racism, when participants in the struggle recognized the necessity of sustained organizing.
Over the last few months, Camp Rhonda has become a vital distribution point for resources and donations to dozens of people in desperate need of support. The destruction of the camp would mean the loss of a critically needed central location where food, clothing, laundry and health screenings are all available. As is the case during any encampment sweep, many would lose their tents, documentation and even medication in the violent process of losing their homes.
Organizations and individuals across the Dallas/Fort Worth area are mobilizing to stop the sweep.
Camp Rhonda has its roots in the struggle against racism and police terror during last summer. Diaspora United, including its leading member Ryan Ahmadian, was active in and inspired by the summer uprisings. However, they did not want to stop at simply mobilizing.
“We didn’t want to stop at just getting people into the streets. We also wanted to organize for the long haul.”
Ahmadian and Diaspora United built strong ties with the community that lived near the Austin Street Shelter. The shelter, while providing life-saving housing, is known among the unhoused community and activists for turning away the houseless and reporting encampments. Some unhoused people go as far to describe the strict rules and regulations in the shelter as not unlike a jail or prison.
The idea of using a nearby vacant lot as an encampment grew from conversations with houseless individuals in the community. Camp Rhonda was born.
Development of the camp
Diaspora United began providing food, clothing, hygiene kits (tampons, soap, sanitizer, masks) and literature down the street from the Austin Street Shelter this summer. Groups like Party for Socialism and Liberation and Democratic Socialists of America joined these bi-weekly efforts, called Resource Replenishment, volunteering their time, literature and resources. These events became central organizing locations, in which community members would discuss the need for a houseless union while reading and studying the struggle for justice happening in the streets at the same time. Discussions would move from Elijah McClain to Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, into anger about the police sweeps of encampments and the need to be unionized. Solidarity and a sense of community grew over the next few months as these events continued.
Dallas Stops Evictions formed around the same time. DSE is a coalition of socialist organizations including PSL, DSA North Texas, Socialist Alternative, Communist Party USA and Diaspora United. The connection between tenants’ organizing efforts and that of the houseless was a natural connection that brought the two organizations together.
Diaspora United brought to DSE the idea of an encampment. The houseless community had pinpointed the need of an encampment big enough to protect itself with connections to other organizers and organizations. Prior to Camp Rhonda, people living in the area slept in tents off the road and by city sidewalks. They were regularly swept up, losing their tents and other vital resources like medication and documentation.
With the need established, the coalition began a tent drive, soliciting tents, sleeping bags, pillows and more. From there, a nearby lot was cleaned up, mowed, and readied by the coalition for community members to move their tents onto.
Camp Rhonda started with only three members and grew over the next few months to reach thirty. The encampment was sustained by a few organizations over the first few months and eventually drew the attention of more local orgs. Groups including Say it With Your Chest, Feed the People, Dallas Harm Reduction and Street Medics Dallas joined the effort and provided more food and clothing, health screenings, laundry, substance use education, and more.
Of course, the services the volunteers from the various organizations are providing are services that the government should be providing. Instead, it has fallen into the hands of the people.
City of Dallas cracks down on the most vulnerable
The City of Dallas Office of Homeless Solutions (OHS) gave the members of Camp Rhonda a notice on Saturday, January 30th, which stated that all tents and litter must be removed within ten days or they would face a sweep. This is despite continued CDC guidance against sweeps throughout the Coronavirus pandemic.
Sweeps are not just an inconvenience, but a cause of death. Individuals lose their shelter, their belongings including documentation and lifesaving medication, their social networks and contacts in their encampment — and, perhaps most importantly, their hope.
COVID-19 has increased the deadliness of sweeps. Unhoused people, under non-pandemic conditions, have higher rates of infectious diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis A and less access to medical care and regular sanitation. These “pre-existing conditions” may qualify some to gain early access to COVID vaccination, but the CDC has released no clear-cut guidance on early vaccination for houseless people, allowing states to avoid this question. Oftentimes, encampments form because of their proximity to essential services like healthcare and food. Because of this, sweeps mean these services become more and more difficult to attain. Outside of a pandemic, sweeps are cruel and can kill. During COVID, sweeps more and more often mean a death sentence.
It is a complete indictment of this system that unhoused people exist while there is a surplus of housing in the US — nearly six vacant homes for every homeless person. It is plainly unconscionable that deadly sweeps are continuing during a pandemic.
The people must show their strongest solidarity with the residents of Camp Rhonda as a symbol of what’s possible for the people, the houseless, when we join together to stand up for our human rights.
The members of Camp Rhonda, DSE and all the organizations involved are calling for solidarity with our houseless neighbors in their struggle to stop the fatal sweeps. A list of demands has been sent to Kevin Oden with Dallas’ Office of Emergency Management, City Councilmember Adam Bazaldua (representing the district where Camp Rhonda lies), OHS and Dallas Code Compliance.
Read the list of demands and find out how to help in the struggle here.