Gilmore: A roof - not a tent - helps the homeless

Are we doing the right thing for the residents of Tent City in Amarillo?


Experts advise against enabling our loved one’s drug habit by giving them money, a car, and a place to live - naming only a few ways we think we are helping them.

It is so hard to say, “No,” even when it is in their best interest.

Are we, as a community, doing the same thing for the residents of Tent City? It is hard to imagine living in a tent during freezing temperatures with no running water. Very few people would choose to live this lifestyle who are not suffering from substance use disorder or behavioral health issues.

Should society, by misplaced sympathy, enable people to continue living in such an unhealthy environment? We all feel good when we help someone in need, but what if we are actually hurting them and preventing them from accepting housing and services that are being offered to them by city government and agencies that serve those who are homeless?

Through years of experience treating people with substance use disorder, we know people seek treatment when they hit rock bottom or experience severe emotional pain. Prior to this – they won’t change.

Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) attended a recent town hall meeting regarding Tent City. Some of the comments from audience members were platitudes about loving and caring for the homeless, and that any ordinance that doesn’t allow Tent City homeless encampments flies in the face of “What would Jesus do?”

DWC is a faith-based agency, and we care as much about the people at Tent City as anyone asking “What would Jesus do?”

We do not think Jesus wants human beings living in unsafe and unsanitary environments, especially in tents in Amarillo when our community has the means to house them. Not every person living in Tent City wants to be housed, and this is their choice. But, they, like you and I, must still follow the law.

A man at the town hall meeting said that Tent City dwellers don’t use shelters because they don’t like institutions and they use drugs and alcohol, and therefore aren’t allowed in the shelters. He nailed it, but he was trying to defend the Tent City lifestyle. Tent City representatives have stated that there is only one rule - “No alcohol and drugs.”

People on the street have told us that there is alcohol, drugs and assaultive behavior at Tent City. The opportunity is present at Tent City for a lawless community where the strong can prey on the weak.

Social workers and government professionals who have worked in this field helping homeless for decades through our shelters and programs see those supporting and trying to keep Tent City open as compassionate but misguided enablers.

Homelessness is not exclusively about housing; homelessness is also about behavioral health, addictions and circumstances beyond individual control. One reason that is often voiced for not leaving Tent City is that some residents have pets, and shelters do not take pets.

Family Support Services Domestic Violence Safe House does have a kennel, and accepts pets from individuals experiencing domestic violence. Would developing a kennel for pets of those who are homeless be utilized, and would this help get more people living in Tent City and on the streets into shelters or permanent housing?

We don’t know. Let’s just step out and say that our community is willing to seek all the possibilities for sheltering pets for individuals who are homeless, including working with professional kennels for in-kind care, seeking foster homes and even building a kennel. Our community will find an answer to any situation, if we don’t already have one.

Until we help individuals deal with the root cause of their homelessness, we will never have enough Tent cities.

Unfortunately, sometimes the greatest motivator is pain. Why would anyone change if they were constantly given the minimal basics of food, blankets, and temporary-labor jobs? There is help in Amarillo if someone wants to get out of Tent City. We must work together to really assist these residents. Encourage them to contact the City of Amarillo’s Housing Department or Downtown Women’s Center. A variety of social service agencies stand ready with resources and compassion.

DWC serves homeless women in recovery from substance use disorder and provides services for their children. Of our ladies served, 73 percent came from the streets of Amarillo; 100 percent suffered from a behavioral health disorder; 90 percent were victims of trauma/domestic violence. Long-term assistance has proven to help them get and stay clean and sober and live productive and happier lives. For the last 29 years, DWC has served over 500 homeless women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, giving them a good foundation to live sober lives.

In order to accommodate women with substance use disorder coming out of Tent City, DWC purchased five bunk beds. We are ready to do our part.

I know from my 40 years of serving the poor and homeless, that enabling Tent City to continue will not better the lives of its residents. Why fight to keep a tent over their heads? Let’s work together to get a roof over their heads. This process can start today.

Diann Gilmore is Executive Director ofDowntown Women’s Center in Amarillo.