The tension between police and Denton’s homeless community was set in the lobby of the Denton Police Department last week, when the Denton City Council removed the department’s lobby as a location for people to seek shelter after business hours.
Some people living homeless in Denton have used the department lobby, located at 601 E. Hickory St., as a safe place at night or during bad weather.
But now, under Chief Frank Dixon, Denton police will no longer allow people to use the lobby outside of business hours (7 a.m. to 8 p.m.). In a memo to council, Dixon said allowing homeless people to settle in at the lobby can, in effect, jeopardize the safety of the department’s lobby staff, as well as other civilians because the doors are unlocked.
Dixon said police departments are targets of violence. He says locking the lobby doors at night will improve the safety of the people working the lobby, as well as other staff like jailers.
While Dixon said it’s a matter of safety for citizens and department staff, some in the homeless community say this is but another example of how homeless people are increasingly finding it difficult to find safe shelter options in Denton.
“You’re constantly moving all night long, all night long,” said Kevin Sample, who lived homeless recently in Denton.
The debate trickled from a broader discussion about when to notify organizations and individuals they can use certain city buildings as emergency shelter during bad weather situations. The police station took on a larger dimension in the discussion when one council member framed it as potentially discriminatory against homeless people.
“To me, it seemed very focused on this one category of people, people experiencing homelessness,” council member Deb Armintor said. “I saw no indication there had been any violence or people doing drugs in the bathroom, just people feeling unsafe because of how people look, and that concerns me.”
Dixon, answering questions posed by Armintor, assured the council and the general public that the change in policy is not about pushing homeless people to the side. He said the change is addressing concerns that have been raised to him.
He said people have increasingly used the station as shelter after business hours. And he said lobby staff have said they have felt unsafe at times with some who have used the lobby as shelter.
Dixon said a woman who was the victim of family violence took her child to the lobby for refuge. Dixon said the woman told authorities she was uncomfortable with some of the people in the lobby “sleeping in various stages of clothing.”
“Those are not the words of the police department,” Dixon said. “Those are the words from this survivor of a horrific case of family violence. And we owe it to our survivors of any type of violence to show them the respect and compassion they deserve.”
On another occasion, Dixon said, a jailer told police leadership that a fight almost broke out between a person sheltering in the lobby and a person being let out of jail.
“This is not us trying to protect [one subset] of the community over another,” Dixon said.
He also said the department is committed to helping homeless people get rides to other designated shelter locations in the city.