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City clears homeless community in southeastern Denton

Shane Rought scanned what was left of the wooded area he called home since June 2016. 

The tents were already gone, but chairs, tarps, wooden pallets, storage bins, bike parts and assorted debris littered the area. 

Perched on a bicycle that looked more like a chopper motorcycle, the 41-year-old Rought is treated as the unofficial mayor of the hidden homeless neighborhood near South Loop 288 and Duchess Drive. He lived among dozens of people in groups of tents beyond the tree line in the now-closed Pebblebrook Park. He fixed his homeless companions' bikes, offered tools for makeshift shelters and kept a relatively cordial relationship with local police officers. 

Trash was all that was left Monday after city workers started clearing out the camp. Bobcats, which look like small bulldozers, cleared small trees and brush, and large solid waste trucks collected what was left behind. City officials said they had been noticing an uptick in rubbish fires in the thickly wooded area, leading to overall health and safety concerns for those in and around the camp.  

City workers on Monday cleared out a wooded area that served as an encampment for up to 30 homeless people near South Loop 288 and Duchess Drive.DRC
City workers on Monday cleared out a wooded area that served as an encampment for up to 30 homeless people near South Loop 288 and Duchess Drive.
DRC

Rought, who was informed about the removal two weeks ago, said there was always a fire going. He also thinks his growing network of visitors played a role in the city's action. 

"I was just hanging out in a park, basically, trying to stay out of the way and trying to do my thing," he said. "And I guess being worried about my friends has gotten it out of hand." 

There were about 228 homeless people living in Denton County on any given day in 2016, according to data from the annual Point-in-Time count. At its most active, Rought said up to 30 people were living in the camp area. 

The encampment wasn't a secret to city officials and police. For the last year, a homeless outreach team of Denton police officers and social workers made weekly visits to the area, trying to get the homeless people into more permanent housing.  

City workers on Monday cleared out a wooded area that served as an encampment for up to 30 homeless people near South Loop 288 and Duchess Drive.DRC
City workers on Monday cleared out a wooded area that served as an encampment for up to 30 homeless people near South Loop 288 and Duchess Drive.
DRC

It started as a collaboration between two Denton police officers and homeless advocates at the local nonprofit Giving Hope Inc. The group eventually blossomed into a street outreach team that now includes representatives from the Denton Fire Department and Denton County MHMR, which treats people with a mental health diagnosis or developmental disabilities. 

Denton's human services coordinator Dani Shaw, who works with the group, said the city postponed clearing the camp until the team could prepare the residents.

For those who need a short-term housing solution, they can find shelter at the Monsignor King Outreach Center or the Salvation Army in Denton. For others, they might try to find a housing solution in a public park or under a bridge. 

"The process is always the same," Shaw said. "The goal is to get them referred to a stable housing condition as soon as possible, but they have to take advantage [of the services]." 

Assistant parks director Laura Behrens, formerly the city's fire marshal, said she started to notice the fire issues this past summer. The potential danger became something the city couldn't ignore, she said. 

"It really warranted risk on all sides," Behrens said, "Certainly, it was a risk for those folks who were there in the park. And if any of those incidents, or any of those fires had grown or gotten away from them, it definitely would have impacted the people around them as well." 

Denton police Lt. Frank Padgett, who also serves on the street outreach team, said there wasn't a big problem with crime in the area. Most of the criminal allegations against the residents were anecdotal, he said. 

"There were some concerns with businesses around that area," he said. "They had some vandalism, some trespassing, a little bit of panhandling. But none of it was tied directly back to this camp." 

Behrens said she doesn't know how long the process will take or how much it will cost. City workers first need to get an idea of the amount of trash and debris left behind, she said. 

She also said there are no plans for development on the city property anytime soon. 

Rought, however, had an idea. 

"I think it would be the perfect place to set up an [official] homeless community," he said. "There are a lot of homeless people who are travelers — that's what they do. And some people go from California to Texas, from Texas to New York. I know people that actually do that on a bicycle. And there's a lot of in-betweens, man. A lot of people just need a place to go." 

JULIAN GILL can be reached at 940-566-6882. 

FEATURED PHOTO: Shane Rought looks over what's left of the wooded area near South Loop 288 and Duchess Drive, which he and up to 30 other homeless people called home for more than a year. City workers started clearing out the area Monday after increased public safety concerns. Julian Gill/DRC