One week ago, a Dallas encampment for unhoused people called Camp Rhonda was making headlines as city council officials sought to shut it down and relocate the dozens of individuals who were living there as Texas prepared for what turned out to be one of the most brutal winter storms in its history.
In response, a collective of local activists and organizers sprung into action to ensure that Camp Rhonda’s residents could stay warm and have enough food to eat as Winter Storm Uri created a bonafide humanitarian crisis for Dallas-Fort Worth.
As the metroplex faced single-digit temperatures, howling winds, and snow that all but brought the city to a grinding halt, these activists have managed to support the sheltering of dozens of homeless individuals in motels and feed the hungry, all while raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to distribute to families in need across North Texas.
For the unfamiliar, Camp Rhonda describes itself as an “autonomous protest encampment,” where unhoused people can live without fear of being harassed by police. “Camp Rhonda was formed out of necessity due to agencies like the Office of Homeless Solutions and the Dallas Police Department criminalizing homeless people and sweeping [away] their tents and personal property,” says Ryan Ahmadian, an organizer with Dallas Stops Evictions, a local nonprofit that has led the efforts to support Camp Rhonda.
Before the storm hit, 16 members of the camp were relocated to a nearby hotel by the Office of Homeless Solutions, but more than half of the camp remained as of Wednesday, February 10. With temperatures forecasted to drop below freezing for several days, organizers with Dallas Stops Evictions and Feed the People Dallas scrambled to support the remaining members. “We are essentially filling in where the City has failed the most vulnerable of our neighbors,” Ahmadian says.
That evening, just before the overnight freeze that resulted in a deadly, 133-car pile up on I-35W outside of Fort Worth, a large truck delivered emergency supplies to the camp. Blankets, food, and heating equipment were provided by a coalition of local grassroots groups, including American Black Cross, Commissary is Very Necessary and Not My Son. An emergency warming station was set up with an industrial strength heat blower.
But as temperatures continued to drop, and all of the available shelters in Dallas filled to capacity, organizers realized that they needed to do more to protect the lives of those still at the encampment.
“We started seeing the snow, and we were kind of freaking out. So we made a call for donations and began working with other organizations to share resources,” says Vanessa Wilmore, founder and lead organizer of Feed the People Dallas. By Saturday, February 13, thousands of dollars in donations were raised to relocate 23 members of the camp to hotels.
And then, organizers got cooking. To provide people with the food they’d need for the length of their stay, volunteers prepared hot soup and assembled kits of nonperishable foods so that people could cook in their rooms. After realizing that some of the hotel rooms weren’t equipped with microwaves, organizers from Feed the People braved the icy roads to buy a dozen of the appliances to ensure that everyone had access to hot meals.
“Alongside groups like Dallas Harm Reduction Aid and Say It With Your Chest, we’ve been able to provide adequate resources necessary for survival while being able to organize towards an alternate system that is more beneficial to the working class,” Ahmadian says.
The collective’s fundraising efforts have been boosted broadly on social media, with thousands of retweets and even attention from celebrities like Reese Witherspoon. As of the time of this writing, Feed the People Dallas has raised nearly $200,000 in donations, and counting. Some of these funds will be used to help the individuals from Camp Rhonda, with everything from immediate needs like food and shelter to helping people at the encampment get on their feet once the storm is over.
The remainder will be used for direct aid, distribution to other mutual aid groups, and the expansion of a program that provides free groceries to those in need.
“We’re overwhelmed with all of the support we’ve gotten. We plan on helping with everything to do with the storm and have opened a form for requests for direct aid,” Wilmore says.