Homelessness: The Faces of Dallas

Published December 15, 2021 at 6:39pm.
Story and photo essay by Don Tortellini.

We invited Dallas photographer, Don Tortellini, to present his photo essay on homelessness: the faces of Dallas. Don spends time with the homeless and has become a trusted friend to many. The following story and captions are Don’s words from his personal interviews with each participant.

Imagine being in an unfamiliar place, sleeping next to unfamiliar people, showering in close proximity, and lucky to even be selected into a shelter. This is the harsh reality for thousands of people in the Dallas Metroplex that constantly are floating around the city due to homelessness. There are so many different parameters that can cause a person to become homeless, whether it’s been bad decisions that have caused them to become incarcerated or bad relationships with shelters or just not knowing what services are available to help them altogether. Many ex-felons are denied housing upon release from prison which leaves them with nowhere to go. Constantly roaming the streets with no family or place to go is susceptible for a possibility of reoffending. Shelters have different practices and policies and, depending on their background, the shelter might not even be an option for that person.

Don Tortellini

Imagine just wandering the streets every day not knowing where your next meal is going to come from. Not knowing where you’re going to sleep, thinking of all the dangers that come from sleeping outside. Imagine once you’re finally settled and you find a place to lay down, you’re met with roaches and rats running around you, not able to comfortably sleep. Hearing cars driving over the freeway throughout the night makes the sound impossible for you to fall asleep. You wake up at the crack of dawn every morning not able to do the bare minimum of washing your face or using the restroom. These are some of the harsh realities that the homeless community faces on a day-to-day basis that a lot of people don’t realize. According to the Dallas City Hall website there are over 300,000 residents who live in poverty and only 2,000 beds city wide available nightly. 

Have you ever thought to yourself how close you are or how far you are from being homeless and how many paychecks you are away from being on the streets? Or maybe have you thought about how many family members you have as a safety net to save you from being homeless? These are the kinds of conversations that I was having in the streets with these people. Some people lost their jobs and exhausted all of their savings and ended up being evicted from their apartments and ended up in the streets. Some of these people lost family members due to COVID and had nowhere to turn and ended up becoming homeless. People are so quick to judge a homeless person based on their addictions but when you think about living a life with no opportunity or no avenue out of the demise, sometimes that’s the only way to cope with their situations. Maybe that one beer or one joint is the only thing keeping them going throughout the day. A lot of homeless people are unable to get documents for themselves to apply for jobs because of being from other places or being incarcerated or not even knowing the information that they need to give them the direction on where to go to receive that information. From the outside looking in you would never know as a regular person what a homeless person deals with on a day-to-day basis unless you stop and talk to them and hear directly from them.


I went out into the streets and met a multitude of people that were homeless. I asked them 1) what their relationship was with shelters?  I wanted to know 2) what their experiences have been with the city, the public & also with the police? I asked them 3) what does help look like from the city? and I also asked them 4) how they would want to be presented as people to society?


Carlton Madison, 46, is from DC. He doesn’t have any bad relationships with shelters, however, he feels as though that he’s outgrown them, and they don’t have anything to offer him any more. Carlton wants more than “temporary satisfaction of being able to occupy a space for one night and not know if he’ll be able to come back.” He says there is a common issue amongst the homeless shelters and he’s not able to salvage anything. As a federal ex-con, he is automatically denied housing. He says that felons are also denied housing assistance upon the first five years of being released from prison so that’s why a lot of people on the streets are felons. He also feels that shelters swindle the homeless to get rid of their things and then they are left with nothing. Carlton informed me that there is a lottery system to get access to the shelters and that not everyone is given the opportunity to stay in the shelter each day. Early wake-up times and early curfews make it almost impossible to look for work throughout the day.

During the winter storm this past February, Carlton decided to stay in his tent instead of accepting the charity to stay in a hotel for a few nights. Many people weren’t selected when the cold front came in and he even said that some tried to kill themselves by jumping off the bridge. When asked about his relationship with the city, Carlton says that overall it’s decent but people sometimes bother him and harass him. For example, the night before we spoke a group of kids paintballed him while he was sitting in his chair listening to music. The damage that was done to his tent invited rats because of the tiny holes that were created from the paintballs. They’ve eaten through his clothes & used the bathroom over his other belongings.

Carlton says the police treat him well and he says other than a few mishaps he feels safe. If the city was to give him any assistance he would want enough money to actually rehabilitate back into society and money to get a home and not these programs that makes him feel like he’s going in circles. He wants to be presented in a way that shows what homeless really is and not the stigmas that people have created.

Carlos, 55, and his puppy, Pooh Bear, are from Chicago. Carlos has been homeless since 2016 and doesn’t do shelters because no shelter will allow pets and he’s an animal lover. He worked as a warehouse worker and lost his job in 2011 due to an injury to his hands. He became homeless as he fell behind on rent and lived at Lake Ray Hubbard in his car. His car became repoed and his wife and child moved back to California with her family and Carlos stayed here.

Carlos has tried the shelters before he got Pooh Bear and he just felt that they didn’t do much to help. He was at the Bridge for a few years and just felt that nobody was in place to help him in his situation. Being from another city it was hard for him to get his documents to apply for work or to get into any programs. He confirmed that a lot of shelters have a raffle system because of the overwhelming number of people who are trying to occupy them at night. During his time in the streets, Carlos has experienced 12 bulldozings and 3 at the location on Northwest Highway.

Carlos says the people in general are nice to him and his puppy but there’s not much that they can do to get him out of the situation that he’s in. Police protect them at that location, and he feels that they try their best to warn them of bulldozers coming. He wants assistance for housing and better programs. Carlos wants to be presented as a man and not as a homeless man with all the stigmas attached.

Brenda Copuano doesn’t like shelters because they don’t assist her with her skin condition and don’t allow her to take her pets with her in the shelter. Brenda’s daughter died and Brenda kept her daughter’s puppy to feel connected to her daughter in death. She says that she’s been around the camp for about 3 or 4 homeless solution sweeps. She said there have been times where she didn’t get any warning and that they just came out and started breaking her things down without her permission. Brenda said her daughter’s ashes were in jeopardy many times of being destroyed in the process of a sweep but luckily every time she keeps them in close proximity.

Brenda now moved her daughter’s ashes to a friend’s storage unit but her friend is behind on the payment so she may lose them anyway. Brenda was exposed to a flesh-eating disease that ruined her skin. She’s been hoping for disability and she stays out of the shelters is because she is highly contagious. She used to own a thrift store and her business partner walked out, leaving Brenda alone to deal with it and it fell through. While she was there she was exposed to something and it ruined her skin. She doesn’t have any other family and she just wants to be presented to society in the best way as a person who cares for all.

To view more profiles of faces of Dallas visit shyaboutmyart.com. For more information about the state of homelessness in Dallas, visit https://dallascityhall.com.

Don Tortellini, born and raised in Dallas Texas, self-taught film photography during the pandemic and transitioned to digital over time. His ability to tell stories through his images is uncanny. In his first year alone he had 2 photo exhibitions, one that was featured at Southern Methodist University. He has been featured by Dallas Observer, D Magazine, Tashara Parker’s Cultured, Good Morning Texas & more.

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