By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
"There are at least two different types of homeless people," one of them said. "The vast majority are semi-skilled people who are down on their luck, who lack affordable housing and for whom you can do things--replacement housing, shelter-plus programs, job training and so on. These are the sheltered homeless, people who are involved in programs.
"The other type is the walking eyesores. They're totally different. They are wracked with severe mental health problems and addictions. They're the ones we call 'shelter-resistant.'"
The people talking to me over lunch had been present when the mayor pooh-poohed Bubba Dailey for saying she didn't want other types of homeless nearby. "Of course she doesn't want that," one of them said to me. "She needs to protect her people. It was obvious that the mayor doesn't get any of that."
In fact, when I talked to Dailey later in the week, she broke it down in much finer detail: She talked about the pushcart homeless, the copper-scrapper homeless, the sign-holding homeless, the drunken and stoned homeless, and the predators who swarm in among them to sell drugs, rob and rape, none of whom she allows to enter Austin Street.
That's not to say she doesn't care about them. "We've turned them away when it was colder than whiz out there, when you could just about freeze your feet to the ground. But then later, when everybody's asleep, my husband and I will take blankets and flashlights and go out and find them sleeping on the ground and cover them up so they won't freeze to death."
Almost everyone I talked to came sooner or later to the same point: The city can set up a central intake facility for the homeless and can adopt an official policy that all homeless people sleeping or loitering downtown must be processed through that facility. The larger portion of the homeless population will cooperate.
But the hard-core, shelter-resistant homeless will not. They will not get on the bus. And until they get caught breaking some law, no one can make them get on the bus. They are American citizens. If they don't want to take a ride, they don't have to take a ride.
People who have been watching this process unfold are worried that some kind of ugly showdown is looming. Either the mayor and her committee don't understand what's going to happen when they try to round up the shelter-resistant homeless, or they do understand.
Because this effort seems to have been pushed so far by downtown real estate interests, rather than by homeless advocates, the suspicion of the homeless advocates is that somebody thinks he or she can push the walking eyesores out of downtown whether they want to go or not. People who work with the homeless were disturbed by the mayor's recent quote in The Dallas Morning News: "For a while I would roll down the window and yell and scream at them to get off the streets," the mayor was quoted as saying. "For a while when I saw a police car pass by a panhandler and go to a 7-Eleven across the street, I would ask them to go over and enforce the law.
"The last eight weeks, I've stopped doing all those things because I have a feeling that police aren't enforcing the panhandling [ordinance]."
Everybody says she's right. The cops are not enforcing any of the laws against aggressive panhandling. One homeless activist told me he's asked police officers he knows why they won't do it, and he says they told him: "That's Mayor Laura's problem. Why should we help her?"
What the homeless activists fear, based on what they've seen in other cities, is a hand-off of power to private security, at least downtown. The rent-a-cops can do the pushing. The assumption is that nobody will take the homeless people's side when they complain.
But push where? Take them where?
We need to back down and take a deep breath about this, all of us. I believe the mayor's motives are good, but she has also shown remarkable insensitivity. I don't think the real estate guys are even required to have good motives.
You and I are required. This is a legitimately tough issue. But rendering human beings nameless and faceless, treating them all as round pegs to be shoved into identical round holes, loading them on buses and putting them in camps: You and I don't want to have any part of that.