Boxcar Miller

The floating homeless encampment settles in at Dallas City Hall

Wow. Does anybody at Dallas City Hall ever look out back? There are so many homeless people picnicking, camping and taking leaks back there, it looks like the building was designed by I.M. Pee, not I.M. Pei.

All of the homeless people who used to employ the public library and surrounding blocks as a campground and outdoor toilet are now using the area right behind City Hall instead.

It's not their fault. The situation behind City Hall is a direct expression of the utter gutlessness and impotence of City Hall. Couldn't happen to a nicer place.

The homeless people are being herded around downtown like cattle. The only directive force on them is the path of least resistance. Political suction has brought them at last to the precipice surrounding the one true vacuum at the heart of downtown--City Hall.

I wish they'd jump on in. I want to encourage more homeless people to go inside the building and actually start attending city council meetings and making appointments to see the mayor, so they can lounge around in the waiting areas the way we reporters do. They'd have a lot more to tell the mayor and the city council about their issues than we do.

The other day I chatted with a group of homeless people who were squatted for the afternoon along the chain-link fence surrounding the Sara Ellen and Samuel Weisfeld Center on Browder Street, a block from City Hall near Interstate 30. Half a dozen souls were hunkered with backs against the fence, one reclining on an elbow with chin propped, another dozing on his back.

I asked them why they were there. They all nodded or waved toward the city of Dallas Day Resource Center at Cadiz and Ervay streets, half a block away. "That's where they feed us," one said.

"They got services. We can go to the bathroom."

They told me they actually move around in an area of a few city blocks just behind City Hall, constantly stirred by the police. "They honk the horn at us, yell at us to keep moving," a woman who gave her name as Faith said.

"They'll follow us, and if they find us on the steps, they'll roust us up out of there," a man said.

A big man named Ken said, "They'll be kind of compassionate with us. They'll say, 'We got orders to do this.' They're just doing their job."

One guy caught my eye right away. I am a student of shopping cart work-arounds, and this guy was towing a really tight rig. Maybe you're new to town. Here's the background:

Dallas Mayor Laura Miller's approach to the homeless issue so far has been to outlaw certain inaesthetic aspects of their existence, including the use of shopping carts as personal vehicles. I guess the idea is that once the homeless people realize they can no longer truck their stuff around in shopping carts, they will give up this mad homeless gig and go back to work for their families' law firms.

Instead, the shopping cart crack-down ordinance passed last January by the city council has inspired an explosion of homeless inventiveness. Some engineer/photographer needs to get out there and do a book, because the contraptions Dallas homeless people have created to haul their stuff in are true marvels of human ingenuity. Wired and whacked together from baby buggies, skateboards, tricycles and Rollerblades, these machines are mechanical celebrations of the indomitable human intellect. I call them Laura Miller boxcars.

The boxcar I was looking at the other day over by the Weisfeld Center was one of the coolest I have seen. I am talking truly fine, low to the ground and tight, with folding parts, tie-downs, a fold-away tow bar. Suh-weet!

The more closely I scrutinized it, the more I thought I could detect the bones and wheels of a severely chopped grocery cart in there. But hey: The law doesn't say anything about grocery cart parts, just grocery carts.

The owner-operator and inventor of this machine, Carl Thomas, 42, appreciated my interest and gave me a 30-second dissertation on the issue while I examined it: "The mayor of Dallas said we could not have a grocery cart downtown," Thomas explained. "Now in actuality, a person can purchase an old used grocery cart. If they purchase those grocery carts on their own when they find them in salvage, then that's no problem. And no one can say that they can't have this or have that.

"Now if they have a grocery cart that's obviously new from a store, that has the store name on it, and they push it downtown with cans in it or whatever, then I can see that."

Thomas bristled when I suggested I thought I could see some grocery cart parts wired together there in the inner works of his Laura Miller boxcar.

"This is actually a Wal-Mart thing that looks like a luggage rack," he said. "It all folds over, but all I did was converted it. This part folds over. See what I'm saying--it's a light cargo thing."

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