Boxcar Miller

The floating homeless encampment settles in at Dallas City Hall

Excellent! Not a grocery cart. A light cargo thing! I can get behind that. And I personally would relish the opportunity to be in court the day the city's prosecutorial staff attempts to prove to a jury that this light cargo thing is, in fact, nothing more than a cleverly re-engineered illegal grocery cart. The jury wouldn't just walk the eloquent Mr. Thomas: They'd pin a ribbon on his chest!

But before I wax too terribly sentimental about the homeless people and their indomitable inventiveness, I guess I have to concede a few points to the mayor on the aesthetics issue. I spoke to people connected with the Weisfeld Center, an old Christian Science church that has been beautifully restored and is operated as a center for the performing arts and as a venue for fancy weddings. They told me that they find some areas of their property so fouled with human excrement that they are afraid to clean up without special equipment. I'm sure you get the picture.

It's a bad picture. Very bad. The downtown homeless population, when it exists in free gypsy camps, is fundamentally incompatible with civilized land uses. But that just makes it all the more ironic that a gypsy camp exists behind City Hall.

The blocks just behind City Hall and the back lawn of City Hall itself have become a homeless "encampment" in recent months.
Steve Satterwhite
The blocks just behind City Hall and the back lawn of City Hall itself have become a homeless "encampment" in recent months.

In fact, the downtown homeless population was pushed over into the area behind City Hall after the Dallas Observer published a story describing the complete ruination the homeless were wreaking on the Dallas Central Library at Marilla and Ervay, across the street from the front of City Hall ("Make Yourself at Home," by Charles Siderius, June 26, 2003).

One way the city got them out of the library was by pressuring church groups and other agencies to stop feeding the homeless in a parking lot across Ervay Street from the library. All of that feeding now takes place at the Day Resource Center, which was not designed for it.

People who work with the homeless every day, who spoke to me on the condition that I would not identify them, told me that since the feeding was moved to the Day Resource Center, the area of several blocks around the center, including the back yard of City Hall, has now become what homeless experts call "an encampment." That means the homeless have brought their social structure and their economy and have set up camp semi-permanently, allowing for the minimal stir the police have to put on them in order to do their jobs. This follows months of photo-op activity by the mayor and some of the council in a supposed campaign to create a homeless "intake center" somewhere.

A year and a half ago, we voters approved a $3 million bond issue to pay for a new homeless center, about a fourth of what we approved at the same time for a new dog pound. The problem is that no city council member will agree to accept the homeless center in his or her district, and the mayor, in her defense, lacks the means to force a decision under our incredibly stupid system of government.

I have never heard more cynicism or despair on this issue than I'm hearing now. Bennett Miller, a loft developer, has been advocating a homeless center near downtown, like the Miami solution described by the Observer two years ago ("Someplace Like Home," by Rose Farley, October 10, 2002). He said to me last week, "Nobody has the courage or the smarts to pick a place and make it stick."

Samuel Weisfeld, who owns the Weisfeld Center, wants the city to establish a center far away from downtown and is offering to sell a site he owns on Harry Hines Boulevard. He's as demoralized about the current impasse as Miller. "We're just displacing the homeless problem. We're not solving the homeless problem," he told me.

I'm not just trying to be funny, by the way, when I talk about the homeless devolving along the path of least resistance to the back door of City Hall. The homeless have been pushed out of other parts of downtown because private landholders can push, at least a little. Even the library had enough of a constituency to force City Hall to rescue it from total degradation.

But City Hall is the one place that cannot rescue itself, that cannot raise a hand in its own defense. Well, let me amend that. It can raise a hand in its own defense. But then it's going to have to slap itself in the face with its other hand. And then, you know, it starts pulling its own hair and punching itself in the gut. Ugly to watch.

No wonder the homeless feel at home there. That's why I wish they'd go inside. They might step through that door, take a good gander at the inmates, throw up their arms and shout, "Home at last! Home at last!"

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