Sleight of Hand

Can Dallas deal with the homeless where they choose to be?

Both men refute the common mythology today that says the homeless are interlopers who have invaded the city from without. Speaking of the 1940s and '50s, Dunning said, "You normally found them near the produce markets, the fish markets, food processing plants, places like that, and the reason was that they were cheap labor.

"A friend of mine reinforced this," he said. "His family owned a produce business for 70 years before selling it a few years ago. He said, 'We knew we could hire 'em at 4 in the morning or we could hire 'em at 3 in the afternoon. We paid 'em a couple bucks to help load or unload trucks.'"

Dunning points out that there used to be "flop-house" hotels where winos could live. A character in Fullinwider's play recites the names of the old Dallas hotels that got knocked down or re-done. During an intermission in the play, I remembered going out as a young reporter with two cops assigned to a division of the Detroit Police Department called "The Bum Squad."

Close, but not too close: The proposed site for a homeless shelter abuts downtown.
Eva Watson
Close, but not too close: The proposed site for a homeless shelter abuts downtown.

They showed me the flop-house hotels where a wino could buy a ticket for the month when his veterans check came in, the cafeterias, soup kitchens, missions and the Capuchin monastery where they could eat. The cops knew most of the winos by name and could spot the ones turning blue in the winter who needed a trip to detox. I remember thinking I wouldn't mind working on the bum squad. But that may have been the week they assigned me to cover ladies cultural auxiliaries.

Call the skid row system brutal. Maybe. But it wasn't anywhere near as cruel as the system we have now, which tries to make their existence illegal. The Poof Policy.

An intriguing moment during the hearings held by the Dunning Commission was a speech made to them by Deputy Chief Brian Harvey, over the police department's Central Division. He told them why zero tolerance doesn't work now.

Harvey said individual police officers know that zero tolerance under existing conditions is a farce. They spend hours--maybe the entire day--taking a drunk to the jail, finding out the jail won't take him because he's drunk, taking him to the county hospital, finding out Parkland won't take him unless he's under guard, guarding him until he sobers up, then finding him back on the street drunk again in the morning. That puts one cop out of commission an entire shift for nothing--for something stupid that doesn't work.

Harvey said police officers won't refuse an order. But if management dictates zero tolerance, that's exactly what they will wind up doing--enforcing the homeless laws so thoroughly that no cops will be left on the street. "If management dictates a zero tolerance approach," he said, "they will enforce exactly what management told them and make management look silly."

That's to the cops' credit. They may all wear blue, but these are also thinking Americans with a sense of fair play and common sense. They know you can't make people go poof. You have to deal with them on their own terms, where they choose to be.

What this near-downtown site may offer is a resolution of many of these issues. Dunning told the council--because he had heard it from the police--that the cops will gladly enforce a zero tolerance policy if there's a practical and humane way to do it.

The preferred site ain't perfect. The council has to commit to a fairly whopping operating budget to make this thing work and to protect the Farmers Market, which is right next to the site. The Farmers Market has every right to scream, as does the Cedars neighborhood across the freeway, if this operation begins to look like a cheaped-out human dump instead of an effective social program. But all of that can be handled.

I think the apparent consensus on the preferred site will come apart in the weeks ahead because the scrubbing bubbles won't give up on the poof approach. They see this as a battle between the defenders of downtown tidiness and the vile invading hordes.

While the mayor spoke in favor of the Dunning site, I listened to Councilman Bill Blaydes (District 10, Skillman and Plano roads), the only declared opponent, muttering with his mike turned off: "We're givin' up. We're just givin' up."

Did you know we were at war?

A solution seems near, but if there's a way to rip it, City Hall will find that way. I have faith. Somebody's gotta keep me in business.

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