By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Lean figures carrying boxes and bags shuttle back and forth among the towering concrete pillars that support Interstate 45 high overhead. They squeeze through holes cut in the chain-link fence or disappear among the stacks of concrete traffic barriers to the south, off to hide whatever possessions they can ahead of imminent destruction. The city of Dallas wants them in shelters, in rehab, anywhere but where they are, front and center in the public eye. Choice has already stashed a shopping cart loaded with necessities behind a nearby building, so all he can do is wait on his porch, a stained carpet remnant fenced off with sheets of cardboard scavenged from nearby produce companies.
Choice is homeless, but if staying power counts for anything, this patch of rocky dirt under the bridge is his home, as it has been for the last 12 years. His seniority is one reason he is looked to as the leader of this camp, but he also has a steady, serene presence, a rare trait in an unpredictable population. He greets his friends with undisguised affection, while outsiders face an icy reserve. "He takes care of us," says camp resident Bonnie Thorpe. "He's like a father figure."
A prison term and drug addiction led Choice to this spot in 1994, but he has stayed "just like my name: by choice." The phrase is one of many Choice keeps in stock to explain his situation, but it also encapsulates the dilemma he and his constituents pose to the city. Dallas is trying desperately to thin the homeless ranks, fearing they may endanger its cherished downtown renaissance. Along the way, the city has drawn the ire of homeless advocates and a climb to sixth on the National Homeless Alliance's list of "America's Meanest Cities." But no matter what combination of carrot and stick Dallas employs, longtime camp dwellers like Choice are unlikely to respond to either.
Ironically, Dallas' climb up the meanest cities list came about because of a strategy for ending chronic homelessness endorsed by Mayor Laura Miller and adopted by the city council in 2004. In its carrot-and-stick approach, the planned carrots will include outreach teams, a new Homeless Assistance Center and adequate long-term housing in place by 2014. But that's all in the future, while in the present the city is already wielding the stick. Destroying the camps is just one aspect.
Last year, enforcement of a public sleeping ordinance was stepped up. Before that, it was bans on panhandling and shopping carts. Even the city's smoking ban seems targeted at the homeless; according to The Dallas Morning News, more than half of the smoking citations issued in 2005 were written at the Day Resource Center, the primary outlet for homeless services. When tickets go unpaid and court dates unheeded, the homeless often wind up in jail.
In February the city began enforcing another new ordinance limiting the feeding of street people to designated areas, on pain of a $2,000 fine. Popular feeding sites near City Hall and under the bridges were designated off-limits. Some mobile meal providers, notably Phil Romano, the restaurateur behind Hunger Busters, were outraged. "We talk about Dallas being the meanest city in the world for the homeless, and man, we're trying to prove differently, but we're having a hard time doing it," Romano says.
In Choice's time under the bridge, the camp has been razed more times than he can remember, most recently on May 10, 2005. That particular incident made news only because the city of Dallas tried a new tactic, warning the residents a week in advance. Workers for the city health department's Crisis Intervention Team fanned out ahead of the bulldozers, offering shelter beds and counseling. After the dwellings of the approximately 100 residents were carted off in dumpsters, the site was enclosed in an 8-foot fence. The efforts were designed to clear Mack's Camp permanently. Most residents, including the mayor himself, were back the next day.
In its current incarnation, Choice's house stands about 4 feet high. The roughly 8-by-10 sleeping area is floored with cardboard and lined with a thick piece of industrial foam and blankets. The roof is made of the same heavy produce boxes as the walls and supported with scrap timber. The carpeted, open-air porch also has two kitchen chairs and an overstuffed, crooked recliner caked in grime but still comfortable.
"I'm always keeping an eye out for something to make it more homey," Choice says modestly. His voice is raspy from cigarettes, a lingering cold and chronic dehydration. At 49, he is wiry but not drug-thin like some of his neighbors. Still, his movements are slowed by years of hard living, which, along with his gray goatee, give the impression of old age. Choice seldom smiles outright, conscious of his teeth destroyed by gum disease, but when he's making a joke, which is often, his eyes twinkle with mischief.