Stirred up by political opportunism, a progressive Oak Cliff neighborhood tries to keep out the homeless.

Cast Away

Homelessness is a horrible issue—painful, endlessly complex, almost impossible to contain in any useful summary way. The worst of it is that all of the passionate voices arrayed on each side of the issue bring their own urgency and legitimacy to the table.

Couldn't we just have good guys and bad guys?

I go have coffee with Michael Faenza, who runs The Bridge, the city's new homeless intake center downtown: For two hours he tells me heartrending stories about homeless people who have struggled diligently for years, jumping through every hoop to qualify for permanent housing.

Dallas City Councilman Dave Neumann claims he got blindsided by the Dallas Housing Authority’s plan to house the homeless in Cliff Manor. Really?
Daniel Rodrigue
Dallas City Councilman Dave Neumann claims he got blindsided by the Dallas Housing Authority’s plan to house the homeless in Cliff Manor. Really?

Faenza takes them to a town hall meeting in North Oak Cliff so that jittery residents there can see the human face of homelessness. But red-faced angry people at the meeting shout the homeless people back into their chairs. They don't want to see no stinking human faces.

So the bad guys are those selfish homeless-haters in North Oak Cliff, right?

But then I sit for three hours listening to Tanya Ragan, an acquisitions executive for a Minnesota-based real estate company, who tells me absolutely horrible stories about trying to rent out property near The Bridge. She describes showing the property to potential clients while homeless people are defecating and masturbating a few yards away. Meanwhile her company's property is melting into the soil beneath a relentless plague of thievery and vandalism.

Can I really get on a high horse and blame the people in North Oak Cliff, who are upset about a plan to move homeless people into permanent housing in their area? Do they not have a right to feel some jitters?

In fact, the homeless issue is so painful, so urgent and so screwed up, you'd think that no event, issue or person could possibly make it worse. How could any one person wade into something that's already this much of a mess and actually turn it into an even worse mess? Impossible, right?

Ladies and Gentleman, please allow me to introduce to you Mr. Dave Neumann, Dallas City Councilman from District Three, which runs from North Oak Cliff, across the river west of downtown, all the way to the city's far southwestern corner at the border with suburban Duncanville.

Drumroll, please.

They said it couldn't be done. No one could actually make the homeless issue worse than it is already. But, by gosh, with a combination of general weakness, chicken-heartedness, feckless opportunism and utter absence of integrity, Mr. Dave Neumann of District 3 was able to pull it off. He has actually managed to make the homeless issue in his district a worse mess than it was already.

Here's the basic skinny. Since April 2, 2009, everyone at City Hall—very much including members of the city council—has known that the Dallas Housing Authority planned to create centers of "permanent supportive housing" for certain homeless people, dispersed throughout the city.

On that date, a city task force on permanent supportive housing presented its findings and proposals to the city. The most exciting element of that report was the news that the housing authority was willing to spend its own $5.5 million to provide 350 housing units for qualified homeless people.

The deal with DHA met half of a goal of 700 new units by 2014, which was set by the city council in January of 2009. And the DHA part would cost the city not a penny.

The city council briefing that announced the agreement stated specifically that 100 of the DHA units would be provided in a DHA-owned building called Cliff Manor, a 40-year-old 12-story apartment building near Fort Worth Avenue and Hampton Road, three miles southwest of downtown.

There's the sticking point. Fort Worth Avenue is the target of concerted efforts toward redevelopment. So it's natural for people involved in that effort to wonder: Is Cliff Manor going to get the worthy homeless who have jumped through the hoops or the defecating masturbating homeless who have about the same effect on real estate as the fire-bombing of Dresden?

Fair question, right? This is a tough issue. It ain't tiddly-winks. People have a right to know.

Let me fast forward to the way the issue was handled by a number of other council members whose districts were targeted for permanent supportive housing. You have Ann Margolin, who represents a district with a lot of conservative affluent voters in North Dallas who always make it to the polls. You have Sheffie Kadane and Jerry Allen, whose districts are in northeast Dallas where hyper-organized homeowner groups tend to view poor people in apartments as a kind of biblical plague.

All three went to their constituents and said first and foremost: This is coming. It's not not coming. There's no big option here.

Some homeless people can't be made un-homeless. It's just not going to work. But there are tons of empirical data—just ask Faenza—to show that a significant portion of the homeless population can be tutored and assisted to escape homelessness and achieve permanent self-sufficiency in market housing where they pay their own way.

It's hard for them to do. Over coffee, Faenza checked off some of the hurdles they have to jump: They have to really not be on drugs; they have to really take their meds; they have to show they can hold down jobs; mainly, they have to prove that they truly want to succeed and have got the guts to do it. All of that is a process of years, not months, before they are considered qualified for housing.

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