Boxcar Miller

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

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.

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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."

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.

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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