We don't want to build a concentration camp. Right? Not even for ugly, smelly people. We wouldn't want to live in a city with a sign on the gate that says "Reinlichkeit macht frei" (Cleanliness makes you free).
In order to keep our heads on straight, let's just be frank with each other about the swirl of activity around the homeless in downtown. Dallas wants to do the right thing. But the original impetus was to clear the homeless out of downtown, because they're a pain in the neck and a hindrance to downtown revitalization.
And they are. Some of them. But that's also the danger. Because the city's current effort to clear them out started with real estate interests, rather than charity, there's a risk that things could get ruthless. In fact, homeless activists I talked to last week believe we are already there.
In May of last year voters approved $3 million in bond money for a kind of central clearing house or "intake center" where all of the service providers for the homeless could coordinate their efforts. Even before that, a consortium of real estate holders in downtown, the Cedars, West End, Deep Ellum and other close-in areas had formed around the idea of creating a new center of gravity for homeless services, somewhere away from all of their neighborhoods.
Mayor Laura Miller assumed leadership of the process and articulated the issue as doing what's right for downtown while also doing what's right for the homeless. Who knows what knavery and skullduggery the real estate guys may be up to--they can't help themselves--but let's assume the mayor's expression of her own agenda is entirely sincere.
That's not the problem. The danger in the approach she and the committee have taken, according to the advocates with whom I've spoken, is that they don't seem to know anything about the homeless, and they haven't taken the time to learn.
The Reverend Bubba Dailey, the woman who runs the Austin Street Centre on Hickory Street, just across the railroad yards from Deep Ellum, said to me: "They don't understand the population at all. They don't understand what they are doing."
Dailey, an Episcopal priest, got crosswise with the mayor at a public forum recently when she rose from the crowd to voice an objection. One of the sites where the committee had proposed moving most homeless services was on Malcolm X Boulevard, a couple of blocks from the Austin Street Centre. Dailey told the mayor she feared that a mixing of homeless populations there would endanger her clients.
The mayor was taken aback and made a semi-humorous remark to the effect that now she'd heard it all. Downtown and all of the neighborhoods were telling her they didn't want the homeless in their back yard. Now the homeless were saying it, too.
Funny. But not funny, according to several homeless advocates who heard the exchange and were troubled by it. They were shocked by what the mayor seemed not to understand. The universe at the homeless end of the scale, they say, is at least as diverse and complex as at the silk-stocking end. A failure to understand that, an impulse to treat all homeless as an identically faceless other: These are prescriptions for mishap.
Dailey told me she and her husband, who is also an Episcopal priest, have worked baseball-bat patrol at the center since it was at its original home downtown on Austin Street. That means standing in the doorway and whopping the drug addicts and crazy men who want to force their way in to rape and plunder the people inside.
That's less of an issue now, because the center is in its own new facility, a brilliantly clean, handsome structure near Deep Ellum, built with security arrangements that reflect years of experience. But she said she and her husband still have to go outside sometimes with their ball bats to protect mentally ill girls and women they see being raped on nearby vacant lots.
"We have to hit the men to get them off the women," she said.
The Reverend Dailey, an elfin blonde with sparkling kind eyes, showed me her trick for slamming the door on someone who is reaching through the crack, hacking at her with a knife. "You can keep your arms under the chain where they can't quite get you until you can yell and get some help to slam the door."
Austin Street is a complex of buildings that includes a huge open dormitory, drug and psychological treatment facilities, a large halfway house and a gorgeous small chapel. It deals with what are called the "sheltered homeless"--people who want help and are willing to work in programs in order to improve their lot.
I already knew some of this when I went to see Dailey, because I had lunch in Deep Ellum two days earlier with a group of people who work all the time with the homeless. They ran it down for me. They asked not to be identified in my story because they were worried that criticizing the mayor or City Hall might make problems for their programs down the line. I've known some of them a long time. These are pragmatic people without any major axes to grind.
"There are at least two different types of homeless people," one of them said. "The vast majority are semi-skilled people who are down on their luck, who lack affordable housing and for whom you can do things--replacement housing, shelter-plus programs, job training and so on. These are the sheltered homeless, people who are involved in programs.
"The other type is the walking eyesores. They're totally different. They are wracked with severe mental health problems and addictions. They're the ones we call 'shelter-resistant.'"
The people talking to me over lunch had been present when the mayor pooh-poohed Bubba Dailey for saying she didn't want other types of homeless nearby. "Of course she doesn't want that," one of them said to me. "She needs to protect her people. It was obvious that the mayor doesn't get any of that."
In fact, when I talked to Dailey later in the week, she broke it down in much finer detail: She talked about the pushcart homeless, the copper-scrapper homeless, the sign-holding homeless, the drunken and stoned homeless, and the predators who swarm in among them to sell drugs, rob and rape, none of whom she allows to enter Austin Street.
That's not to say she doesn't care about them. "We've turned them away when it was colder than whiz out there, when you could just about freeze your feet to the ground. But then later, when everybody's asleep, my husband and I will take blankets and flashlights and go out and find them sleeping on the ground and cover them up so they won't freeze to death."
Almost everyone I talked to came sooner or later to the same point: The city can set up a central intake facility for the homeless and can adopt an official policy that all homeless people sleeping or loitering downtown must be processed through that facility. The larger portion of the homeless population will cooperate.
But the hard-core, shelter-resistant homeless will not. They will not get on the bus. And until they get caught breaking some law, no one can make them get on the bus. They are American citizens. If they don't want to take a ride, they don't have to take a ride.
People who have been watching this process unfold are worried that some kind of ugly showdown is looming. Either the mayor and her committee don't understand what's going to happen when they try to round up the shelter-resistant homeless, or they do understand.
Because this effort seems to have been pushed so far by downtown real estate interests, rather than by homeless advocates, the suspicion of the homeless advocates is that somebody thinks he or she can push the walking eyesores out of downtown whether they want to go or not. People who work with the homeless were disturbed by the mayor's recent quote in The Dallas Morning News: "For a while I would roll down the window and yell and scream at them to get off the streets," the mayor was quoted as saying. "For a while when I saw a police car pass by a panhandler and go to a 7-Eleven across the street, I would ask them to go over and enforce the law.
"The last eight weeks, I've stopped doing all those things because I have a feeling that police aren't enforcing the panhandling [ordinance]."
Everybody says she's right. The cops are not enforcing any of the laws against aggressive panhandling. One homeless activist told me he's asked police officers he knows why they won't do it, and he says they told him: "That's Mayor Laura's problem. Why should we help her?"
What the homeless activists fear, based on what they've seen in other cities, is a hand-off of power to private security, at least downtown. The rent-a-cops can do the pushing. The assumption is that nobody will take the homeless people's side when they complain.
But push where? Take them where?
We need to back down and take a deep breath about this, all of us. I believe the mayor's motives are good, but she has also shown remarkable insensitivity. I don't think the real estate guys are even required to have good motives.
You and I are required. This is a legitimately tough issue. But rendering human beings nameless and faceless, treating them all as round pegs to be shoved into identical round holes, loading them on buses and putting them in camps: You and I don't want to have any part of that.
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