Le Grand Pissoir
The whole panhandling issue was deliberately designed to put liberals like me in a bad mood. I'm walking across a parking lot toward the Stewpot Ministry on Young Street across from First Presbyterian Church downtown. It's about 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and now here comes a guy who is obviously going to hit on me.
Under normal circumstances, I spot a guy like this, I signal from about half a block away that I am not giving him any money, not a dime, nada, get a job. Come on: This guy is in his 20s; his strawberry blond hair is fashionably cropped; his clothes are dirty but fairly new; I know the type. This is a crack addict or some other kind of doper. He doesn't want to work. He wants to do drugs. He looks tough. He's going to be aggressive, and I have to worry that he might go off on me.
But I'm out here working on a column about panhandling, so I suspend my normal body language and allow him to approach. We have the following conversation:
"Excuse me, sir, but I wonder if you could give me some financial assistance. I need six or seven dollars to help meet my needs."
"I can't do six or seven, but I can give you a buck."
I offer the dollar. He sneers at it in my outstretched hand as if it were unsanitary.
"I really need more like seven dollars."
I say nothing. He gets closer and leans over to peer inside my billfold, which I am still very stupidly holding in my other hand. He's angry. He says, "You can at least give me three bucks."
Now I'm very unhappy with myself. I decide to put my dollar bill back in my billfold with its brothers, but he snatches it and walks off in a huff.
I really do not like this kind of stuff. I feel deeply for the destitute; I'm a bleeding heart. But I do not like getting shaken down on the street by drug addicts. And, by the way, as I have been walking around the southern tier of downtown on this very hot day, it occurs to me that the whole area smells like the inside of a giant urinal. That's not a good thing, is it?
But here is the other side of my dilemma. In the last few days I have become aware that there is a major mobilization afoot to ethnically cleanse downtown of homeless people. It's the story behind Mayor Laura Miller's sudden interest in a new anti-panhandling ordinance. The downtown property interests have gotten to her with a scheme, not yet public, to move the bum population out of downtown. So that pushes all the alarm buttons on the other side of my liberal convictions.
Two years ago, Bernard Weinstein and Terry Clower at the Center for Economic Development and Research in Denton carried out a study for the downtown interests that purported to show that the southern half of downtown is lagging way behind the northern half because of the large population of homeless people. They found that values on the south side of downtown were a third lower than on the north side.
In comparing the way Dallas handles the homeless with methods in other cities, they found a number of interesting anomalies. We tend to have more day-time-only and street-feeding services, as opposed to overnight and recovery-training facilities. Our methods tend to attract homeless people to downtown, where the services are concentrated, but we keep them homeless and leave them out on the street.
A number of people have talked to me on and off the record about the big plan behind the mayor's initiative. What they want to do is encourage or push all the homeless service providers to move into a designated area outside of downtown. Tony Garrett, who represents an operator of commercial day-labor dormitories, told me where the area is, but only after I had already heard about it in an off-the-record conversation that I promised not to report. So I guess I put myself in kind of a box: I know where they want to put everything; other people know; but I can't report it until somebody else brings it out.
It's outside of downtown. And in spite of all my reflexive anti-developer bias, I have to admit that some of the developers pushing this--people like Bennett Miller, for example--are good folk and friends of the urban scene. Miller assured me that the area they have in mind will not be a concentration camp and will include inexpensive hotels and other agencies and facilities capable of dealing with the homeless more humanely than what happens downtown.
But life's just not that simple. In 1994, when the city wanted to cleanse downtown in preparation for World Cup soccer, John Fullinwider helped organize a homeless resistance movement. A teacher, activist and writer, Fullinwider is now writing an intriguing new play called Bridges, based loosely on those events (I've seen rehearsals). Last week when I called him about this new drive afoot to move 'em on out, he was rushing to a family vacation in New York, but he kept calling me from various phones along the way. His point was that people who are desperately poor have a right and a need to be in our faces.
"Begging is protected speech," he said from his home phone. "Begging is a message. The streets are the public forum of the people and always have been." I bet his wife was pulling on his sleeve to go get in the car, but Fullinwider gets pretty passionate about this stuff. He said it's typical of Dallas to want to deal with poverty through regulation rather than generosity.
"This is a constitutional issue, and there will be a constitutional challenge if I have to do it myself," he said.
He said he doesn't believe homeless people are the reason the southern side of downtown has lagged. He was on the thoroughfare commission in the '80s when the Woodall Rodgers Expressway along the north edge of downtown was being designed. "The placement of the exits and entrances, the location of the new art museum, the economic activity from Oak Lawn and the Park Cities: Those are the reasons the north side is ahead."
Later he called back from the airport and said, "If we can't respect the needs of the homeless, at least we can respect their rights." I was tempted to say, "John, would you mind calling off your vacation so we can talk a little more about this?" But in a case like that, I might actually be more afraid of his wife than that guy who hit me up for seven bucks.
Oh, sure, sorry: Where were we with that? I'm back walking across the hot parking lot toward the Stewpot--which is a day ministry to the homeless run by First Presbyterian--wondering why Dallas smells like a urinal. I enter through the steel doors; someone is calling Bingo for the homeless in a big open room; and there way at the back are Clora Hogan and Gordon Hilgers.
Hogan is the publisher of Endless Choices, a free newspaper distributed on the street by homeless people who ask a dollar donation for it. Hilgers, who has been homeless himself, is editor. Endless Choices provides its homeless sales force with a way to work for money instead of begging.
Hogan is worried that the mayor and city council will pass some kind of blanket ban on street solicitation downtown that would put Endless Choices out of business. When I told her about my experience with Mr. "Financial Assistance" on the way over, she said that kind of "aggressive panhandling" is already against the law.
"There's a law called solicitation by coercion. If someone who is holding a sign or walking actually approaches someone in a harassing way, then they are arrested, fined or whatever."
Later I called Dallas police Lieutenant Vincent Goldbeck, unit commander of the central business district, who confirmed that local and state laws prohibit what Mr. Assistance was doing to me. But there's a hitch.
"Like most Class C misdemeanors, an officer has to observe it happening," Goldbeck said.
I can't complain to a cop that I have been aggressively panhandled or coerced or whatever, because if the cop didn't see it happen, it's he-said, she-said. And the guy, Mr. Assistance, will have his story down.
The outlines of what the mayor and council are considering as a new panhandling ordinance are very shadowy right now, still in development, as they would say in Hollywood. I couldn't get anybody involved to run it down for me except to say that it's all being negotiated.
I confess. I hate those guys who ruin downtown by running street rackets on people. Especially the ones who run rackets on me. And I also know that in early-21st-century America there is an absolute ceiling on whatever good can happen in an area where people defecate on the sidewalk. If democracy is the great leveler, sidewalk defecation is the great sinker.
But I keep thinking of the health aide from St. Paul Hospice who has been coming to shave my father and shampoo his hair. She told us one afternoon that her husband is an unpaid preacher who for years has run a church in South Dallas for street people, drug addicts, prostitutes, drunks and bums.
"We help them turn their lives around," she said softly.
I asked her how you get people like that to turn their lives around. "What is the secret?"
Running a comb through my father's diaphanous hair, she said, "Love."
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