Close, but not too close: The proposed site for a homeless shelter abuts downtown.
Close, but not too close: The proposed site for a homeless shelter abuts downtown.
Eva Watson

Sleight of Hand

At this very moment, the mayor and city council of Dallas are teetering on a precipice, dangling from a parapet, dancing on the edge, hanging by a thread from a cliff towering over jagged rocks above a cruelly surging sea--yeah, I would even say they were at the tipping point--of doing something right about the homeless. Everybody who watches this stuff has his heart in his throat and the hair standing up on the back of his neck and his teeth chattering. I can't feel my feet or hands.

This cannot come to pass. City Hall may be on the verge of doing the right thing, but that doesn't mean it will. If past is prologue, the mayor and council will find some way to un-verge themselves and mess this thing up like a junk pile after all. I mean, come on: I can't make any money writing about things going right.

But...last week an overwhelming majority of the council seemed to endorse a solution to the downtown homeless situation that would not involve trying to make the homeless evaporate. And I have to admit I'm relieved. Evaporating people is such a scary concept.

By accepting the concept of a service center for the homeless located near downtown--instead of a Soviet re-settlement camp out in some politically benighted neighborhood--the council was bowing to an almost unbroken chorus of expertise from around the country. For months experts have been telling a special commission chaired by insurance executive and former mayoral candidate Tom Dunning that trying to make the homeless disappear from downtown (poof, no homeless) will not work.

Build it, and they will not come.

One of the most telling testimonies the commission heard was from Dallas police officials: They explained that the city will never be able to use cops to enforce the poofing of the homeless downtown. I will explain more of that in a bit.

The preferred site recommended last week by the Dunning Commission is minutes from the center of downtown but isolated by freeways and the Farmers Market. Dunning is telling people that this is the way--the only way--to enforce a zero tolerance policy for noxious behavior downtown: aggressive panhandling, drunkenness, sleeping in doorways, indecent exposure.

Deal with them where they are. Give them a place to sleep, to get out of the weather and use a toilet. Put that facility in a place the police can get to quickly. Then you can enforce the rules of civilized behavior, and by the way, there are such rules.

Downtown business and property owners are not just whistling Dixie when they say the re-development of downtown cannot happen while downtown still smells like a urinal. But only when there is a viable, practical, pragmatic alternative can the city crack down on wino-ism.

The proposed site is sane and humane. It can't last. The mayor and the council will find some way to rip this up and turn it into a mud wrestling match. This is my earnest faith.

Last Friday night I attended the premiere of John Fullinwider's new play, Bridges--a story about the homeless in Dallas. Fullinwider has cleverly updated his material with jokes about shopping carts and other contemporary references, but the meat of the play is his experience 15 years ago as a community organizer among the homeless in Dallas.

The play includes some wonderfully written and acted scenes and some wooden scenes. Fullinwider writes beautifully about the homeless and less effectively about Fullinwider. But things like this play--and the national journalism being published on this issue, and maybe some wonderful novel that's going to come out of an SMU kid we've never heard of, maybe a new history of Dallas by a trained scholar--will be the enduring name and face of the city.

It's what people know and will know about Dallas. And let me tell you: I sure wouldn't want to be known only by Bridges, a dark, bitter screed that ties the city's inhumane treatment of homeless people to a curse far deeper in its soul.

Just an example: The Fullinwider character in the play speculates that maybe he didn't get beat up in jail because he has been too prominently featured on TV and in the newspaper lately. A homeless guy doubts it: "Ain't nobody more famous than John Kennedy," he says, "and even he couldn't get out of this town alive."

Think that's a cheap shot? I think it's the shot--an honest if brutal exposure of the history the city has woven around itself. This kind of thing, the way the city handles a problem with its poorest and least powerful residents, is far more important to the city's image in the world than any number of fake fandango suspension bridges we may build across the river downtown.

The better side of the city's nature has been reflected in Dunning and his fellow commission members. Very few of the people who have followed this process will say the commission has been anything but fair, square and responsible.

I spoke to Dunning last week before I saw Bridges: It was interesting to me that both he and Fullinwider made the same point. Both said that the homeless downtown, once called winos, used to have a legitimate semi-permanent rung on the socioeconomic ladder--maybe near the bottom of the ladder but a place where they could hang their hats.

Both men refute the common mythology today that says the homeless are interlopers who have invaded the city from without. Speaking of the 1940s and '50s, Dunning said, "You normally found them near the produce markets, the fish markets, food processing plants, places like that, and the reason was that they were cheap labor.

"A friend of mine reinforced this," he said. "His family owned a produce business for 70 years before selling it a few years ago. He said, 'We knew we could hire 'em at 4 in the morning or we could hire 'em at 3 in the afternoon. We paid 'em a couple bucks to help load or unload trucks.'"

Dunning points out that there used to be "flop-house" hotels where winos could live. A character in Fullinwider's play recites the names of the old Dallas hotels that got knocked down or re-done. During an intermission in the play, I remembered going out as a young reporter with two cops assigned to a division of the Detroit Police Department called "The Bum Squad."

They showed me the flop-house hotels where a wino could buy a ticket for the month when his veterans check came in, the cafeterias, soup kitchens, missions and the Capuchin monastery where they could eat. The cops knew most of the winos by name and could spot the ones turning blue in the winter who needed a trip to detox. I remember thinking I wouldn't mind working on the bum squad. But that may have been the week they assigned me to cover ladies cultural auxiliaries.

Call the skid row system brutal. Maybe. But it wasn't anywhere near as cruel as the system we have now, which tries to make their existence illegal. The Poof Policy.

An intriguing moment during the hearings held by the Dunning Commission was a speech made to them by Deputy Chief Brian Harvey, over the police department's Central Division. He told them why zero tolerance doesn't work now.

Harvey said individual police officers know that zero tolerance under existing conditions is a farce. They spend hours--maybe the entire day--taking a drunk to the jail, finding out the jail won't take him because he's drunk, taking him to the county hospital, finding out Parkland won't take him unless he's under guard, guarding him until he sobers up, then finding him back on the street drunk again in the morning. That puts one cop out of commission an entire shift for nothing--for something stupid that doesn't work.

Harvey said police officers won't refuse an order. But if management dictates zero tolerance, that's exactly what they will wind up doing--enforcing the homeless laws so thoroughly that no cops will be left on the street. "If management dictates a zero tolerance approach," he said, "they will enforce exactly what management told them and make management look silly."

That's to the cops' credit. They may all wear blue, but these are also thinking Americans with a sense of fair play and common sense. They know you can't make people go poof. You have to deal with them on their own terms, where they choose to be.

What this near-downtown site may offer is a resolution of many of these issues. Dunning told the council--because he had heard it from the police--that the cops will gladly enforce a zero tolerance policy if there's a practical and humane way to do it.

The preferred site ain't perfect. The council has to commit to a fairly whopping operating budget to make this thing work and to protect the Farmers Market, which is right next to the site. The Farmers Market has every right to scream, as does the Cedars neighborhood across the freeway, if this operation begins to look like a cheaped-out human dump instead of an effective social program. But all of that can be handled.

I think the apparent consensus on the preferred site will come apart in the weeks ahead because the scrubbing bubbles won't give up on the poof approach. They see this as a battle between the defenders of downtown tidiness and the vile invading hordes.

While the mayor spoke in favor of the Dunning site, I listened to Councilman Bill Blaydes (District 10, Skillman and Plano roads), the only declared opponent, muttering with his mike turned off: "We're givin' up. We're just givin' up."

Did you know we were at war?

A solution seems near, but if there's a way to rip it, City Hall will find that way. I have faith. Somebody's gotta keep me in business.


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