We've Banned Their Shopping Carts, Outlawed Panhandling, Provided Homes For The Homeless--And Nothing's Worked. There May Be One Modest Proposal That Solves The Problem.
We need to put political correctness aside at least for the moment and have a frank discussion about killing the homeless. Can a case be made for it?
For the last couple weeks I have been talking to people about the homeless in Dallas, inspired first by the controversy over permanent homes for the homeless in North Oak Cliff, then by conversations with downtown property owners about The Bridge, the city's homeless services center.
The lesson for me has been that the homeless situation is one of those fundamental manifestations of the human condition that can never be "solved" in the sense of making it go away, unless you make the humans go away.
Anything short of actually killing the homeless is going to fail to truly resolve the issue, for two reasons: 1) No matter where you move the homeless, they're always somewhere, and 2) Nobody wants them "here," meaning near them.
So it's a conflict. If they're somewhere, then they're near somebody. And nobody wants that. Well, almost nobody. I'll come back to that in a moment. For most people, maybe the fair thing is to think about a way for them to be nowhere.
This is not a discussion of methods. That would be inappropriate, and frankly my disposition is too delicate for that conversation. And, of course, if it can't be done legally, then none of us would even consider it. We would have to hire a major respected law firm to see if there is a loophole or a provision of some kind that would allow us to kill the homeless legally. If not, we might be able to get our local congressional delegation to put a rider on a defense appropriations bill or something. That's for the lawyers to work out.
The underlying question is this: Should we kill them?
And I ask for this reason. It seems to me for some years now in Dallas we have been nibbling around the edges of the problem in ways that are always stubbornly ineffectual.
Go back to 2004, a terrible year all the way around for Dallas. It was the year the police rushed into the zoo and shot a gorilla. Also, a former Dallas Observer columnist, Laura Miller, was mayor. Miller, you may recall, tried to make homeless people disappear by outlawing shopping carts.
The reasoning was flawless. In 2004, the homeless all had shopping carts. They kept all of their possessions in them. Wherever you saw a homeless person, you saw a shopping cart.
So if you made the shopping carts go away, you would necessarily make the homeless people go away, too. It was kind of like outlawing homeless people's feet, but less cruel.
Miller persuaded the city council to outlaw shopping carts except at grocery stores. And guess what. The homeless people were still out there, stubbornly surviving through a new ruse: They started using baby buggies. It was an almost fiendishly clever ploy, because of course it was politically impossible to outlaw baby buggies (and with them, babies).
But Miller tried one more time. She noticed that homeless people survived by panhandling, so she persuaded the city council to outlaw panhandling. Again, flawless logic. No panhandling, no homeless people. Who knows what happens to them? Not our look-out. Let's hope it's something the city can take care of between 2 and 5 a.m.
But they kept panhandling. There was even a famous incident in which Miller herself had her driver stop her car so she could roll down the window and rail at a homeless panhandler, telling him he was breaking the law.
The problem was, he didn't give a damn. The homeless people brought their own twisted logic to it: If they obeyed the law and didn't panhandle, they starved to death. If they broke the law and got caught, they were taken to jail and fed. How can you deal with people who think like that?
Every time we have tried to use logic to combat the problem of homelessness, the homeless have come up with another trick. So, is it time at last to come clean with ourselves about what we really want to achieve? Don't we just want them to go away? And if that is the case, doesn't that mean we have to kill them?
You might wonder what got me off on this line of thinking. It actually has to do with one of the more surprising conversations I've had with anybody about this issue ever—a long chat by phone with Dan Millet, owner of a downtown printing company.
Millet and I first met five years ago when he was one of the most vociferous opponents to the plans for building The Bridge. Over lunch back then, he told me horrific stories about the effect downtown homeless people were having on his business. He had to pay off-duty cops to guard the place every night, and even then he had to pay a power-washing company to come wash excrement off his property every morning.
But last week when we spoke, Millet could not have been more emphatic in his praise for The Bridge, now that it's up and running.
"The people that are here around The Bridge now are people who are looking for services to improve their lives," he said, "not to be destructive or sleep on the sidewalk. We really don't have that issue at all any more."
Millet is so grateful for the improvements brought about by The Bridge, in fact, that he paved and fenced some of his own land and now provides it to The Bridge for staff and guest parking.
"The guests of The Bridge at least twice a day come out with trash cans on rollers and various devices, and they pick up every article of trash including the trash that's around the dumpsters over by the school and over on the freeway in an area that has nothing to do with The Bridge, just being good neighbors."
He spoke with equal affection and respect for the people who run the place. "Whenever there is any kind of an issue I call them, and they instantly address it."
I asked him what he charges for the parking lot. He said he provides it to The Bridge for free, "because I love them."
After I hung up from talking to Mr. Millet, I sat at my desk and sank deeper and deeper into consternation. Here is a man who probably spent a great deal of money on lawyers and consultants to keep the homeless away from his part of town. And now he says he loves them?
Is it possible that the homeless, over time, are eroding our moral resolve? And if so, isn't that just another argument for getting rid of them? I don't know the answer. I am only asking.
I know this: The minute we start to talk seriously about offing them, people will toss out all kinds of caveats and complications, some of which will have to be taken seriously. For example, if it came down to one big day of getting rid of them, none of us would want to see "mistakes" made.
You might be surprised how easily it could happen. A friend of mine who has now passed on from this mortal coil was at City Hall for something three years ago. He wound up going across the street to the front of the Central Library where a lot of homeless people hang out. He went there to wait for a ride.
My friend, a political consultant, was suffering from serious health problems at the time. He was a person of somewhat advanced years. And he was not, perhaps, paying the best attention to his appearance.
Next thing he knows, a white police van with a flashing light on top pulls up to the curb, and a cop is leaning out the passenger-side window asking him a lot of questions. Initially it's about the weather, but then the cop wants to know the name of the president of the United States and what month this is.
My friend was irate. He said, "Are you mistaking me for a homeless guy?" The cop shrugged. I can't tell you how upset my friend was.
I sympathized but told him he needed to send his shirts to the laundry more often. We all need to be careful about maintaining our own identity, especially if certain measures are about to take place. And by the way, my friend was not the only City Hall political consultant who could have problems. Ask me for names if we run into each other privately.
Obviously a good deal of thought would have to be given to identifying the target individuals, and even at that, the homeless will have more tricks. The one that has the city in an uproar right now is perhaps the most insidious yet—disguising the homeless as not homeless by giving them homes.
This is what has North Oak Cliff and Lake Highlands in a wad. The city has been using The Bridge as a kind of training camp to teach the homeless how to pass for home people. Then the city finds them homes.
It's kind of like those suburban spies from Russia. Once they're out there in the backyard with their Hawaiian shirts and their grills, who's to know?
One of the awkward parts of a serious campaign would be identifying the undercover homeless. They'd have to be included. Otherwise, it wouldn't be fair. It's probably a matter of preparation and good police work.
I ask these questions not to be callow or provocative but because I believe the answers are of fundamental importance to the future of the community. Killing the homeless. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Then we'd know how to proceed.
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