Robert, right, trims the back of Eutemio's neck using electricity borrowed from a visitor's truck in the homeless encampment beneath Interstate 30 near Fair Park.EXPAND
Robert, right, trims the back of Eutemio's neck using electricity borrowed from a visitor's truck in the homeless encampment beneath Interstate 30 near Fair Park.
Jim Schutze

While We Wait for the Big Solution to Homelessness, What About Toilets?

Almost all of the homeless camps the city has scraped away for the TV cameras over the past year are back up, rebuilt close to their original locations or maybe half a mile away.

If the city’s tent-scraping program was intended to resolve homelessness, promote health and safety or reduce crime, then obviously it has been an abject and utter failure. But I can’t find anything to indicate that knocking down homeless camps was ever intended to accomplish any of those things.

As far as I can tell, the city sends cops and backhoes in to drive the homeless out of their encampments because solid citizens have been calling City Hall complaining about having to see the camps from their cars. In that case, the city’s campaign also has been an abject failure.

As I have said already in this space in the past, if you want to make the homeless disappear, there are only two ways to do it: render them no longer homeless or kill them. Otherwise, they’re going to go on being homeless and staying stubbornly alive right in front of us.

This is not to say I think the problem of homelessness is simple or that I personally have any great solutions to offer. Every imaginable solution has its own particular downside. Even the “housing first” approach — they’re homeless, so give them a home — can produce heartbreaking failure if people who are incapable of living in a home get put into one too soon.

A good many people who have both good intentions and a lot of moral courage are working on it. The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance is about to release results of its annual all-volunteer tent-to-tent census of the homeless in Dallas, providing one of the few solid data points in an issue that otherwise almost by its very nature defies measurement.

The City Council is considering creating a joint city-county partnership to oversee nonprofit efforts and to keep track of federal, state and local funding. Terrific.

But yesterday I drove down to a huge encampment under Interstate 30 at Second Avenue, two blocks west of Fair Park and two miles due south of where I live in East Dallas. I have been there often before, but for some reason it always takes me a minute to find it again, ducking down back alleys and cutting across parking lots. It is in a place recommended mainly by its inaccessibility.

When I stood across the street in bright sunlight looking in, I saw only humps and mounds at first, the tops of tents and jagged plywood walls hidden in deep shadow beneath the half-mile-long, six-lane I-30 overpass. But the minute I stepped into the shadow, the encampment loomed out beyond my vision in both directions, east and west, premonition of a trash-littered dystopian landscape on some half-dead planet.

People moved slowly and deliberately between the mounds, their dusty rags perfect camouflage. I did a very unscientific survey of the first dozen or so people I encountered. I told them who I was and then asked what they needed more than anything else in this world.

No. 1: toilets.

No. 2: water.

No. 3: tents.

And then a litany of things, everything from employment programs to electricity. It all made sense to me. While I looked around, I tried to put the shoe on the other foot. If the city were to remove one thing from my own living arrangements, what would be the most painful to lose?

Toilets.

Toilets are big. Clean water is important. And electricity. I never think about that one. If I had no electricity, how on earth would I watch cable?

Using borrowed electricity from the dashboard of a visitor’s black pickup truck, Robert, 46, a wiry self-taught homeless barber with a silver stud by his left eye, was shaving the back of the neck of Eutemio, 55, a muscular man with tattooed forearms, who was sitting on an overturned blue bucket.

They told me they had been in this encampment less than a year after getting bulldozed out of the last one. Robert was shaving away with his small electric razor, staring intently at the back of Eutemio’s neck so as not to make a mistake. “All these locations came to an abrupt end behind violence,” he said.

“I will have you know,” he said, “that we don’t approve of the violence. We try to keep the peace. We don’t tolerate thievery. We don’t tolerate …”

“Bullies,” Eutemio muttered, facing earthward.

“Bullies,” Robert agreed, shaving.

Eutemio said, “We don’t tolerate people coming over here with weapons.”

“There’s not very much law around here but us,” Robert said.

I asked how they enforce the law.

“Use of force, if we have to,” Robert said.

Eutemio said, “We hold each other accountable.”

I said, “Here you are, doing everything you can to make this work. Why does the city continually come and knock this down?”

“Because there has been violence in the past,” Robert said. “That’s what I’m saying. All these other places that used to be in existence, they all get closed down behind violence, people losing their lives.”

Oh, that.

In the gloom beneath the expressway, a dystopian landscape from a half-dead planet.EXPAND
In the gloom beneath the expressway, a dystopian landscape from a half-dead planet.
Jim Schutze

On my way out, a pretty young woman, somewhere between 20 and 40 with all of her front teeth knocked out, stopped me to tell me about her phone, which she couldn’t pick up because it has cancer. Back across the street, I watched her disappear back into the Planet Gloom, the daughter of heartbroken parents somewhere.

I promised you at the top I wasn’t going to preach a big solution here or make an attack on the comfortable — an easy resolution for me to keep since I am both comfortable and bereft of big solutions. But what about this, in the meantime? What about half-measures, to relieve the worst of their conditions and maybe also to remind our hearts that we, too, are alive?

Toilets. They have a very few portables at the I-30 camp. As long as human beings are living there and before we have to scrape them again, couldn’t we provide them with more toilets?

Safe drinking water. Driving around underneath overpasses yesterday I trespassed into a State Department of Transportation field office where I saw a big water tank that somebody comes and fills for the workers. Is there no way to provide water for the encampments?

Electricity would be nice, and, by the way, I know the argument against all of this. Give them toilets, give them water, give them electricity, and you are just baiting them in, providing incentives for an ever-bigger and more stubbornly rooted encampment.

I only know one way to deal with that issue honestly, and that is to imagine the encampment taking root behind my house. Ah, no. I would not be in favor of any inducements behind my house. Behind your house? I would be willing to consider that.

And yet, isn’t that the only meaningful line? If they are there, wherever human beings are trying to survive, shouldn’t they have toilets? Water? Maybe even a foot patrol by the cops every once in a while? What big universal long-range solution do we really believe we will ever achieve if we can’t come up with toilets?

I get the no-inducements argument. But I also get that the no-inducements argument can become an argument for no mercy, for zero tolerance, and the only way to make that argument work is by killing them.

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