Directly below, in the comments, a reader accuses us of ignoring Angela Hunt's handful of weekend tweets concerning "bums camping out in our [downtown] parks, making them unusable for families, children, & residents." Can't ignore what you didn't see, but Hunt was referring specifically to Main Street Garden, where, she wrote, over the weekend she espied no fewer than a dozen homeless sleeping and camping out.
She wrote: "Where is DPD? Where is Bridge?! Mary, help!" Mary, of course, is Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm. And she posted photos.
Turns out, Hunt is not the only one complaining: Suhm told the council member yesterday that the city has received "numerous complaints regarding homeless individuals in Main Street Garden," including recent reports of people urinating in public. One Friend of Unfair Park noted on Hunt's Facebook page, where quite the shouting match broke out, that "unfortunately Main Street Garden's homeless issue has become much worse over the past few months, despite increased Safety Patrol and Police presence."
Only last night I spoke on the phone with Willis Winters -- Parks and Rec's second-in-command and the man responsible Main Street Garden -- as he stood in the middle of Main Street Garden. He reported seeing 20 homeless in the park at 8:30, several of whom were sleeping on benches and next to the Lily Pad cafe. Suhm told Hunt Downtown Dallas Inc.'s Safety Patrol would step up its efforts, and that Dallas Police officers, both on-duty and off, would begin making the rounds in the park.
Last night, I asked Hunt if she regrets using the term "bum."
"I am referring only to the subset of the homeless who are aggressive panhandlers, who publicly use drugs and alcohol, and who, rather than use the shelters and the services provided by the city and nonprofits, choose instead to sleep on our parks," she explained. "The fact is we've made a tremendous investment in The Bridge, I've testified in Austin to get our first single-room occupancy unit building in downtown, and I've spoken at two homeless conferences, so I am not unfamiliar with the issue and the plight of the homeless and not unsympathetic. But I also know we've made tremendous investment in our parks, and when that subset of the homeless makes that their home rather than use the services offered to them, they create a hostile environment for everyone else."
Hunt said the weekend tweets were prompted by a series of recent visits to the park, including one last month that prompted a visit with city staff, who told her they'd "look into it." On Saturday, Hunt said, she returned and found "it was worse," with homeless sleeping on benches, in the grass and even beneath the triangular climber on the playground.
"And it was frustrating," Hunt said. "And I have constituents downtown who tell me, when I go to residential events, they're frustrated with the situation."
Among those who responded to Hunt's tweets was Larry James, head of CitySquare, formerly Central Dallas Ministries. He wrote back: "We'll engage this 'hot spot' next week, Angela," and Hunt responded that she "would like to get team together on this for plan to address homeless in DT parks."
I asked Hunt if she and James had spoken since Saturday's exchange: "I have not talked with him," she said. "But I have nothing but the utmost respect for him, and he may or may not be upset with me because of my choice of words. I appreciate his point, though, which was: We can get together and discuss how we can work on this. And I will take him up on that."
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Council's on break through July, and more than likely this will come up upon its return from summer vacation, perhaps at a Quality of Life Committee meeting. Downtown Dallas Inc., which is trying to spur retail and residential development on the east end of downtown, certainly has a vested interest in this: Just last year its public safety staff tried to get downtown liquor stores to "prohibit the sale of 'high alcohol content beer and wine' to the homeless," which has been a bit hit-and-miss ever since.
Winters, who recently moved downtown and has begun to use the park every day at all times of the day, says the homeless are a constant in the park. And it will continue to be an issue as more parks are rolled out, including the under-construction Belo Garden.
"But when you ask if it's a concern, how do you answer that fairly?" says Winters. "They have just as much a right to a public park as anyone? Absolutely. Do they keep other people from using the facility? Perhaps. I don't have an answer to what can be done. It's a policing issue. And we don't have any ordinances that would preclude anyone from using the park, and I don't think we should -- ever. But it's a tough issue.
"At one point we thought by designing a park with so many different activities and trip generators, it would make the homeless less likely to want to be here, but that has not proven to be the case. They are commandeering parts that would be desirable to other park users. But I don't see an easy solution. And I don't want to call it a problem either, because they have a right to be here. In an ideal world, it would be shared and used by all, and currently it's not."