Like you, I woke to more news of Hurricane Harvey and the thousands of people whose lives have been ripped apart in Houston. It’s almost more than the heart can bear.
But just when I was about to start feeling sorry for my heart, I read my email and saw the message from Dallas City Council member Kevin Felder. Within two hours, Dallas police would begin the evacuation of 200 homeless people from beneath a nest of freeway bridges three miles from me. Felder was going to be there.
I sure hadn’t planned on it. In fact, didn’t know about it. In fact, wasn’t paying attention. What a change a few years can make.
I can remember when a major homeless camp eviction was big news. I wouldn’t have missed it, and neither would most of the rest of Dallas media. Now the city rousts a camp, and nobody misses a beat. I don’t even miss my second cup of coffee.
Felder’s email said, in part: “Today the City of Dallas will extract about 200 poor, homeless, disabled, drug addicted and prostitutes from underneath a state highway, I-45.”
I tried to think what had changed. I remember a lot of public interest when the latest wave of mass evictions began a few years ago. People really cared. We all talked about it. It was something the whole community was struggling to comprehend.
On the one hand, the image of government agencies sweeping in to cleanse a place of human beings felt repulsive — dozens of police cars, dump trucks, front-loaders and people with fire hoses scouring the signs of suffering from the pavement.
But I have covered enough of these things, and you have seen enough of the coverage by now, to know that the homeless sword is double edged and jagged. The presence of a homeless encampment is a kind of social cancer for the surrounding area. Small crime and filth spread from the camp in a penumbra of pain. The surrounding neighborhoods are required to absorb the ill effects of a problem for which the larger community should have taken responsibility.
Sooner or later, something must be done. As usual with problems the community fails to solve, we dump it all on the cops, the social workers and the fire department. Hey, go do something about it, will you? What are we paying you for?
Anyway, I chug my coffee and meet Felder beneath the intersection of Interstate 45 and U.S. Highway 175 in southern Dallas, one mile south of downtown. When I get there, the evacuation is already almost complete. Heaps of soiled clothing and collapsed tents lie along a battered sidewalk. In the gloom beneath a web of freeway bridges and ramps, a dozen or so forlorn stragglers are still pawing through their piled possessions, watched by eagle-eyed police officers and silent social workers. It is a scene drenched in sorrow.
Eva Taylor, 38, is standing just outside the camp, as if waiting. I see her. Something about her is striking. I ask what she is waiting for. She says she doesn’t know. She has lost all of her possessions — her tent, clothing, everything.
I ask what personal things were among her lost property.
“My books and chess games,” she says. “My globe, an old globe. It’s very old. Mostly my books.”
This is her fourth evacuation. “First I started off by the Stewpot [a downtown mission]. We had to move from there. We had to move out on I-30. Then we had to move to Second and Hickory. Then we had to move from Second and Hickory to here.”
I ask her where she will go now. “I have not a clue,” she says. “Walk up and down the side of the road, I guess. There’s no more bridges left.”
Beneath the grime and rags, her face is sculptural, youthful for her age. Her almond-shaped eyes begin to tear above a quivering mouth. She’s been homeless for two years. I decide not to take her picture because I don’t know how to show how beautiful she is. She’ll just look raggedy.
“I was in East Texas,” she says. “I was in an abusive relationship. I had a choice between my life, my freedom and his life. I decided to leave.
“I tried the shelters. I’m not saying they’re bad. They save a lot of people’s lives. But for me it’s not good.”
She explains that she lost her tent and possessions because she didn’t have time or energy to move everything. “I have been sick the last few days. I’m recovering from breast cancer as well, and moving around in this kind of heat is killing me. Moving around is making it real hard, real hard on me.”
She tosses back the tears and says with exasperation, “They do it every summer. Why do they do it in the summer?”
I think I know the answer to that one, as a matter of fact. First of all, there is the issue mentioned above — the effect of the camp on the surrounding neighborhoods.
But also, this encampment, like some of the previous ones, is too close to a common route into the State Fair of Texas that thousands of fairgoers will take a couple of months from now. That has a lot to do with when the evacuations happen. The big homeless rousts always seem to come a few months before the fair. In fairness to the fair, how much gaiety can you have at the fair if you have to drive through Dante’s Inferno to get there?
I don’t share any of that with her. Why would I?
When Felder arrives, he makes a simple plea for help and mercy. He calls on local and state officials “to speak up about this lack of empathy, lack of compassion and lack of concern regarding the poor and homeless.”
I have covered enough of this stuff to tell you one thing for certain: Felder, newly elected to the council, gets no votes for doing this. I’m sure he knows that. The voters who put him in office are working- and middle-class people for whom the homeless are a particular scourge.
When is the last time you heard of a major homeless camp lasting for months in an affluent area like Preston Hollow, north of University Park? Or in University Park? Oh, sure. That wouldn’t be an evacuation. More like an evaporation.
The problem is here. This is the part of town where homeless camps are an issue. Felder probably could get himself a few points with the voters, in fact, if he stood out here and cried good riddance. Instead, he cries for mercy.
So the scene this morning, dismal as it may look at first, is a breath of fresh air in some ways. Felder could be here railing at City Hall for inflicting this kind of burden on a poor part of town. Or just railing. But he’s not doing any of that.
He knows this must be done, in fact. But he is here, I believe, to mark the event, to see that it does not happen invisibly, without any of us noticing.
“This is my district,” Felder says to me. “I want to make a difference. I am serious about making a difference. I want to make an impact. I’m serious.”
On my way back to my truck, I pass Taylor again. She is sitting on a broken cooler at the mouth of an overgrown alley with a bunch of weeds in one hand. She waves me over because she wants to show me the weeds.
“This is mullein,” she says with a beautiful smile, showing me a wild herb in the snapdragon family. She spells it for my notebook. Then, pointing out small, blue wildflowers among the tall grass, she says, “These are violets. They grow anywhere. Everything is in abundance.”
When I get back to my unfinished pot of coffee, the terrible news from Houston is even more terrible, if that’s possible, more heartrending. But I don’t feel as if I have less sympathy to spend on people suffering in Houston because I already spent my day’s worth of sympathy on people here. Thank goodness it doesn’t work that way.
All suffering opens the heart. We remember what we have taught ourselves to forget.
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