Homeless encampments are a goad, a stick in the eye, a disquieting reminder that misery and chaos are only a few quick steps from the land of comfort and safety. It would be nice if the sight always opened our hearts and made us weep, but sometimes it goes the other way, grinds hard on our patience, awakens our fear.
Here's the thing, though. The homeless problem is not hopeless. We're actually figuring it out on a national scale, if not so much locally. Things are getting better nationally, but all of the things that actually work require compassion and patience. Nothing gets better on a short fuse.
At the end of this, I even have a secret about it to share with you, but you have to read every word, or I won't tell.
Some members of the Dallas City Council beat up a little on Dallas Police Chief Chief U. Renee Hall this week when they learned she had sent out a new training memo on avoiding violations of the civil rights of homeless people. Council member Sandy Greyson told her, "We have ordinances that say we can enforce, but you say that we really can't enforce."
Hall called a press conference immediately afterward to say she's not going to stop enforcing the law; she's just trying to avoid getting the city sued. She explained she wants to focus enforcement on behaviors that are not protected by the Bill of Rights.
"If they're aggressive, if they're threatening, if they're disorderly, if they're criminally trespassing — those are the things we're going to enforce around panhandling," she said.
Mainly, we can't just make the homeless disappear, but we can make their encampments disappear, at least temporarily. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt in Houston recently rejected arguments by the American Civil Liberties Union that bulldozing tent encampments amounted to criminalizing homelessness. Hoyt ruled instead that a city's power to promote the health and safety of its citizens trumps the right of the homeless to squat on public land.
So we can knock down their camps. Then what? After their tents are torn down and all their worldly possessions taken to the landfill, the homeless people don't simply blow away like smoke. In a long, intense screed written to rebut recent criticisms of her organization, Cindy Crain, CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, explained how it works. Alex Macon reproduced her nine-page cry for help on D Magazine's FrontBurner blog:
"Now the homeless people, of course they move into adjacent properties. There’s all these weird little wedges of land that you really can’t build anything. So, there’s a whole task force. You (the city) go and you see a little splotch of land, you look it up, you find out who the landowner is, and you cite them out the wazoo for code compliance, tall grass, trash, and whatever. And then, you say, ‘You’re gonna clean it up, and you’re going do this or you’re going to get fined. We’ll put a lien on your property. And I want to see a no trespassing sign up there.’
"So then, you see that all over. So (the landowners) go and they hire somebody to mow it down. I mean, they’ve literally been mowing, chopping all the trees down, so that it’s clear, and putting up these little Dollar Store no trespassing (signs). And then, the police don’t even have to give notice, they can just walk up at 7:30 in the morning, take a bulldozer, clean it up, 13 people. And I’m like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I could have … they’re elderly, disabled, beat-up people …
"I don’t know (where the homeless go). I’m trying to find them, because it’s cold."
The crackdowns are cruel because they leave the homeless even more miserable, if that's even imaginable. But in addition to that, the crackdowns are not what works. Homelessness in the nation is declining, especially where employment has improved and the supply of affordable housing has expanded.
In its most recent report, "The State of Homelessness in America 2016," The National Alliance to End Homelessness found that homelessness has been decreasing significantly in two-thirds of states, especially in the South and notably in Texas. The study noted that rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing capacities have grown while overall homelessness has declined.
What that should tell us is that the short-fused frustration we all feel sometimes when we get our noses jammed into homelessness probably is not justified and certainly is not the path to a solution. The problem, even if terrible in some cities, is not hopeless and not a reeling black-hole catastrophe that can only get worse. Answers are out there, things we can do, but those answers are hard. They demand effort, concentration and patience. And, sure, they cost money. But how much do we think homelessness costs us?
In her essay, Crain of MDHA addressed the cost of homelessness. "We’re going to pay for homelessness one way or the other," she said. "Now, you can pay for it through Parkland and police, and code compliance, and Medicaid. You’re gonna pay for it one way or the other.
"So, I’m suggesting that quality of life might be a moral, ethical factor. That we might say, these people live here, they’ve been here, they’re aging. They have lots of disabilities. If you want to improve the quality of life, it’s 20 years of documentation that says housing people is better bang for your buck and improves the quality of life. Not just for the person who is experiencing (homelessness), but for the people in the neighborhood. It works."
When I first read her words, I recalled a passage in Charles Dickens' serialized novel, Bleak House, published in 1852-53. Dickens, who knew poverty in his youth, warned polite London about the very same thing I think Crain was saying to polite Dallas — that festering poverty will inflict its true toll on the entire city sooner or later, polite or not.
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Describing a vicious London slum he personified as "Tom-All-Alone's," Dickens wrote, "But he (the slum) has his revenge. Even the winds are his messengers, and they serve him in these hours of darkness. There is not a drop of Tom's corrupted blood but propagates infection and contagion somewhere. ... Verily, what with tainting, plundering, and spoiling, Tom has his revenge."
OK, I am aware, thank you, that that' s a very 19th century — shall we say, Dickensian — portrait of poverty, out of keeping with our advanced times, but don't you think Crain and Dickens also are striking the same fundamental note? Ultimately, we are all of one body here, a body called community. Gangrene in any part will reach the rest eventually. We will pay today or pay tomorrow.
And not to beat a dead horse, but the evidence is before us that there are things we can do. Those people in those camps look bad because they have bad lives. The cure for bad life better life. No, you're right, we can't force a better life on somebody who is determined to make bad decisions. But generally speaking, the community of our souls will be better served by patience, compassion and diligent effort than by losing our tempers, stamping our feet and insisting that the cops make it go away.
Oh, yes, almost forgot. I have that secret to tell you that I saved for the very end. It's between you and me, OK? Don't tell. The cops can't make it go away.