Dallas has never been able to clear the homeless from downtown streets, though not for lack of trying. Bans on panhandling, feeding homeless people, library benches and sleeping in public have provided city officials with helpful tools, but they have proved inadequate.
Or perhaps it's just that because they weren't being deployed with sufficient bluntness.
In November, Dallas police began daily, early-morning sweeps of the Central Business District, arresting people caught sleeping on sidewalks, benches, stoops. They are loaded into a paddy wagon and taken to Lew Sterrett. (Note: Following the story, Dallas Police Chief David Brown tweeted that DPD will review the practice.)
"A lot of people around downtown, especially in the Farmers Market area, were complaining that, in the morning, they'd find people sleeping on their steps and [in front of] different businesses," says Larry Litton, a sergeant in DPD's Central Business District unit.
Before, when officers would find people sleeping, they might write them a ticket, which would inevitably go unpaid. If that person kept showing up at the same spot, there might be an arrest. The new approach is more effective, Litton says, since it "gives them more incentive to comply with the law."
Litton says the numbers bear this out. Since the paddy wagon got rolling in November, Litton has seen a steady decline in the number of arrests.
"We're not taking any more enforcement action," he says. "It's just that we're not writing tickets."
Tanya Ragan, president of the Farmers Market Stakeholders Association, contends that DPD's early-morning sweeps are an attempt to cope with fallout from a policy change at The Bridge homeless shelter.
"The Bridge used to let police sign in every homeless person that showed up," she writes in an email. "Now police are only allowed 7 per night unless the temp drops below 37."
That has had the predictable effect of increasing the number of people camping out in front of nearby homes and businesses.
"At [FMSA]'s last crime watch meeting The Bridge security director flat out told the group that they wouldn't allow homeless on their property at night," Ragan writes. "They either had to come inside by 7pm or get kicked off the Bridge property."
An official with The Bridge has not yet responded to a request for comment but an independent source confirms the facility has drastically cut down on the number of individuals police are allowed to bring in at night.
See also: Federal Judge: Dallas Ministries Can Feed the Homeless Wherever They Damn Well Please
The sleeping-in-public ban has been around long enough that's it's not often discussed, but it was controversial when it was implemented in the early 1990s and sparked a class action lawsuit by Dallas' homeless. They scored an initial victory in 1994, when a federal judge forbade Dallas police from enforcing the ban, reasoning that, because shelter space is limited, and because human beings need sleep, the measure amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.
The decision was reversed on appeal, although not because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found the measure constitutional. Since none of the tickets or arrests made under the law ever led to convictions, the homeless plaintiffs didn't have standing to bring their case.
In other words, Dallas is free to arrest people for sleeping in public all it wants so long as it doesn't actually prosecute them. Which is what appears to happening every morning downtown.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.
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