City Hall

Even the Idea of Homeless Concentration Camp Is Mischief in the Making

Halt! Or should I use the German, “Halt!” An idea is afloat out there, almost certainly well meaning, for dealing with the city’s homeless population by creating a concentration camp at a disused military base where you and I won’t be able to see the problem any longer.

Who else hears the distant toll of sirens? If you and I can’t see the homeless any longer, who will see them? Who will know?

The proponent, a businessman who lives in a part of the city where homeless are a problem, told The Dallas Morning News in a story published yesterday, “We can collect a lot of the individuals from the various villages that are popping up and get them into a place that they can all be helped.”

Before just diving neck-deep into everything that’s wrong with this idea, let’s put on a full stop at that initial expression, “We can collect a lot of individuals …”

No. We can’t. I think we know what he means, or, at least, I know what we wish he meant, which would have more to do with the concept of attracting people to relocate voluntarily somewhere, rather than collecting them forcibly.

It’s not a huge thing, necessarily, probably just a poor choice of words from a guy who doesn’t spend his days choosing words, but the language of forcible collection has a very bad history, and that history calls on us to be extremely careful what we say in matters like these.

That makes it even more painful that Michael Sitarzewski, who proposes using the old Hensley Field Naval Air base on the western fringe of the city, also wants to call it “Dignity Field.” There, he tells the News, someone “would provide volunteer and work opportunities for the people living there.”

You and I know full well that Sitarzewski just doesn’t even begin to hear the resonance of those words in “Arbeit Macht Frei” or in the scripts of American war-time propaganda films describing interned Japanese-American citizens as “frontiersmen.”

But language is important here. Chosen without care, the words we use to describe a problem can serve as a kind of unwholesome moral lubricant. We always have a choice between really working to resolve difficult human problems like homelessness or merely working to make the problem disappear. The way we talk may influence the path we choose.

After all, there are more important and effective things we can do to ameliorate the homeless dilemma long before we start putting people in government-run camps. Larry James, CEO of CitySquare and one of the city’s most knowledgeable experts on homelessness, appeared Sunday on WFAA Channel 8's Inside Texas Politics to discuss the clearing of Tent City, the homeless encampment under a network of freeway overpasses on the south side of downtown.

At the end of that interview, James ticked off three things Texans could do right now to significantly improve homelessness: curb payday lending, reform prison policy and expand Medicaid. Before we get to work on a camp, we do need to confront the role of poverty in homelessness and the ways we know we can soften that bite.

It may not be an either/or choice, and it would be unfair to characterize  Sitarzewski’s idea as operating against those larger reforms necessarily. But then there is this: If we somehow induce the hundreds of people who lived in the downtown encampment and others around the city to go live at the naval air station, what will we have changed other than getting them out of our own line of sight?

I visited with Jay Dunn, CEO of The Bridge North Texas Homeless Recovery Center in downtown Dallas, a few weeks before last Christmas, and one of the points he explained to me is the great distinction between sub-populations of the homeless. Some are temporarily homeless because of bad breaks, but the chronic homeless are out there for reasons that are not temporary or transient.

The real tragedy is that the temporarily homeless, who may be on the street through no fault of their own, are forced to share the same turf with the chronic homeless, who tend to be scary.

If you persuade a good-sized population of people from the chronic group to go live at Camp Whatever, wherever, they will bring their chronic problems with them to camp. Concentrate them in a camp, and you will have concentrated all of those serious mental health and crime challenges there as well. Then think of also sweeping up the temporary homeless and putting them there.

And then what? Tell me again why it’s better to have temporarily homeless people herded into a distant camp with people who have serious mental, drug and criminal problems, all of them concentrated together out on the edge of the city where nobody can see them rather than in the middle of the city where everybody can see them?

The proposal for Hensley Field includes some mention of social services, but social and psychiatric workers and cops were patrolling Tent City before it was taken down, to the best of the city and county’s abilities to fund those services. Assuming it’s even possible or affordable to ship those same services out to the naval base, what will be changed by that except for visibility?

I noticed that the Channel 8  piece Sunday with James started out by describing Tent City as “unsightly,” which I took to mean ugly. And, yes, these camps are ugly. These are places where people with disordered and chaotic lives live, and those people tend not to be great maintainers of the landscaping.

But that fact doesn’t change if you move them out view. The place where they settle is still going to be unsightly.

Ah, but one thing does change. If you move them to a camp on the edge of the city, you add a quality to their existence that was not present before, at least as far as the rest of us are concerned. Now in addition to being unsightly they will be invisible. To us.

That invisibility, in fact, then becomes the single most important and powerful aspect of their being as far as the rest of us are concerned. Once they are on the old naval base, you and I will see nothing of them. And now all of sudden those sinister sirens we thought we heard moaning in the distance when this first came up should be sounding ever more clearly in our ears.

You and I are the ones who have to see them. If we push them into a camp and give some crew of public employees the job of keeping them there, then history tells us that a certain awful and inescapable process will ensue. It always does.
The problems get worse. The funding gets less generous. Jobs are on the line. Push must come to shove. You and I must not be bothered with it.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” and the happy Japanese “frontiersmen” in the internment camps: those were not stories the Germans told to the Jewish prisoners of Auschwitz or the Americans told to the Japanese internees. Those were stories the Germans told to the Germans and the Americans told to the Americans. Those stories meant, “No need to look here. This is no longer your responsibility. Move along.”

I have trolled a lot of homeless sites in my day, enough that I am no longer surprised by even the worst of the squalor. I have talked to enough of the chronic homeless to know what kind of psychological affect to expect — something between a rough-edged humor, if they are high on booze, or a gauzy stare, if they are high on pills, or an averted eye, if they are thinking about clonking me in the head and stealing my good tassel loafers which I should not have worn.

And guess what. That’s the easy part about paying a visit.

The hard part is seeing the other part of the population, the temporaries Jay Dunn told me about, stuck out there with the zombies. It’s especially distressing to see children wandering through that crowd, because children always know exactly where they are, and you can read the anxiety in their faces.

Those are the things you and I have to see — not just city employees, not cops, not even social workers, bless them each and every one.

Tearing down Tent City doesn’t feel like a real solution to anything, because it isn’t. We know that these same people will have to live somewhere else. But building a better tent city isn’t a solution, either, especially if it’s going to be invisible.

Homeless encampments anywhere are wounds on the body of the community. We have to work to cure the diseases that cause them. But that will never happen if we hide the wounds.

Camps. Hear the sirens.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze