Homeless Cleansing

We don't want to build a concentration camp. Right? Not even for ugly, smelly people. We wouldn't want to live in a city with a sign on the gate that says "Reinlichkeit macht frei" (Cleanliness makes you free).

In order to keep our heads on straight, let's just be frank with each other about the swirl of activity around the homeless in downtown. Dallas wants to do the right thing. But the original impetus was to clear the homeless out of downtown, because they're a pain in the neck and a hindrance to downtown revitalization.

And they are. Some of them. But that's also the danger. Because the city's current effort to clear them out started with real estate interests, rather than charity, there's a risk that things could get ruthless. In fact, homeless activists I talked to last week believe we are already there.

In May of last year voters approved $3 million in bond money for a kind of central clearing house or "intake center" where all of the service providers for the homeless could coordinate their efforts. Even before that, a consortium of real estate holders in downtown, the Cedars, West End, Deep Ellum and other close-in areas had formed around the idea of creating a new center of gravity for homeless services, somewhere away from all of their neighborhoods.

Mayor Laura Miller assumed leadership of the process and articulated the issue as doing what's right for downtown while also doing what's right for the homeless. Who knows what knavery and skullduggery the real estate guys may be up to--they can't help themselves--but let's assume the mayor's expression of her own agenda is entirely sincere.

That's not the problem. The danger in the approach she and the committee have taken, according to the advocates with whom I've spoken, is that they don't seem to know anything about the homeless, and they haven't taken the time to learn.

The Reverend Bubba Dailey, the woman who runs the Austin Street Centre on Hickory Street, just across the railroad yards from Deep Ellum, said to me: "They don't understand the population at all. They don't understand what they are doing."

Dailey, an Episcopal priest, got crosswise with the mayor at a public forum recently when she rose from the crowd to voice an objection. One of the sites where the committee had proposed moving most homeless services was on Malcolm X Boulevard, a couple of blocks from the Austin Street Centre. Dailey told the mayor she feared that a mixing of homeless populations there would endanger her clients.

The mayor was taken aback and made a semi-humorous remark to the effect that now she'd heard it all. Downtown and all of the neighborhoods were telling her they didn't want the homeless in their back yard. Now the homeless were saying it, too.

Funny. But not funny, according to several homeless advocates who heard the exchange and were troubled by it. They were shocked by what the mayor seemed not to understand. The universe at the homeless end of the scale, they say, is at least as diverse and complex as at the silk-stocking end. A failure to understand that, an impulse to treat all homeless as an identically faceless other: These are prescriptions for mishap.

Dailey told me she and her husband, who is also an Episcopal priest, have worked baseball-bat patrol at the center since it was at its original home downtown on Austin Street. That means standing in the doorway and whopping the drug addicts and crazy men who want to force their way in to rape and plunder the people inside.

That's less of an issue now, because the center is in its own new facility, a brilliantly clean, handsome structure near Deep Ellum, built with security arrangements that reflect years of experience. But she said she and her husband still have to go outside sometimes with their ball bats to protect mentally ill girls and women they see being raped on nearby vacant lots.

"We have to hit the men to get them off the women," she said.

The Reverend Dailey, an elfin blonde with sparkling kind eyes, showed me her trick for slamming the door on someone who is reaching through the crack, hacking at her with a knife. "You can keep your arms under the chain where they can't quite get you until you can yell and get some help to slam the door."

Austin Street is a complex of buildings that includes a huge open dormitory, drug and psychological treatment facilities, a large halfway house and a gorgeous small chapel. It deals with what are called the "sheltered homeless"--people who want help and are willing to work in programs in order to improve their lot.

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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