Genocide is a tricky, ugly word to trot out in an argument. Comparing something to the brutality and madness of genocide to make a point is likely to blow up in your face. Survivors are justifiably touchy about anything that remotely devalues their suffering.
Plus, my editor won't let me.
So I won't call homelessness genocide. I'll just point out that homelessness does get the job done. Peer-reviewed academic studies in this and other Western nations have confirmed again and again over the last 20 years what we all probably would assume anyway by intuition: Once people become homeless and start living on the street, their life expectancy plummets.
This comes to mind because two weeks ago the Dallas city manager’s staff published a perfectly reasonable, well-documented memorandum soundly grounded in city policy (see below) explaining why none of seven proposed housing centers for the homeless would work. There were six reasons.
The proposed site was not available for “acquisition/purchase or long-term site control.” Or it was within two miles of an existing shelter serving 100-plus clients.
It would be too expensive to bring the site into compliance with the city’s building and fire codes. It was in the wrong location according to the city manager’s new market value analysis map (?). It had a bad safety rating based on the police department’s “Targeted Area Action Grid (TAAG) (?).”
It was not close enough to “amenities such as public transportation, social services and other public assembly facilities.” Because the one thing you have to do for the homeless is have a lot of public assemblies. How else are they going to see the talent show?
Listen. One of my first and worst jobs out of college was working on historic markers for the state of Michigan. The boss would tell us, “Senator Squinchnose wants a state historical marker for his grandma’s house in Lansing.” If you were naive — you hadn’t learned the ropes yet — you might ask, “What’s historic about it?”
The real answer was that you were supposed to figure it out and not ask a bunch of questions. It was easy, once you got the hang. You took the several dozen official criteria for deeming something historical, smooshed them around on the map, overlaid them, bisected them, chopped them up into confetti and sprinkled them over the map of Sen. Squinchnose’s grandma’s house while singing, “Michigan, My Michigan.”
You damn well came up with some way to justify putting a state marker in front of granny Squinchnose’s house, or you asked for a transfer to the Michigan Septic Stewardship Board.
So, sure. I’m not accusing anybody on the city manager’s staff of doing anything squishy necessarily with the homeless criteria. But if you gave me those six criteria and enough time, especially back when I was up on my game at this stuff, I could come up with a great memo banning the next big homeless center from every single City Council district in the city.
Here’s what you didn’t see at the end of the memo: “In spite of these problems, the city manager’s staff has come up with several creative alternative strategies by which the city would be able to create a massive permanent homeless housing development in council member Kleinman’s district.” Or council member Kingston's. Or council member anybody's.
It’s a question of will and intention. Last week I called Sam Merten, the chief operating officer of The Bridge, the city’s downtown homeless shelter. I pick on Merten because he’s a former newspaper guy and I know him. I don’t know how delighted he is to hear from me.
But I know that Merten has done tons of research, dating to his newspaper days, and continues to keep up by studying and traveling. I asked him if there are permanent solutions to the absence of permanent housing for the homeless.
Merten pointed me to the large-scale successful use of so-called inclusionary zoning in Boston and New York, by which developers are granted supplemental development rights. They get to build bigger buildings than their zoning allows. In exchange, they must agree to include X-number of affordable units in their projects.
Merten told me the first proponents of inclusionary zoning in Boston met resistance from developers who said they would just stop building in Boston and skate to the suburbs if Boston passed an inclusionary zoning ordinance. The homeless lobby went to the Massachusetts Legislature and got a law passed making inclusionary zoning the law for the whole state. That eliminated the leverage of developers who had threatened to move their money out of town.
We started talking about inclusionary zoning here several years ago. The Texas Legislature responded by passing a law banning it anywhere in Texas.
Merten listed other measures adopted by counties and cities around the country to provide substantial permanent revenue streams for homeless relief efforts. We have none of that here. It’s all hand-to-mouth.
He also talked about cities that have set up permanent patrolled, healthy, safe encampments for those homeless who just will not agree to come live indoors under any circumstances. He didn’t say it, but I know that we have dozens of encampments all over the city.
We bulldoze all of them sooner or later, when the neighbors start screaming loud enough. Those clearings don’t even make the news any more.
The takeaway for me was there are proven solutions up and running already in other places, for any community that wants to solve or at least relieve the plight of its homeless. I don’t think we do. I think in its heart of hearts Dallas views homelessness as the solution to homelessness.
Not two miles from my home in a nice neighborhood in East Dallas, entire neighborhoods are semi-abandoned, bulldozed and going back to nature exactly like the vacant areas I saw on a recent visit to Detroit. Here as in Detroit, a slow drive through those areas and a close eye reveal the most counterintuitive, jarring thing about them: In a few of the remaining tumble-down wrecks of houses in some of those areas — staring out from beneath caved-in roofs with shingles worn smooth by weather — people still live. They cling, hang on. They survive somehow.
I saw it all over West Dallas last year when the city was using a new tougher building code to push poor people out of one of the city’s last bastions of cheap rental housing. One old lady stood on her porch and told me she knew exactly where she would be next, when she lost the house.
Pointing across the way, she said, “I’ll be in a tent in that vacant lot over there.” Planning ahead as best she could, she already had the tent.
She was ancient, skinny to the bone, eyes occluded by cataracts. She and I knew what would happen to her in a tent in the winter. You know. She winds up in a tent, she dies. That’s the solution.
Merten told me many of the clients of The Bridge are black homeless men with mental issues. If you had to name one demographic less welcome than any other in most of the city’s 14 council districts, it would be black homeless men with mental issues. A black homeless man who’s crazy is the little match-girl of today, turned out to die in the blizzard while the rich people inside feast by the fire.
Somewhere out there, I know that someone is already formulating a comment to the effect of, “OK, Schutze, Mr. Noble Bleeding Heart Son of a Bitch, why don’t you invite the black, white or Hispanic homeless guy with mental problems to come live with you and yours?”
Two things. I’m not noble. And that’s not an honest question. No one, least of all me, has ever proposed that the solution to homelessness is for everyone with a home to adopt a homeless person. In fact, that’s a stupid suggestion.
On the other hand, as Merten recounted for me, there are real solutions out there already on the ground, already achieving measures of success. The people of Massachusetts, for example, have chosen to adopt one of the most successful. The people of Texas chose to ban it.
The mental and moral process of extinction is simple. We push them out of their shacks. They go to the streets. We ignore them. We push them off the streets. They go to encampments. We ignore them. We bulldoze them out of their camps. Where do they go? We ignore them.
In this process they die sooner than later. We know that, but we ignore it. In Dallas County, the vast majority of homeless dead are cremated. We ignore that, too.
I think we think it works. If we do nothing, if we turn away and ignore them long enough, they will all disappear into ash.
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We’re quite wrong. I mentioned here recently a new book called The Divided City by Alan Mallach, published by Island Press, in which the author provides hard numbers for the metastasizing poverty devouring our cities right behind our backs. Worsening urban poverty ensures that the population of destitute persons will only increase in years ahead.
The eerie abandonment I saw in Detroit — the same thing I can see two miles from my house in Dallas — is the footprint of middle-class flight, tracks left by people like me fleeing the graveyard at our backs. But the graveyard chases us.
Massachusetts has chosen to turn and face its homeless. We’re still trying to make them fade slowly into ash, and for a while it works. Don't want to call it genocide? Fine. Got a better word?