City Hall

New Proposal for Taking Care of Homeless Problem: a Catapult

I’ve given up proposing that we kill the homeless. No one ever takes me seriously. Some wag like Tim Rogers at D Magazine always chimes in saying I’m copying Jonathan Swift (“A Modest Proposal,” 1729) – in other words, it’s satire – in spite of my very best efforts to speak with sincerity.

So today I have a new idea. A catapult. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Please remember, only last May I predicted the homeless, left to their own devices, would insist on staying alive even after city officials had bull-dozed their tent city near downtown. I even said they probably would go on stubbornly living in some new tent city not too far away from the bull-dozed one, and, indeed, the new tent city has arisen almost exactly one mile from the old one, at I-30 and Haskell.

City officials are now proposing to solve the homeless problem by bulldozing the new tent city. This new solution to homelessness bothers me, because, among other things, the new tent city they want to bulldoze is only 1.8 miles from my house. At this rate, I figure tent city is in the alley behind my house by February.

Call me a NIMBY-whining plutocrat if you want, but only last spring we were concerned that an unbelievably huge pothole in our alley might actually be occupied by homeless people. It’s not like we whine over nothing on our block. Our expectations in terms of city services are modest. 

Upon further investigation my neighbors and I satisfied ourselves it was not a site of human habitation, and a few weeks ago it was even paved over, at last. I mention the jaws-of-hades pothole here only to demonstrate that I’m no Saint Theresa on this score.

The homeless come to mind now, by the way, not only because the city is about to move on the new tent-city, but also because the city council is weighing various budget proposals for a truly long-term solution. The real solutions, which involve mental health care, run somewhere in the tens of millions of dollars a year.

We can guess why it costs that much. The most recent count of homeless in Dallas and Dallas County found just over 3,800 homeless persons, 739 of whom were on the street. Of the more than 3,000 in shelters, two thousand were in emergency shelters and a thousand were in “transitional” shelters. Most of those in transitional shelters are hard-luck cases well on their ways to jobs and recovery.

The number of “unsheltered,” meaning the ones in tents or boxes, is down substantially since 2005, but it still reflects a kind of social distilling process by which the homeless street population gets boiled down to the hardest cases, the most care-resistant. Those, of course, tend to be the craziest or, worse, the druggiest.

So you see that even after we chip in to pay for transitional cottages for the ones who can handle living indoors, we will still have this same stubborn core issue in terms of the care-resistant homeless who are left behind. And they are the problem.

Not everybody in a tent city is scary-bad. The average working man or woman, even a family with children can wind up out there, and they do. But all around them are the hardcore scary-bad cases — the ones who scare the neighbors. The neighbors get on the phone to their city council-persons and insist on another cleanup, and here we go again, again.

We will always have this last nail to bite, this hard nut to crack. Either we make the substantial investment required to police and serve this very unsympathetic element in our midst, these human beings whom we do not like, whom we fear but who are human beings, nonetheless.

Or what? That’s the one that scares me. Dick Reavis lived in the last tent city for six weeks in order to write about the day they shut it down: the scariest thing in his Texas Observer piece, for him and for me, was how easy it was in the end for the authorities to come in and scrape it.

There were no klieg lights, no smoke or din, screams or thunder. The people in the last section just grabbed what they could and shambled off meekly into the dust of the city, no doubt already headed somewhere in the direction of the spot where this new tent city sprang up from the ground only days later.

Each time it will get easier, the more we become inured to it. Shoveling these wretches out of their refuges could easily become a three or four times-a-year event – the long-range solution, as long as the rest of us don’t care. And if we don’t care, who cares if the homeless people care? By then it’s all outside our care zone, beyond our notice, outside our hearts.
So that brings me back to my idea for a catapult. If the solution is to bulldoze tent-city every few months, I believe we should do the decent thing and at least not make it boring. The boredom of it, the Hannah Arendt banality, is the greatest threat to our own hearts and humanity. It's when we get bored that we truly become monsters.

Therefore I propose that every time we clear a tent city, we set up a big media event with an aura of good family fun, like a circus, so that people will feel comfortable bringing their kids down to watch, and we fling the homeless out of the camp with a great catapult.

Please. I don’t want to hurt them. I grew up in small towns in the Middle West where my older brother always took me to see the circus when it was in town, and I have seen this done safely many times with clowns. Obviously you don’t try to fling them a great distance – probably just over a barbed wire fence out into a vacant lot or highway median.

We wouldn’t be using the catapult, in other words, to deliver the homeless all the way to their next tent site – just give them a sort of a quick gentle pop up into the air and back down, more for effect than anything else. The elderly homeless and the children would be exempted.

Only the hardiest would be catapulted, hopefully as volunteers but possibly in exchange for modest payment, and they would be well-helmeted and wrapped-up in Styrofoam and quilts. Oh, I can just see Tim Rogers re-Googling how to spell Jonathan even as we speak, but I’m dead serious. The catapult is less for them than for us. In fact I think we should all take turns manning the catapult ourselves.

The whole point in flinging the homeless out of tent city on a catapult with our children looking on would be the burden of explanation that we would all endure when the children started crying and asking us why we were flinging people on a catapult.

This is real. This is not some Jonathan Swift thing where I’m making fun of us. I told you already, I’m no better than the next guy about this. I don’t want them living in my pothole any more than you do.

It’s the hearts I worry about. Our hearts. The heart hardens. It stops feeling. Eventually it stops even beating or might as well stop beating for all the life it gives us. We need to keep our hearts in shape. Think of my catapult idea as a kind of moral aerobics – just the boost we need.

Of course, I wouldn’t even suggest this if I really thought for one minute that we could take it. Now there’s an awful thought.
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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