City Hall

Push Those Homeless Out of Their Tents, and They'll Have to Come to Your House

Just because Dallas doesn't have a plan for dealing with the inhabitants of the homeless tent cities it plans to bulldoze on May 1, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a plan. That’s the plan. No plan.

That’s always Dallas' plan: no plan, no people.

How many times does the city have to learn this lesson? It bulldozed the camps 22 years ago. The homeless stuck around. Then the city outlawed panhandling. They just kept doing it. It even outlawed shopping carts. They switched to baby buggies.

The bastards just refuse to die. Dallas has told them every way imaginable that their lives are not welcome. But there they are! Going on living! When it comes to staying alive, some people have absolutely no manners.

Before I get too high on my own horse here, I need to say something else, too. When talk turns to the homeless problem — I call it the human being problem — the one true thing is that everybody’s concerns are legitimate. There’s nothing easy about this.

One big encampment is right up cheek by jowl with Dallas Heritage Village, the collection of restored historic buildings on park grounds just across Interstate 30 from downtown. Winter before this one just past, when it got really cold, the homeless people were building open-pit fires, and everybody was terrified Heritage Village, a bunch of old wood-frame structures, would go up one night like a bottle rocket.

The other bigger one, under the I-45 overpass near Malcolm X Boulevard, is near struggling residential neighborhoods that would like to have some shot at recovery. I know how that feels, because I remember a homeless evaporation campaign in South Dallas in the late 1980s when all of the people who refused to be evaporated wound up walking up and down the alley behind my house in Old East Dallas.

The Vietnamese people, who were new refugees back then and still struggling with English – collecting cans in the alleys while they prepared to move to the suburbs and send their kids to Yale — called the homeless vagrants the wah keen people, which we finally figured out meant “walking.” They gave the homeless people wide berth, as does everyone. But everyone understood that "moving on" was the only thing the wah keen people were allowed to do. 

That’s the problem. Wide berth doesn’t get it. Pushing them around like checkers on a checkerboard accomplishes nothing. Human beings refuse to evaporate. The only moral or effective thing we can do is help them live, not wish them nonexistent.
I have been talking to City Council members and people who work with the homeless, some of whom spoke to me on the record, more of them off the record, because apparently the city attorney has told them not to talk to reporters about it. This is what I know:

The city attorney is drawing up some kind of legalese notification that the cops and the social workers are going to go hand out to all of the people in the camps. The city will document and possibly film the distribution of the notices, which will warn people that the camps are going to get scraped on May 1. The documentation will be done so that the people in the camps won’t be able to claim they were surprised.

Tell who? The courts? The courts have demonstrated again and again that they don’t give a shit. Reporters? So we go in there on blitzkrieg day with our recorders and our notebooks and cameras, and what? The homeless people all say, “No story here guys. We were duly warned.”

Everyone gets that the notices and the documentation are intended to be transparent ass-covering for the officials, but what the notices really prove is the officials have no idea how big their asses are.

The mayor and the Dallas City Council have battled long and hard not to do one thing, not to lift one finger or turn a single brick to provide a decent supply of affordable housing in this city.

Sam Merten, spokesman for the Bridge North Texas Homeless Recovery Center, said: “The big issue with homelessness right now is the lack of housing. It’s really, really difficult to get access to it. It’s just not in abundance. That’s what creates the bottleneck in the city. That’s what creates Tent City.”

The Bridge, by the way, is the only entity I could find in Dallas that’s actually trying to anticipate the Tent City sweeps by providing additional shelter. I could find no one else in the city who has any hard, on-the-ground operation already in place and underway to shelter the people from the camps, whose numbers are estimated at a low end of 250, hundreds more if more encampments are included in the sweeps.

Council members Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs told me they are looking at possible sites where temporary shelter might be feasible, including the former Parkland Hospital, the Dawson State Jail and the former Naval Air Station in far West Dallas on the border with Grand Prairie.

Anybody can come up with reasons why any of those sites might be problematic. As I said above, everybody’s concerns are legitimate and none of this is easy. But we human beings, the ones who are allowed to live anyway, have a legendary capacity for resolving strictly logistical problems, even if our history on moral problems may be less stellar.

The thing to keep in mind, when this unfolds, is that Kingston and Griggs have shone the light on places where people could be housed. I say that will be important, because I fear very much that nothing will come of it. Instead the city will drift into this day with nothing resolved, somehow imagining that our lack of preparation will absolve Dallas of responsibility — an idea that ranks right up there with handing out legal documents to homeless people as a form of ass-covering.

Last December the council, against the advice of the city attorney, voted to redraw the map of a municipal taxing district specifically to exempt a prominent Dallas real estate developer, Lucy Crow Billingsley, from a requirement that she include a modest number of affordable rental units in her project.  On that same day, the council agreed to restore the tax subsidy her project would have received from the tax district by voting her millions of dollars from a slush fund associated with the Water Department.

Last June at the behest of another major developer, the City Council voted down a plan that would have provided affordable housing near Klyde Warren Park downtown by granting the developer permission to build more units than allowed by the zoning in exchange for an agreement to include a few affordable apartments. It was a shot at a painless win-win solution where everybody came out ahead, but the council killed it rather than provide affordable housing.

And then last November came the odd moment when Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced, almost as a benediction at the beginning of a council meeting, his devout bent-knee gratitude to Julian Castro, U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, for his help in squelching a HUD administrative process that was about to require Dallas to provide much more affordable housing. 

So here is where it ends up. There’s nothing easy about the homeless problem. That’s why they call it a problem. Yet there are theoretically feasible solutions on the table, no matter how fraught with difficulty they might be, that would provide shelter for the people in the camps once the camps are gone.

But City Hall, has no real plan for getting any of that done or for getting anything else done. The plan is to hand out notices to the homeless invoking that ancient principal of law, the rule of F.U.

But remember. The homeless won’t take the hint and die. They will move elsewhere, because they are human beings and must be somewhere. If we cannot allow them to stay anywhere, then all they can do is move on.

It’s such a Dickensian principle, in fact, that I can’t resist quoting Dickens, from his novel, Bleak House, when he speaks in his own voice to one of his characters, Jo, a homeless waif who has been accused by the constable of “refusing to move on.”

First the boy complains:

“I'm always a-moving on, sar,” cries the boy, wiping away his grimy tears with his arm. “I've always been a-moving and a-moving on, ever since I was born. Where can I possibly move to, sir, more nor I do move!”
Then Dickens delivers an ironic lecture:

Do you hear, Jo? It is nothing to you or to any one else that the great lights of the parliamentary sky have failed for some few years in this business to set you the example of moving on. The one grand recipe remains for you — the profound philosophical prescription — the be-all and the end-all of your strange existence upon earth. Move on! You are by no means to move off, Jo, for the great lights can't at all agree about that. Move on!

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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