In a recent editorial, The Dallas Morning News praised Gov. Greg Abbott for ordering the state highway department to begin clearing out homeless encampments in the state capital. “True compassion isn’t turning a blind eye," the paper said. "It’s demanding change and then providing the help to make that change possible.”
In this case, “the help to make that change possible” amounts to fire hoses and front end loaders. And what will be changed? How in the world would forced clearing of encampments change or resolve homelessness?
People live in encampments because they cannot live anywhere else. The only thing accomplished by scraping an encampment is stripping away the last miserable shred of refuge from people whose lives are already miserable.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not volunteering to have the next encampment next door to my own home. I have spent a lot of time looking at these places up close. I get the challenge. But it’s also important not to double-talk ourselves into a position of absolute ruthlessness and callousness and then tell ourselves we’re saints for doing it.
When Abbott Twitter-lashed Austin Mayor Steve Adler recently for an encampment policy the governor considers too permissive, he made an invidious comparison with Dallas, a place the governor Trumpishly deemed to be free of encampments, apparently because he didn’t see one on a recent visit here.
That must have warmed somebody’s cockles on the editorial board, and the paper piled on enthusiastically: “(Austin Mayor) Adler is kidding himself,” the paper gloated, “if he doesn’t believe that Austin is a diminished city because of policies that have encouraged homeless encampments to spread in underpasses and other areas …”
Well, sure. Austin is diminished by the spread of homelessness, as is Dallas, as is Texas, America and humankind. We are all diminished as human beings every time we walk past misery on our way to comfort.
This week I sought out a couple of people to talk to whose experience I thought might help me. I didn’t talk to either one of them directly about the Morning News or its editorial; we spoke instead about homelessness, and I went to them because I knew both have been deeply involved in solutions.
Sam Merten, a former colleague, now a successful political strategist and consultant, is the former chief operating officer of The Bridge, the city’s homeless center, and a former member of the Dallas Citizens Homelessness Commission.
The Rev. Gerald Britt, vice president of external affairs for CitySquare, one of the city’s largest and best known nonprofit social agencies, was senior pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in far South Dallas for 22 years before joining CitySquare in 2004. Both he and Merten have worked in the trenches combating poverty, homelessness and racism.
When I spoke to them this week, both men volunteered early in our separate conversations that homeless encampments are not humane. But both are aware that permanent supportive housing is in extremely short supply in Dallas. Meanwhile the social and personal problems besetting many of the homeless can make their transitions to a more normal life challenging.
Resolving those challenges is difficult in the chaotic, unhealthy atmosphere of an encampment. But kicking people out of their last-ditch refuges when there is nothing else to offer can be even more cruel than leaving them there, both men said.
“If you cannot give people another option,” Merten said, “it’s one of the most inhumane things you can do to a human being. You go and find them in a place where they have found some semblance of a living, and you tell them there is no way they can do it there.
“Their question back to you is, ‘Where do you want me to be?’ And there is no answer to that.”
Abbott didn’t see encampments here because for the last several years Dallas has devoted considerable public resources, even diverting money from The Bridge and other long-range solutions, to the disruption and dispersal of encampments. When that happens, the people in the encampments don’t evaporate or transcend into homeless heaven. They hide harder, deeper, in smaller encampments, sometimes two or three tents hidden in shrubbery or along dangerous flood-prone streams.
“It’s this constant game of whack-a-mole,” Merten said, “cleaning out encampments, and then new encampments pop up in new places and over and over and over again.
“Nobody seems to understand that the reason folks are living under highway overpasses and in encampments is that they don’t have another place to go. There is no alternative. That is all they can do.
“Unless you have a place for them to go, don’t people deserve a place to put their heads down at night? Can’t we all agree on that?”
One notion uttered too often in Dallas, Britt told me, is that homelessness is intractable, a problem without a solution, a curse that can only worsen. Britt points to Houston. Between 2011 and now — a period when the homeless population of Dallas continued to climb — Houston’s homeless population decreased by 54%.
“The fact is that we do know what to do,” Britt told me. “Look at Houston.”
Last July, Juan Pablo Garnham at The Texas Tribune took a deep dive into what Houston does and other Texas cities do not do in efforts to resolve homelessness. The Houston half of the story was inspiring, a tale of people taking what they already had, resources already on the ground, and simply weaving them together in a cooperative web encompassing all levels of government and all of the available private, charitable and religious resources.
Nobody in Houston rode into town with a new silver bullet. Nobody abolished anything or started anything new from the ground up. Everyone recognized that homelessness is extremely complex, because it’s human, and humans are complex. What really drove that 54% reduction was a shared will to cooperate and make solutions happen.
But, oh, my, Dallas on the other hand. In reporting his piece, Garnham got around to a good many of the major players here, the net effect of which I found embarrassing. Oh, housing has just become so expensive here. C’mon. It’s expensive everywhere.
The area is just so huge now. Oh, give me a break. All areas are huge. There has been corruption at City Hall. What? Did somebody make off with the housing? (Um, that answer may be yes.)
And then the one that really made me gag: Downtown was revitalized so fast that somehow the poor just accidentally got shoved out, poor devils.
Accidentally? Yeah, like 1920s bank robber John Dillinger made accidental withdrawals. Ten years ago two downtown developers, Curtis Lockey and Craig MacKenzie, blew the whistle on Dallas for a massive conspiracy to racially segregate the city’s revitalizing downtown. Generally speaking, you can’t very easily pull off racial segregation without also segregating the poor.
Mainly, I just found the Dallas part of the Tribune story embarrassing because it made it sound as if Dallas’ main industry is making excuses for itself, like we should have billboards on the freeways: “WELCOME TO DALLAS, EXCUSE CAPITAL OF AMERICA.” The illustration would be a Norman Rockwell-style portrait of a little girl caught with her hand in the cookie jar, pointing to her puppy in blame.
As I say, I didn’t ask Merten or Britt to talk to me about the Morning News editorial. Morning News editorials are my own obsession, and I promise I’m looking for some kind of 12-step program for help. Morning News Anonymous. Lord, give me the strength not to read what I know in advance will only irk me. Deeply.
But I swear there are answers to be ferreted out by close reading, clues buried, a kind of code. I have experimented with holding Morning News editorials up to the mirror to see if something appears. Nothing so far. I am looking for an app that will allow me to record myself reading a Morning News editorial and then play it backward.
In the argument that scraping encampments is a kindness, I am convinced something else lies embedded, a furtive darkness, a will to accomplish just the opposite.
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Britt told me he worries that in Dallas there has been a tendency to think the solution to homelessness is rendering the homeless out of sight and out of mind. Yes, but that’s not a merely mental phenomenon. Putting them out of sight requires backhoes, hoses, cops. It means physically pushing human beings off the ground they occupy, even though, as Merten says, there is no other place for them to lay their heads when they are exhausted and the mercy of sleep tugs at them.
If you turn that editorial around and around and maybe push it inside-out in places — for example, where they say encampments must be erased because they diminish us — I think what you find hiding in those high-sounding phrases is a will for the homeless to disappear, to cease to plague us with their existence.
You will not find even a trace of love for the homeless, respect for them as human beings or care for what happens to them on down their long, brutal road.
The Houston solution sounds as if it must be a weaving together of all those things — love, respect and care. And, listen, if Houston’s got that stuff, we do, too. We’re just never going to find it on the editorial pages of The Dallas Morning News and certainly not in anything our egregious governor has to tell us.