Homelessness is a horrible issue—painful, endlessly complex, almost impossible to contain in any useful summary way. The worst of it is that all of the passionate voices arrayed on each side of the issue bring their own urgency and legitimacy to the table.
Couldn't we just have good guys and bad guys?
I go have coffee with Michael Faenza, who runs The Bridge, the city's new homeless intake center downtown: For two hours he tells me heartrending stories about homeless people who have struggled diligently for years, jumping through every hoop to qualify for permanent housing.
Faenza takes them to a town hall meeting in North Oak Cliff so that jittery residents there can see the human face of homelessness. But red-faced angry people at the meeting shout the homeless people back into their chairs. They don't want to see no stinking human faces.
So the bad guys are those selfish homeless-haters in North Oak Cliff, right?
But then I sit for three hours listening to Tanya Ragan, an acquisitions executive for a Minnesota-based real estate company, who tells me absolutely horrible stories about trying to rent out property near The Bridge. She describes showing the property to potential clients while homeless people are defecating and masturbating a few yards away. Meanwhile her company's property is melting into the soil beneath a relentless plague of thievery and vandalism.
Can I really get on a high horse and blame the people in North Oak Cliff, who are upset about a plan to move homeless people into permanent housing in their area? Do they not have a right to feel some jitters?
In fact, the homeless issue is so painful, so urgent and so screwed up, you'd think that no event, issue or person could possibly make it worse. How could any one person wade into something that's already this much of a mess and actually turn it into an even worse mess? Impossible, right?
Ladies and Gentleman, please allow me to introduce to you Mr. Dave Neumann, Dallas City Councilman from District Three, which runs from North Oak Cliff, across the river west of downtown, all the way to the city's far southwestern corner at the border with suburban Duncanville.
They said it couldn't be done. No one could actually make the homeless issue worse than it is already. But, by gosh, with a combination of general weakness, chicken-heartedness, feckless opportunism and utter absence of integrity, Mr. Dave Neumann of District 3 was able to pull it off. He has actually managed to make the homeless issue in his district a worse mess than it was already.
Here's the basic skinny. Since April 2, 2009, everyone at City Hall—very much including members of the city council—has known that the Dallas Housing Authority planned to create centers of "permanent supportive housing" for certain homeless people, dispersed throughout the city.
On that date, a city task force on permanent supportive housing presented its findings and proposals to the city. The most exciting element of that report was the news that the housing authority was willing to spend its own $5.5 million to provide 350 housing units for qualified homeless people.
The deal with DHA met half of a goal of 700 new units by 2014, which was set by the city council in January of 2009. And the DHA part would cost the city not a penny.
The city council briefing that announced the agreement stated specifically that 100 of the DHA units would be provided in a DHA-owned building called Cliff Manor, a 40-year-old 12-story apartment building near Fort Worth Avenue and Hampton Road, three miles southwest of downtown.
There's the sticking point. Fort Worth Avenue is the target of concerted efforts toward redevelopment. So it's natural for people involved in that effort to wonder: Is Cliff Manor going to get the worthy homeless who have jumped through the hoops or the defecating masturbating homeless who have about the same effect on real estate as the fire-bombing of Dresden?
Fair question, right? This is a tough issue. It ain't tiddly-winks. People have a right to know.
Let me fast forward to the way the issue was handled by a number of other council members whose districts were targeted for permanent supportive housing. You have Ann Margolin, who represents a district with a lot of conservative affluent voters in North Dallas who always make it to the polls. You have Sheffie Kadane and Jerry Allen, whose districts are in northeast Dallas where hyper-organized homeowner groups tend to view poor people in apartments as a kind of biblical plague.
All three went to their constituents and said first and foremost: This is coming. It's not not coming. There's no big option here.
Some homeless people can't be made un-homeless. It's just not going to work. But there are tons of empirical data—just ask Faenza—to show that a significant portion of the homeless population can be tutored and assisted to escape homelessness and achieve permanent self-sufficiency in market housing where they pay their own way.
It's hard for them to do. Over coffee, Faenza checked off some of the hurdles they have to jump: They have to really not be on drugs; they have to really take their meds; they have to show they can hold down jobs; mainly, they have to prove that they truly want to succeed and have got the guts to do it. All of that is a process of years, not months, before they are considered qualified for housing.
So if we can have them living indoors decently and paying their own way, that's better, right? That's why the city council has made permanent supportive housing a priority. But federal law says if you're going to use federal money—DHA money, for example—then you cannot ghettoize the supportive housing units. You've got to spread them around.
Margolin, Allen and Kadane explained all of that to their constituents and made the case that those districts that came to the table first might even get the better part of the deal. Some units are targeted for women and children, for example, or senior homeless. The reward for being reasonable might be a bit of cherry-picking.
The permanent supportive housing programs for the homeless in all three of those districts are now done deals. It wasn't accomplished without push-back. Allen, in particular, caught flak from organized homeowners, for which he may conceivably pay a price at the polls next election. But they all got it done with a minimum of bloodshed.
Now for the counter-example. Mr. Neumann has conceded in some of his public statements that in addition to the April 2, 2009 briefing, he was informed personally soon afterward of the plans to create housing units for the homeless at Cliff Manor.
I have spoken with neighborhood leaders, who asked that I not name them because they are afraid of alienating Neumann, who told me Neumann had told them that he put the kibosh to the Cliff Manor proposal at that meeting.
But he didn't have a kibosh. There was never a way for him to stop this. People familiar with Neumann's conversations with DHA, who asked me not to name them because they must continue to deal with the councilman, said Neumann did complain passionately about the Cliff Manor plans but that DHA's response was always, "It's happening."
Everything DHA has done publicly and officially since that time tends to confirm that it never told Neumann or anybody else the Cliff Manor units were off the table.
Did Dave Neumann, nevertheless, somehow believe he had stopped the plan for units at Cliff Manor? I have no idea. I tried to reach him for comment for this story, as I always do when I write about him, and he did not respond, as he never does. I consider him a weird guy. I'm sure it's mutual.
But here is the important thing: Last May after The Dallas Morning News published a story about the plans for Cliff Manor, Neumann insisted the whole thing was a shock. On his own website, Neumann wrote: "The community and I were amazed to hear via the Dallas Morning News of DHA's plans to transfer 100 homeless residents to the DHA Cliff Manor on Fort Worth Avenue for permanent supportive housing."
Amazed to hear?
In another story in the Morning News, Neumann and some Fort Worth Avenue activists insisted they had been "blindsided" by the Morning News story. The activists may have been blindsided—by Neumann—because they believed him earlier when he told them he had made the whole thing go away.
One of them, Scott Griggs, president of the Fort Worth Avenue Development Group, told me Neumann has never explained to him or other parties to the dispute why he led them to believe the matter had been resolved when clearly it had not.
"He really hasn't," Griggs told me, "not anything that I would consider a satisfactory explanation. It would be a great question to ask him, why he did that."
Yeah, wish I could have asked him.
So was he blindsided, as he has suggested publicly, because he learned of the plan for the first time in the Morning News? Clearly not. Was he blindsided because he thought he had killed or stalled the plan? Possibly.
He did declare on his blog: "We have secured a HOLD on the proposal to move 100 units for homeless into the Cliff Manor on Fort Worth Avenue by Dallas Housing Authority and Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance."
But given the clear record of DHA's own public statements and actions, that means Neumann was both blindsided and deaf-sided, not to mention delusional.
Neumann spent a month setting up a June 9 town hall meeting, going around to handpicked neighborhood leaders beforehand, cranking them up with a lot of crap about how they were being blindsided, too.
The blindsided leading the blindsided. There's a formula for success.
Then he runs this Comanche ambush town hall meeting, prancing around like Jerry Springer with a wireless mic, ginning up the crowd to shout vituperation at DHA officials.
I wasn't there. I was on vacation. I talked to lots of people who were and people who weren't but heard about it. It's sort of the talk of the town in Oak Cliff. The most telling version was from David Spence, a longtime Oak Cliff developer who normally would line up on the side of the North Oak Cliff people concerned about the units at Cliff Manor.
Spence was not there, but he said everybody he knows has been talking about it, and he has found a consensus among "everyone who was not one of those who were at the microphone in the meeting.
"There are a number of us who are pretty un-proud of our neighborhood." He called the meeting, "a new low point for Oak Cliff.
"You know," he said, "I try not to put my Christian hat on too often, because it's not a real practical thing to do. But you do have to wonder how Christ would have reacted if he had been standing in the back of the room."
Now, wait. Wait. Before you think I'm telling you something about Oak Cliff, no. It's not Oak Cliff. I have been to this same meeting—this same kind of vile stuff—more than once in my own part of town, Old East Dallas. I have covered this same kind of meeting in damn near every part of town.
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It's so easy to get this reaction—like sticking somebody in the gut with a sharp stick. First you scare people with a lot of frightening talk. Hey, this is a frightening issue. Ask Tanya Ragan, that lady with the commercial property downtown.
Then you find some festering wounds—easy to do, I know, in areas where people are fighting to bring back beleaguered neighborhoods. They feel that they already get all the halfway houses and shelters dumped on them. So you can always tear at that scab.
And what do you achieve, Mr. Neumann? You take a bunch of really great people, like the brave, smart, urban pioneers fighting to create a cool new community in North Oak Cliff, and you make them look like selfish intolerant villains. And you, Mr. Neumann, already know that this is a battle they cannot win.
But you think you can win something for yourself. Man. I hope you're wrong.