City Hall

This Just In! I Figured Out How They Made Tent City Vanish! I Must Be a Genius!

Quick! Somebody tell the mayor! The homeless are being unacceptable again!

A month ago Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings toured the “Tent City” homeless encampment beneath a cat’s cradle of freeway overpasses at the intersection of Interstate 30 and I-45, one mile due east from City Hall. He told people living in a makeshift campsite there, “This is not acceptable.”

Weeks later, city workers ran off more than 200 people then waded in with rubber gloves and anti-gag masks to pick up and remove the detritus — a word whose meaning you can only partially imagine.

I have been by the site since. It is now totally tidy, fenced and empty, with many excellent no-trespass signs to keep it that way. So I would have to conclude that the area beneath those overpasses is now acceptable.

But guess what. Many if not most of the 200 human beings who lived in Tent City have moved to other encampments, like one five miles farther east at I-30 and Jim Miller Road, and now these new locations are becoming unacceptable.

Neighbors near the Jim Miller are already beginning to complain. The new tent city, like the old one, is becoming big enough to be visible to respectable motorists traveling with their families.

A predictable solution at some point will be for the mayor to go to I-30 and Jim Miller and declare that site unacceptable as well, and then, of course, the evictions will follow with the gloves and masks and the fencing and signs and so on. Then that area will be acceptable again.

Here’s the problem. Scanning the map, I see another site that looks ripe for a new tent city just four more miles down the road, due east to the intersection of I-30 and I-635. That intersection has some really huge overpasses and with a ton of susceptible real estate beneath them. There’s enough room there for a tent city that would make the one we just shut down look like a tent hick town.

No, look, I’m not a defeatist, and I do understand there’s nothing to stop the mayor from declaring a third site unacceptable, then the gloves, masks, signs, yup, yup, I get it. We can just keep on keeping on. This is a can-do city.

But I’m looking at an area just 10 miles northwest of the site we were just talking about. This one would be up around the intersection of I-635 and I-75, where we have maybe the city’s best known freeway overpasses, the ones nicknamed “The High Five.”

There’s enough empty land underneath those overpasses for a whole tent metropolis. You could have a tent city up there with its own Tent City Hall, Tent City Cultural Affairs Department and (we hope not, fingers crossed) Tent City Army. By the time it gets up to the land beneath the High Five, it’s going to be unacceptable and a half, and it may take more than rubber gloves to shoo it farther down the road.

The mayor, I should say, has fought the good fight, as much or more than anybody, for substantive permanent solutions to the homeless problem, having entered city politics in the first place as a former mayor’s “homeless czar.” As such he was a principle political architect of The Bridge homeless shelter downtown, which remains the city’s best effort so far at actually doing something.

On the other hand, it does seem as if the doctrine of unacceptability is pushing the problem from the other side. The mayor and The Dallas Morning News, for example, have been on a major unacceptability crusade where certain dumpy-looking downtrodden rental properties are concerned, with the News decreeing in editorials that even some properties that may fall within the letter of the law in terms of building codes are nevertheless unacceptable.

As an aside, perhaps, let me ask two questions about unacceptable. Unacceptable to whom? And, if not acceptable, then what?
Clearly Tent City was acceptable to the people who lived in it, and please don’t take that as my suggestion that Tent City was truly acceptable. It was not. I just want to point out that the people to whom Tent City was unacceptable – and it was – were you and me, not the residents of Tent City.

Is that not what unacceptable means? We don’t accept it. This cannot be accepted by us in our city. It is beneath the level of what we can accept. Right? Am I wrong?

I’ve got one hand over my eyes, scanning around 360 degrees looking for somebody else to whom it’s unacceptable. Nope. I think it’s just you and me, podnuh. We’re the only ones I can see doing the un-accepting.

For one thing, I think looking at it this way may help focus the mind a bit. Just for example, pretend we’re finding something else unacceptable. Maybe we wake up one morning feeling awful with an empty gin bottle on the floor next to the bed. The car is parked on the lawn with one door hanging open and there’s a note from our spouse in an envelope taped to the bathroom mirror.

We might look at ourselves in the mirror and say, “Jim, this is totally unacceptable.”

Then what? We disappear? We go away? We cease to exist? Some people come with gloves and masks and throw our p.j.s in the trash bin? Ah, no. Would that it were that easy. The hard part comes after the unacceptable, when we have to make the situation acceptable.

Take the so-called slumlord properties, for example. If we already have homeless encampments that are unacceptable, and then we decree that the few tumbledown houses poor people can afford also are unacceptable, and then we slap our palms and quit for the day, what have we just done to the overall size of the unacceptability problem?

All of these declarations of unacceptability remind me of the famous illusion created by David Copperfield in 1983 when he made the Statue of Liberty disappear in front a live audience. You can look online and find lots of different supposed explanations. The consensus seems to be based on the same two assumptions: 1) He didn’t make the Statue of Liberty disappear. 2) He must have turned the audience around somehow on a revolving stage or blinded them with lights or hoo-dooed them so that they wound up looking in the wrong direction.

Here is a major difference between David Copperfield’s disappearing Statue of Liberty illusion and the disappearing Tent City illusion. In a third of a century since Copperfield made the statue disappear, nobody has come up with an authoritative explanation. But it took less than a week to figure out how Tent City disappeared. It didn’t. It moved.

As a matter of fact, city leaders have been doing magic tricks with the homeless for as long as I can remember – and that’s a pretty long time. Sometimes they have done rough-and-tough disappearances, going in with fire hoses and backhoes, grabbing all their possessions and throwing their stuff in dumpsters. We could call that the emphatic doctrine of unacceptability.

At other times they have done sweet and sensitive disappearances, going in with counselors and explaining to the homeless that if they disappeared it would be a win situation (as opposed to win-win).

My favorite of all times, in the history of magic tricks to make the homeless disappear, happened when a former mayor figured out that wherever you see homeless people you also see shopping carts. So she got the City Council to outlaw shopping carts.

I was as curious as the next person to see if, when the shopping carts disappeared, the homeless would vanish into thin air with them. But here is what none of us foresaw (please picture me giving self big butt-of-the-hand forehead konk): They switched to baby carriages.

Next thing you knew, downtown looked like the world’s most depressing nursery, with homeless people everywhere pushing baby buggies loaded to the gills with personal possessions and aluminum cans.

So here is what I personally have concluded, and you are under no obligation from me to agree. I think human beings just refuse to disappear. They will not do it.

Furthermore, I think it’s a waste of time to declare their living conditions unacceptable unless you already have something better in mind. Otherwise, you’re just sort of stating your own architectural preferences, doing no one an ounce of good and causing immense misery in the process.

Do I have an alternative to offer? Well, yes, but it’s not a very good one. I don’t actually know how the city can create an adequate supply of safe tidy housing for homeless people without attracting everybody else’s homeless here and then just starting over with an even bigger mess. I suspect that homelessness is a national problem begging for a national solution – one of those reasons why, after all, we have a national government.

In the meantime, the only solution I can suggest to the unacceptability problem is to stop saying it. Until we are actually taking part in some larger solution that has a chance of really changing things, I think we need to drive by that new homeless camp at I-30 and Jim Miller and say loudly to ourselves and our children, “This is acceptable.”

It’s acceptable because we haven’t come up with anything better yet. It’s acceptable because it is occupied by human beings, and human beings are always acceptable, no matter what kind of problems they may pose. It’s acceptable because the human beings who live there are not going to vanish from the earth no matter how many times we give them the hint.

So we must accept it. We must accept our own limitations. We must accept these wretched and suffering human beings in our midst. Have you got a better idea?
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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