We've Banned Their Shopping Carts, Outlawed Panhandling, Provided Homes For The Homeless--And Nothing's Worked. There May Be One Modest Proposal That Solves The Problem.

We need to put political correctness aside at least for the moment and have a frank discussion about killing the homeless. Can a case be made for it?

For the last couple weeks I have been talking to people about the homeless in Dallas, inspired first by the controversy over permanent homes for the homeless in North Oak Cliff, then by conversations with downtown property owners about The Bridge, the city's homeless services center.

The lesson for me has been that the homeless situation is one of those fundamental manifestations of the human condition that can never be "solved" in the sense of making it go away, unless you make the humans go away.

Anything short of actually killing the homeless is going to fail to truly resolve the issue, for two reasons: 1) No matter where you move the homeless, they're always somewhere, and 2) Nobody wants them "here," meaning near them.

So it's a conflict. If they're somewhere, then they're near somebody. And nobody wants that. Well, almost nobody. I'll come back to that in a moment. For most people, maybe the fair thing is to think about a way for them to be nowhere.

This is not a discussion of methods. That would be inappropriate, and frankly my disposition is too delicate for that conversation. And, of course, if it can't be done legally, then none of us would even consider it. We would have to hire a major respected law firm to see if there is a loophole or a provision of some kind that would allow us to kill the homeless legally. If not, we might be able to get our local congressional delegation to put a rider on a defense appropriations bill or something. That's for the lawyers to work out.

The underlying question is this: Should we kill them?

And I ask for this reason. It seems to me for some years now in Dallas we have been nibbling around the edges of the problem in ways that are always stubbornly ineffectual.

Go back to 2004, a terrible year all the way around for Dallas. It was the year the police rushed into the zoo and shot a gorilla. Also, a former Dallas Observer columnist, Laura Miller, was mayor. Miller, you may recall, tried to make homeless people disappear by outlawing shopping carts.

The reasoning was flawless. In 2004, the homeless all had shopping carts. They kept all of their possessions in them. Wherever you saw a homeless person, you saw a shopping cart.

So if you made the shopping carts go away, you would necessarily make the homeless people go away, too. It was kind of like outlawing homeless people's feet, but less cruel.

Miller persuaded the city council to outlaw shopping carts except at grocery stores. And guess what. The homeless people were still out there, stubbornly surviving through a new ruse: They started using baby buggies. It was an almost fiendishly clever ploy, because of course it was politically impossible to outlaw baby buggies (and with them, babies).

But Miller tried one more time. She noticed that homeless people survived by panhandling, so she persuaded the city council to outlaw panhandling. Again, flawless logic. No panhandling, no homeless people. Who knows what happens to them? Not our look-out. Let's hope it's something the city can take care of between 2 and 5 a.m.

But they kept panhandling. There was even a famous incident in which Miller herself had her driver stop her car so she could roll down the window and rail at a homeless panhandler, telling him he was breaking the law.

The problem was, he didn't give a damn. The homeless people brought their own twisted logic to it: If they obeyed the law and didn't panhandle, they starved to death. If they broke the law and got caught, they were taken to jail and fed. How can you deal with people who think like that?

Every time we have tried to use logic to combat the problem of homelessness, the homeless have come up with another trick. So, is it time at last to come clean with ourselves about what we really want to achieve? Don't we just want them to go away? And if that is the case, doesn't that mean we have to kill them?

You might wonder what got me off on this line of thinking. It actually has to do with one of the more surprising conversations I've had with anybody about this issue ever—a long chat by phone with Dan Millet, owner of a downtown printing company.

Millet and I first met five years ago when he was one of the most vociferous opponents to the plans for building The Bridge. Over lunch back then, he told me horrific stories about the effect downtown homeless people were having on his business. He had to pay off-duty cops to guard the place every night, and even then he had to pay a power-washing company to come wash excrement off his property every morning.

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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