Because much of what I’ve previously written elsewhere regarding homeless people in Dallas has been political, I generally prefer to stay away from politics on this blog. However, we are at a critical moment in our history as a city regarding our homeless friends: the moment is full of hope and also contains some potential pitfalls, so I’d like to address a few issues here that I think are important.
THE UP SIDE:
New Homeless Assistance Center, The Bridge
Something fantastic happened a couple of years ago in Dallas: voters put hearts, minds and hands together and approved a $23 million bond package to fund the creation of a Homeless Assistance Center, The Bridge, currently being built and set to open in early May, 2008 in downtown. This is a massive step forward in ‘catching up’ with cities like Miami and Philadelphia in developing a comprehensive plan to help our large homeless population (around 6000 by census, but some say closer to 10,000) into creating safer, more productive lives for themselves and into employment, mental health services and housing.
However, there are no perfect solutions to complex human problems. Like any step forward dealing with a problem as bewildering as homelessness, there are an unfathomable number of moving parts in this one.
Add to that the complexity of pleasing many disparate groups — the homeless themselves, homeless advocates, church groups who have fed and ministered to the homeless for decades, businesses trying to thrive in the area of downtown where homeless people stay, developers in a resurgent downtown, new urban dwellers, the police, politicians — and you have yourself a very complicated formula.
Taking into account the needs and desires of these groups surrounding the homeless is a daunting task, but a necessary one. And, for the first time, I believe that the city is attempting to do a comprehensive job in this regard. We have a mayor, Tom Leppert, who truly seems to care about people in each segment of our city and to make himself accessible to them, and we have a responsive City Council.
The more I learn more about every ‘side’ in this situation, the less I’m able to take sides, with one exception. I love my homeless friends downtown. They comprise an extremely vulnerable population. While often unable to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship fully and successfully, still, as members of a democratic society, they must be granted the rights thereof. How to balance their rights with the other groups listed above? Very, very difficult.
Here are some thoughts on a few of these groups and issues.
The Stewpot, a 30-year homeless ministry of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas, has been given the contract to provide meals at The Bridge. Since 1975, the Stewpot has served over 2,500,000 meals to the homeless downtown, and is also the primary provider of numerous other services as well.
In my opinion, awarding the feeding contract to the Stewpot is the most hopeful sign regarding how The Bridge is to be managed, because the Stewpot and First Presbyterian Church have by far the most proven track-record in homeless services for decades, and their integrity is beyond question.
For groups around the homeless to question the budget and intentions of the Stewpot at this point seems counterproductive for two reasons:
~~The contract has been a done deal since February. The time for other groups to question or apply for the contract would have been prior to that.
~~Implications that the Stewpot is making money on the contract is ludicrous. The contract with The Bridge is providing only 80% of the costs of feeding around 2100 meals a day, seven days a week (up from their current 600 lunches on weekdays), and the Stewpot is working hard at raising funds for the balance.
In a recent meeting with some of their number in Central Operations Division downtown, I was struck by the compassion of the individuals involved and their sophisticated understanding of the issues on all sides. This was valuable information for me, because, as friends of the homeless, we hear more often of police abuses, which do occur. But I believe that a majority of Dallas Police do not wish to victimize the homeless, and are caught in the middle of the complex web which surrounds our most vulnerable citizens.
The Changing Role of Mobile and Volunteer Feeders
Those of us who have been able to meet with and feed our homeless friends at the Day Resource Center in the past few years are going through a time of transition and, at times, of fear. When The Bridge opens, the DRC will close, and so, temporarily, will volunteer and mobile feeding.
But the Stewpot has made it clear it not only welcomes but most definitely needs, in its feeding program at The Bridge, the hundreds to thousands of volunteers who have been feeding the homeless on the streets and in the DRC parking lot downtown. However, it requires about three months before it will know the level of the that need. So, for those to whom being with the homeless is a ministry, the shape of that ministry will change, but the ministry itself does not have to go away. That is not to say, though, that such a transition will be easy for anyone.
Again, there are no perfect solutions to complex human problems. But we are all on the same team, hard as that may be to remember in times of such enormous transition.
THE DOWN SIDE:
Ordinances Targeting the Homeless
Here are some concerns I do have in our dealings with our homeless citizens from here forward, expressed in a letter in the Dallas Morning News on 3/13/08:
“Letters for Thursday, March 13, 2008
Thankful for Stewpot
The new Homeless Assistance Center, The Bridge, is indeed an essential step in Dallas’ plan to end chronic homelessness. However, what will happen to those homeless individuals who refuse to be welcomed into The Bridge?
Those who know the homeless at the street rather than the organizational level know that some will probably not go in. Will the city revert to the disastrous if well-intentioned practices of Operation Rescue, arresting and criminalizing those who do not choose to be welcomed into The Bridge? Or will a more creative and tolerant solution be sought?
The staff at the Stewpot knows homeless people better than anyone, having been on the front line for this population for two decades. I am glad that they are providing the meals and as much expertise and wisdom as they are willing to give.
Karen Shafer, Dallas”
Besides humanitarian concerns, there are enormous problems with laws targeting certain populations, such as the homeless — populations that are ‘inconvenient’ but not a threat to public safety. Such laws carry an ominous and particularly insidious threat to democracy. These laws may be highly controversial, like our anti-panhandling ordinance. Or they may be sleeping in public, obstructing the sidewalk, etc.
Consider this: Think of how hard it is to get stalkers arrested, even with repeated threats to their victims. And think of how difficult it is to bring to justice perpetrators of domestic violence, even after they’ve committed proven mischief and while they’re still threatening bodily harm to their victims. In both cases, the perpetrators are, in fact, actual threats to those being pursued.
Now consider a group of people who are NOT a threat to public safety, the homeless (this was proven recently in a study commissioned by the Dallas County Commissioners’ Court which was published in the Dallas Morning News). However, this group is considered by many to be a nuisance, their actions and presence generally undesirable (and there are sometimes valid reasons for these objections.)
Consider that a group of laws has been CREATED SPECIFICALLY to target this group, to control their movements, to get them out of the way, to control even their speech. Here you have panhandling ordinances, obstructing the sidewalk ordinances, sleeping in public ordinances. Think of the legality and morality of a law which prohibits one such person speaking to another citizen on a public street, even if that speech is made in an unpleasant or even aggressive manner.
Next, you have people being ticketed who cannot pay the fines. Eventually you have warrants issued for their arrest. This wastes police time and takes up space in seriously-overcrowded jails. And, one should note, these are laws which would typically not be enforced if a person involved in the same behaviors looked and dressed ‘middle class.’
Such laws are not only immoral because they target a group of people who are a public-relations problem but not a public threat. Legal scholars (which I clearly am not) have said they also represent constitutional challenges to free speech and freedom of movement.
I abhor the social conditions which lead to begging; although it does not offend me personally, I realize it can be an offensive practice to some; and I have high praise for those people who are helping to obviate the needs that drive it.
Yes, the new homeless assistance center, The Bridge, along with adequate transitional and permanent supportive housing, will drastically impact this problem in a positive way. But these solutions will take between months and many years. In the meantime, we are going to have beggars. How are we going to treat them?
Some have said it is no longer the time to debate these issues, since we are taking such positive steps in city government towards solutions for the homeless. I would argue that there is never a time when these ideas shouldn’t be debated, because SUCH LAWS CARRY WITH THEM A HEAVY MORAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGE. When a city ceases to argue about laws which target a particular group, it is in danger of losing its moral compass, no matter how much it solves its problems at the practical level.
Such ongoing debate goes to the heart of democracy. When we set it aside because we are fixing things at a practical level, we are in danger of returning to unethical practices when practical plans run into the inevitable snags to which even brilliant solutions are prey.