Sunday, June 20, 2010
To Be A Great City, Must We All Look Alike?
Recently I received an e-mail from a Dallas church leader whom I greatly respect, and it contained this statement regarding people who are homeless in Dallas: “We don’t want them on our streets. We don’t want them in our neighborhoods. We can’t have it both ways.”
The debate on how and where homeless citizens will be housed has long been debated nationally, and the fight of neighborhoods to exclude homeless housing even has its own acronym: NIMBY — Not In My Backyard. This conversation in Dallas has recently become more open and heated because of a dispute between the agencies representing homeless citizens — in particular, the Dallas Housing Authority and The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center — and homeowner / business associations in North Oak Cliff, over the city’s plan to house up to one hundred homeless individuals in Cliff Manor. WhiIe painful, the discussion is also desirable, because it is leading to a higher-profile airing of the many sides of the Permanent Supportive Housing issue.
For me, it brings to mind a question that is not always asked: why do we object so vehemently to seeing poor people on our streets and in our neighborhoods, and is this objection reasonable? Is having our streets free of ‘the poor’ a desirable goal?
I am reminded of several visits I made to Paris, France, several years ago when one of my daughters studied and worked there. I found it to be the most exhilarating and beautiful place I’d ever been — architecturally stunning, and fascinating in its diversity. The thrilling, dizzying mix of all sorts of people — on the streets, in the crowded cafes, rushing into the Metro; reading, sitting, lying on the grass; running, walking, cycling; old men and kids bowling in the parks — these things make it a vigorous, animated city, and I fell for it the first time I was driven through its environs by my future son-in-law.
I especially liked walking in the evening to the Champ de Mars, the park in front of the Eiffel Tower. There I saw families picnicking, dogs chasing Frisbees, and people of every description playing games or music — even juggling fire! Those gathered at day’s end in the large open grassy space are poor and rich, dressed up and dressed simply.
When I compare life in Paris with my experiences working with homeless people in Dallas for the last six and a half years, one particular difference leaps to mind. Cities across America, including Dallas, continue to develop and implement strategies to get people who are homeless out of sight. These include passing special laws that target homeless individuals — ‘sleeping in public,’ ‘criminal trespass,’ ‘blocking the sidewalk,’ — so-called ‘Quality of Life’ ordinances for which a person in business clothing would not be ticketed but which allow police to pinpoint those who ‘look homeless’ and try to hustle them from view.
We all know how the Quality-of-Life-Ordinance story concludes: tickets that cannot be paid by homeless individuals, warrants for their arrest, jail terms which make their complicated life situation even more challenging, the filling of jails with people who are in fact generally not a social threat. This much-written-about practice of shifting the homeless from emergency services to prison to back on the street is not only the costliest way of doing business, it’s utterly inhumane, because so many of the homeless are mentally ill and do not belong in jail. So the people authorities want to get rid of haven’t gone anywhere, only now they have more obstacles to overcome in order to get their lives together. It makes no sense at all.
While we strive here to keep our homeless citizens out of public view by enforcing these laws, in Paris no one was being ticketed for lying on the grass of the park or sitting on its benches, because everybody does these things — talking, laughing, singing, sleeping. Yet, somehow that city has a spectacular ‘quality of life’ because its public life is vibrant and diverse.
I have come to realize that by trying to control the access of our least fortunate citizens to places and aspects of our common city life, we are attempting to create an environment that is homogeneous and sterile rather than one that is vital and alive. Could this be a reason why revitalization in downtown Dallas continues to lag? Is it really interesting to interact with and observe only people who are polished and look as though they just breezed in from ritzy a suburban mall?
The homeless are with us. When we don’t see them, it is only because they have been forced into hiding. We are creating a deceptive level of comfort for ourselves by forcing from view people who make us uncomfortable in their poverty.
The desire for homogeneity in communities used to manifest itself primarily in terms of skin color: Jim Crow laws, segregation. While racism is still a significant problem in our country, now it seems that we at least pay lip service to the desirability of racial diversity, and civil rights laws are in place to enforce equal rights and give access to the judicial system when they are violated. Whether you believe that racism has gone underground or has actually decreased, it’s still apparently acceptable to shun people because of their economic situation, especially when it comes to individuals who ‘look homeless.’ What is wrong with having people on the streets of our cities who may be dressed in clothing and groomed in a manner that is not ‘up to’ our middle class standards? It seems to me that successful cities are not merely hothouses designed only for the rich and well-heeled. A great city is a place where all kinds of people can live, as well as simply ‘be’ — not only people who look or dress a certain way.
Perhaps it would be a good thing if the current discussion, which began by a debate over the location of Permanent Supportive Housing for people experiencing homelessness, precipitated an identity crisis for us as a city and led us to look at ourselves both deeply and objectively. Is it possible for us to step back and re-invision the Dallas of tomorrow from a different perspective? Does our vision for ourselves really need to include having our streets free of everyone who doesn’t ‘look like us’?
Recently at Dallas City Council, two homeless women in attendance at the public meeting were asked by an advocate to stand. Outraged, a city leader said he felt ‘ambushed.’ One puzzles as to what could possibly motivate such a statement. Perhaps seeing people who are poor being called attention to in a meeting (a meeting that is in fact open to everyone) is offensive to some because it puts a human face on homelessness. When we see and come to know people who are ‘poor’ as fellow human beings, it’s no longer quite as easy to marginalize them. Once we see their humanity and recognize it as identical to our own, we may realize: it’s not ‘us and them’. These could be our neighbors and our friends.
What is the cost to us as a city when we pursue policies that exclude a certain group of people from public life? Besides the vibrancy which comes from diversity, at risk is also the greater good of the city — its moral fiber, its wholeness, its ability to address and solve hard problems such as homelessness.
I’ll bring up a point that I’ve not heard mentioned as we’re swept along in the tide of this essential and critically important battle to provide housing for 700 to 1000 long-term, street-dwelling homeless people in Dallas: there will be a few people — a few — who will not want to go into housing, even though the vast majority want very much to be housed. Therein lies a hidden danger in having as our goal city streets that are pristine in the sense of being homeless-and-beggar-free. It is important that our success in housing people does not become a further excuse to persecute those who are unable or unwilling to be housed. It is not a ‘blight’ to see people on the streets of our town who ‘look homeless’ — ie, poor — but it is truly tragic when people desperately want housing and are unable get it.
We have to be wary of having as our goal a city which is visibly free of ‘poor’ people if the impetus for that goal is the desire within ourselves to live insulated lives, free of the necessity to view the suffering of others.
As the Dallas public becomes increasingly educated through informed public dialogue about the benefits of Permanent Supportive Housing, perhaps holding in our hearts an honor for our differences can help us understand that those who have had a very different life path from our own can still be excellent neighbors.
It is not easy or simple to walk the path of reaching out to those who are down on their luck by including rather than excluding them from public life, because when we do this, we share in their pain, and we may become temporarily uncomfortable. But the upside is that our lives will be richer and more meaningful by far when we embrace our differences and realize that we are all — rich, poor, and in between — much greater and finer than we ever dreamed when we are able to work and live together.
This article appears in the July, 2010 edition of Street Zine. http://www.thestewpot.org/