Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Acceptable Homelessness?


Dallas has an image problem.

Actually, having an image problem is a persistent state of affairs for Big D, the city both enamored with and embarrassed by the shallow celebrity its namesake television show lavished upon it.  On the one hand, people around the world recognize its big wealth and big ego, but the city's identity remains surprisingly elusive.

Fort Worth is Cowtown.  Austin is technology.  Houston is oil.  San Antonio is the Riverwalk.  Meanwhile, Dallas is pretty much the place where Kennedy got shot.  And the birthplace of legendary retailer Neiman-Marcus.

The Kennedy thing?  At least he was the leader of the free world, and his wife a bona-fide celebrity.  Neiman-Marcus?  Ain't no way to spin that badly, is there?

At least the city is booming. 

Like a lot of major urban centers across the United States, central-city Dallas has recently been riding an impressive wave of redevelopment.  Outmoded office towers are being retrofitted for sleek apartments.  Aging neighborhoods once considered undesirable - as suburbanization dominated economic development trends - are now bristling with McMansions, while imported luxury SUVs prowl potholed streets.  New mid-rise office buildings are sprouting like weeds just north of downtown, once again making the construction crane Dallas' official bird.

Sure, Big D may only have a handful of old-fashioned corporate headquarters left, but it's attracted a lot of boutique firms in law, finance, and the creative arts.  And these boutiquey-type companies employ lots of trendy hipsters and Millennials; people for whom suburbia represents the epitome of stodgy conventionalism.

Along with this resurgence in Dallas - at least, its more affluent parts closer-in to the city's white-hot "Uptown" district - has come rising real estate values and rental rates.  Rickety old houses are being torn down for low-rise, high-price post-Modernist apartment complexes, and dicey neighborhood bodegas are being supplanted by ubiquitous Starbucks outposts and chic taco restaurants.

Then suddenly, the city officially discovered that it has a homeless problem, after 300 people set up camp underneath a towering freeway viaduct ringing downtown's eastern flanks.

Image; don't you know.

Unofficially, of course, Dallas has had a homeless problem for years.  I remember going to the Dallas Public Library to do research during my college days and coming home smelling of urine - since that's what the entire library building reeked of.  Homeless people camped all over that library back in the 1980's, and city employees had pretty much given up trying to kick them out.

In Dallas' defense, there's probably not a major city in the entire Western Hemisphere that doesn't have a homeless problem.  And in terms of the severity of the problem, Dallas isn't the worst.  But when the city's current mayor - a Democrat - ordered the tent city cleared out from under the freeway downtown, it was big news here.  Not only had two homeless people died during separate confrontations in tent city, but nobody could agree on a solution.

Although government social service agencies, churches, local non-profits, and sympathetic citizens all tried to help each and every homeless person find someplace else to go, it was an exercise in futility.  And everybody seemed to know it would be.

For one thing, most folks who lose their job or face other economic hardships can rely on family and friends to stay off the streets.  Even those folks who do end up homeless due to economic hardships tend to make do with the help of shelters and transitional programs for only as long as absolutely necessary.  But the people who end up living underneath a freeway for months and years on end... we call them "homeless," but there's more to it than the term implies.

The homeless - not just in Dallas - have an identity problem, too.

Many of them have severe emotional issues.  Many have problems with their temperament.  Many have developed addictions to alcohol and other drugs.  Some are certifiably insane.

Most of them have burned through family connections over years of self-destructive behavior, or have intentionally spurned the overtures from family members who want to help, or come from woefully dysfunctional families.  Many have a warped view of personal independence and self-reliance, vilifying our "normal" civilization as too encumbered by rules and restrictions.

We look at news coverage of the homeless and figure there must be a shelter for them where they can go, but many of those shelters are run on shoe-string budgets.  Even the well-funded shelters struggle with maintaining cleanliness and order while serving a population that, for whatever reason, tends to de-value cleanliness and order - or maybe has never been expected to exercise personal deportment, until now.

If anything, most shelters merely serve as an enormous incentive for the rest of us to not ever need to stay in them ourselves.

Now that Dallas' most recent tent city has been taken apart, and its former occupants forced away, new encampments are reportedly sprouting up under other freeways.  And it's not like anybody involved in the cleanup predicted that eradicating one tent city would force its inhabitants off the streets and into mainstream society.

Indeed, if anything, this renewed recognition of Dallas' homeless problem has simply aroused more frustration than anything else.  Frustration on the part of the mayor, city staff and agencies, non-profits, taxpayers, and even the homeless themselves.

A writer for the hipster mag Dallas Observer is shrugging his shoulders and twisting the mayor's words about the tent city's "acceptability" as a solution to homelessness.  Whereas the mayor said Dallas' recent tent city was unacceptable, writer Jim Schultze wonders if we should resign ourselves to calling wherever the homeless set up their new accommodations as "acceptable."  After all, as a society, we don't seem anxious to create a better solution.

And in terms of our society's overwhelming ambivalence regarding addressing the many facets of homelessness, Schultze is correct.  Sure, lots of people will give used clothing to charities during cold weather months.  A transitional homeless ministry run by friends of mine here in Dallas issues calls for blankets every winter, and kind-hearted souls usually respond quite generously. 

We see vagrants begging by the side of the road, and some people will think they're helping by giving a couple of bucks.  In fact, one Dallas mayor, when she outlawed panhandling, was met with vociferous opposition from people who actually believed roadside begging is an effective way to combat homelessness.

(For the record, panhandling mostly serves to help beggars finance their alcohol or drug habit.  Enabling detrimental behavior is not sustainable assistance.)

To combat homelessness effectively, sustainable assistance is what's needed.  Yet for many conservatives, at least, the idea of long-term assistance roils the blood.  In the right-wing pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps worldview, depending on others for the rest of one's lifetime is about as abhorrent a thought as suburbia is to Millennial hipsters.

Nevertheless, aren't we dealing with a population that has proven themselves to be either unwilling or unable to care for themselves?  If the option is to simply let them fade away in fetid squalor like any tent city anywhere on our planet, what does that say not just about the homeless, but the rest of us who let them continue on that way?

As a person with chronic clinical depression myself, I am woefully aware of what the specter of institutionalization feels like.  For a homeless person, who may already be staging a lifestyle of "rage against the machine," being locked up in a mental ward (which is where previous generations of Americans put their non-conformists) would almost certainly be a far worse scenario than what they face even tonight.  Yet living under a freeway can't be the civilized solution.

So what is the solution?  Well, obviously, nothing is going to fix homelessness overnight.  But since we know what causes homelessness, we should know how to address it.  The question of solutions involves willpower - not just from the homeless, but from the rest of us, too.

It will cost some money, and it will require some significant social changes.

For example, we've got to de-glamorize our drug culture, which involves everything from alcohol to illegal narcotics.

We've got to re-prioritize the family unit as the basic building block of our society, which includes doing a better job of fighting sexual abuse, child abuse, elder abuse, and institutionalized poverty.

And we've got to address the needs of our mentally ill.  More of us need to understand what it is, and be more sympathetic to the ways it affects people.  We need more robust outpatient programs that enable families to participate in the care of their loved ones who are mentally and emotionally unstable.

Personally, I can't see how inpatient programs are beneficial to the mentally ill, when a lot of their dysfunction occurs either as a result of or a fear of interpersonal relationships, from employment to marriage to parenting.  We need to help integrate the mentally ill into our society, instead of perpetuating systems - such as our current crisis with homelessness - that marginalize the mentally ill to the sidelines of life.

It may be that there is a point at which some form of homelessness can be acceptable.

But none of us are there yet, are we?


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