In December 2010 the Dallas City Council voted to expand a panhandling ordinance that would hide the city’s homeless, or at least prohibit them from soliciting tourists at the February 2011 Super Bowl. Although then-Mayor Tom Leppert said that the law was not related to the Super Bowl, its timing raised eyebrows and sparked a debate over whether or not the law was a form of de facto discrimination.
With a law in place that cracks down on panhandling in four zones, as well as a law that prohibits sleeping in public, the homeless and jobless citizens of Dallas have little else to do but to seek help in crowded shelters. Concerted efforts to end chronic homelessness seem like a noble undertaking, but the city is really just caught up in a quandary between its morals and aesthetics.
The net effect of this legislation is to drive the indigent into ghettos by limiting their options. While these laws are supposed to force homeless people to depend on programs that are designed to help reintegrate them into the workforce, the homeless show up at shelters such as The Bridge only to be turned away due to lack of capacity.
Since Tom Leppert resigned as mayor, there’s a new mayor in town, and he’s known as the “Homeless Czar” for his ongoing efforts to reduce the amount of homelessness seen in Dallas. Mayor Mike Rawlings has worked with the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance as part of its effort to end “chronic” homelessness by 2015, which includes adding 1,800 permanent housing units to the 2,100 Dallas already has. To qualify for permanent supportive housing—housing as well as services that help with rehabilitation—one must be chronically homeless, which is to say that a person must be disabled and continuously homeless for over one year.
For Mayor Rawlings, MDHA and the Dallas Housing Authority, the toughest obstacle in their concerted effort to build or buy these residences is overcoming the stigma associated with homeless and disabled residents. They claim that although it may seem counterintuitive, having formerly chronically homeless individuals in supportive housing will make an area safer. If this is true, they have failed to make an effort to convince the public. In Oak Cliff, residents in an apartment complex called Cliff Manor were blindsided by the DHA’s decision to house 100 chronically homeless people within a short distance of two schools. Their anger brought up legitimate points as well as the stigma of homelessness.
Whatever stigmas we attach to the homeless aren’t doing them a favor. In fact, they are hindering them from overcoming the odds. The “Homeless Hotspot” idea used at South by Southwest was more empowering than many programs here in Dallas. The message from Dallas bureaucracy is clear: The homeless will be funneled into certain parts of the city and will wait until they can be guaranteed shelter. Those who qualify for more than temporary shelter will finally be given a chance at getting back on their feet. At least “Homeless Hotspots” were an opportunity for a few people of good disposition to network and make money. Dallas’ citizens are left camping out in front of The Bridge instead of having the freedom to look for a job.
I will concede that it is nice to drive through the intersection of Interstate 75 and Forest Lane without being confronted by the sad eyes of a homeless person. It was once a popular intersection for panhandling, but nowadays I see police quickly telling panhandlers to move on. I will also concede that panhandlers may not always use the money they make for good purposes.
However, firemen can still walk in between cars during a red light and ask for donations for their cause. There is no reason to prohibit one group from soliciting money that can help save their lives, while allowing another group to solicit money to save the lives of those suffering from a disease, or some other cause. Either allow neither or both; favoring one but not the other is subtle discrimination against our city’s homeless men and women.
Homelessness might be an ugly problem, but we can’t just cover it up. Enacting laws that prohibit panhandling in the nicer parts of town is just another way of pushing those without a roof over their heads into sanctioned ghettos. The plethora of programs in place for the homeless and the legislation making it harder to stay out on the streets are in a chaotic struggle with each other and the community. The end result is that Dallas is doing many things for the homeless, but still isn’t doing enough.