Let’s get this out straight away: I don’t really know anything about homelessness. I haven’t read much of the literature. I haven’t studied initiatives in various cities around the country. And I tend to trust that most of the people who are engaged in all aspects of the fight against homelessness have their hearts in the right place. I think that places like City Square, Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, and others are doing good work. I’d like to think the Bridge, which downtown residents love to hate, is also trying to do good work, even if it is easy to point to all of the problems Bridge residents create and see the Bridge as a magnet for trouble.
I also respect the neighbors downtown and in the Cedars who are faced with the brunt of what homelessness brings to a neighborhood: crime, petty theft, vagrancy, drugs, prostitution, irritating panhandling, and random ridiculousness like guys throwing rocks off overpasses. Those are the kinds of little crimes that can kill large-scale, long-term efforts to revitalize neighborhoods. And I appreciate that neighbors can often feel at war with the very people who are trying to alleviate homelessness, like church-run soup kitchens that draw people through neighborhoods, creating makeshift pedestrian highways characterized by trash, petty theft, or worse.
Which is all to say that I acknowledge that to a certain extent weighing in on the issue, as I am about to do, isn’t terribly productive — certainly not as productive as the efforts of all the various people on all sides of the issue that are already personally and financially invested and have boots on the ground. But upon reading of the latest plan to deal with homelessness that the Dallas Morning News reported on today, I couldn’t help but think that the whole homeless conversation in Dallas is starting to sound a little creepy.
On the surface, this latest idea sounds altruistic enough. There are a ton of people trying to live in spontaneously formed encampments near downtown. These places are dangerous, lack services, and are a nuisance to nearby neighborhoods. And so a few of those neighbors have proposed setting aside an abandoned naval base in Grand Prairie to create “Dignity Field:”
Dignity Field . . . would include an open-air camping space, a covered camping space, boarding houses and tiny homes for individuals. [Michael Sitarzewski, founder and CEO of Epic Playground Inc., ] envisions people moving from open air camping into more permanent housing options over time.
I can see where the idea is coming from — it is basically taking the idea of a spontaneous community like Tent City and finding a place where it can exist without creating a problem for neighbors, while simultaneously affording safer conditions and better access to services for the people who live there. The naval base is out in the middle of nowhere, which means it answers the age-old NIMBY problem that accompanies any attempt to relocate homeless populations. Also, by creating a special, designated area for homeless encampments, services can be more efficiently dispersed to the community. Shuttles can help bring the homeless to and from the camp. Medical professionals can be brought in. And various other groups and services that help people find housing or jobs can be targeted at the encampment at the naval base.
At first glance, it sounds like a solid idea. But let’s step back for a second and think about what exactly is being proposed.
Is it me, or does this idea sound to anyone else out there like a proposal to create a concentration camp for our homeless population? I mean, in the strictest definition of the term, that is exactly what this is. There is a nuisance population in Dallas, so some people want to relocate that population to a camp on the outskirts of town, where they can be concentrated in order to be better attended to. Get those Nazi images out of your head — no one is talking about death camps. But what if we think about the camps into which Japanese citizens were interned during World War II. Is not the impetus of this latest proposal frighteningly similar: to remove those who are a perceived threat and to hold them in a place where they can be dealt with appropriately?
Which raises a few questions that haven’t been addressed in the early reporting around Dignity Field. Concentrating Dallas’ homeless population in a camp on the outskirts of town certainly allows for new efficiencies related to dealing with that population, like better targeting services. But it also allows for more efficient security. How will security be managed at the camp? Will there be a security company or police on duty at all times? Will they be armed? Will there be a perimeter fence? Will homeless people be allowed to come and go as they please, or will there be a curfew? How will those comings and goings be managed? How will safety and security be enforced? And somewhat related: because the location is in a isolated, cut-off area, how will the new camp allow the loss of the more impromptu, difficult to identify “services” that come from living close to downtown, such as easy access to transit and places where you can walk to find something to eat?
I’m sure the drafters of the proposed Dignity Field will have reasonable answers to these questions, and I am no way suggesting that they are evil masterminds of an attempt to lock-up all of the homeless people in Dallas. But I raise all these questions to make a broader point about how the way we tend think about and deal with homelessness.
Let’s, for a second, stop calling this problem “homelessness.” Let’s describe what’s really going on. When we say “homeless,” we are really talking about two populations: the mentally ill and the most severely indigent Dallas residents. Now let’s rephrase this new proposal: Should we deal with the city’s mentally ill population by relocating them to a fenced-in former Navy air field in Grand Prairie? Or should we deal with the city’s poorest population by relocating them to a camp on a former Navy air field in Grand Prairie?
Should we concentrate our mentally ill and poorest people in a camp on an old Navy base? This sounds at little creepy, right? Is this just me? I think it sounds creepy.
When something sounds creepy, it’s time for a gut check. Again, I’m no expert on homelessness, but from my Monday-morning-quarterback perspective, the idea for Dignity Field seems to spring from an attempt to over-address one side of what is a two-sided, and somewhat paradoxical, challenge. Homeless encampments like Tent City form when the most mentally ill and poorest people in our community try to raise their chances of survival by forming spontaneous sub-communities. These communities form out of an effort to reap the benefits that come from living in densely compacted human societies. Just like cities hold advantages for their residents, living in sub-communities like Tent City affords a certain amount of safety, it allows for the sharing of resources, and creates a human community in which some semblance of dignity can be found. Think of the homeless camp as a mini-city of ill and poor people, banding together to get the things they need or want more easily: food, shelter, sex, drugs/alcohol.
The difficulty is that same concentration or density exacerbates the problems present in a vulnerable population on the fringes of society, a population whose day-to-day lives are spent in the pursuit of food, shelter, sex, drugs and alcohol. That sub-community attracts those who prey on such people. In other words, the homeless population tends towards density in order to relieve the problems that face those who have no homes, and that same density exacerbates the problems that are associated with homelessness.
And so the problem is two-fold. There is the problem of where the homeless population is, and there is the problem that the population has grown so large and doesn’t seem to be going away. “Dignity Field,” while planning for providing services for the homeless population, seems to address the issue of homelessness by aggressively focusing on the location side of the homeless problem. But while I can see the advantages for the neighborhoods in the idea, I see fewer advantages for the poor and mentally ill people they plan to relocate.
At Dignity Field, poor and mentally ill people will lose the invisible support network that comes from living with close access to public transit, goods and services. They will be isolated in an out-of-the-way, out-of-sight location where the rest of the DFW community can forget about them. And they will be living in a situation in which they are forced to sacrifice some — or perhaps a great deal — of their personal autonomy.
Will homeless people actually be attracted to the idea of living in a homeless concentration camp in Grand Prairie? If it were me, I’d take my chances underneath an overpass in Dallas where, if I were being harassed in the middle of the night, at least I could pack up my stuff and walk away. Homeless people may be poor or ill, but they aren’t dumb. I don’t think many will fall in love with the idea of voluntarily relocating to what sounds like a version of the Altamont Festival minus the Rolling Stones.
I’m sure the backers of Dignity Field have their hearts in the right place, but relocating the homeless population to a Navy base in Grand Prairie, regardless of promised services and bus shuttles, seems like a backwards way of approaching the problem. The name of the project — Dignity Field — smacks of its own kind of irony. What dignity is there in living confined in a supervised camp in an old Navy base on the outskirts of a sprawling American city with little or no autonomy of movement or personal freedom?
Meanwhile, relocating the homeless population won’t make the more fundamental failings of the support system around homelessness go away. Tent City seems to speak to a failure of places like the Bridge to transition people — or transition enough people — from the homeless sub-society into mainstream society. But the Bridge is also located downtown because the best chance of mainstreaming our poor and mentally ill neighbors is to leverage the social and economic advantages that come from living in dense urban environments.
Homelessness will never really go way. There will always be poor people and mentally ill people. But mitigating the problem — and realizing real dignity for Dallas’ poor and mentally ill populations — will be a byproduct of figuring out how to integrate more people back into mainstream society, not further isolating them.