Monday night at 6:30 p.m., there was a meeting in the Hitt Conference room at Methodist Central Hospital, in Dallas. It was disturbing...
Ostensibly, it was a meeting in which Mike Faenza (the Executive Director of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance); Mary Russ (CEO of Dallas Housing Authority) and Mike Rawlings (Dallas' Homeless Czar) were to explain to residents of North Oak Cliff the decision to move 100 people, recovering from homelessness, addiction and/or dealing with mental illness into Cliff Manor (a DHA facility). Amid fears that housing these citizens in an apartment building owned and operated by the Housing Authority for almost 40 years, and already essentially being used for the same purpose - these three executives sought to interject some reason into the heated public debate.
Let's just say it was no one's finest hour.
Certainly not for the residents of North Oak Cliff. The cat calls, insults, incivility, unreasonableness and rudeness was a signal that none of the residents (none who spoke anyway) came for dialogue or education regarding permanent supportive housing. It was clear, that there was spleen venting and political posturing.
I have a great deal of respect for Faenza and Rawlings. They have done an admirable job for a number of years, identifying resources and dealing with an issue that other politicians and other public officials have kicked down the road as it simply got worse. It has been an energy and time consuming task that few people wanted to tackle and almost no one who tried tackled well.
Yet, with a shade more or less than 6000 homeless people in Dallas, and at approximately 10% of these residents of the streets, experiencing chronic homelessness (while the city spends nearly $50 million jailing and hospitalizing them vs. the much less expensive alternative of housing them), North Oak Cliff residents, professing their 'compassion' insisted that these homeless people not be near them.
They did so by stereotyping homeless people. They did so by objectifying them; equating their homelessness with crime and immorality. They did so by conflating and confusing permanent supportive housing with low income housing and suggesting that they had their 'share'. A local pastor spoke passionately about the interests of the homeowners - interestingly enough missing the opportunity to ask how he and his church could minister to the people in Cliff Manor in a way that might make the project as successful as possible.
They did so by deciding to be publicly indifferent to any facts or truth that conflicted with their opinion. When one speaker, informed that his comparison between the plans for Cliff Manor would result in it becoming a Cabrini Green project (a violent, poverty riddled public housing high rise for families in Chicago. Cabrini Green, grew so bad it was eventually torn down), was inaccurate (Ms. Russ worked in public housing in Chicago, during the time that Cabrini Green was at its worst), his retort was to reply 'You're wrong!'.
When a woman came to the mike and accused the Housing Authority of evicting the elderly from Cliff Manor in an effort make room for the 100 homeless people to be moved into their apartments, Ms. Russ said that it was untrue. Such action, she said, would be illegal. The senior residents had taken advantage of an opportunity move into newly constructed housing in West Dallas. Obviously taken aback by having her opinion invalidated by a reasonable explanation, she shot back, 'Can we have their names so we can talk with them and see if you're telling the truth?'
When Faenza, as he had at an earlier city council meeting offered to have some people who would be candidates for tenants in the apartments brought in so that they meet them and see they had nothing to fear, just like the city council meeting, the catcalls and insults rang out. 'Don't turn this into a circus!'
Because up until now this meeting had been a model of civil public discourse...
Well, actually its because people who have at least a shred of human decency left within them, have difficulty referring to others as the dregs of society, unfit for shelter or opportunity, when those same people are actually in the same room with them.
Actually this is what the entire controversy boils down to: whom in our society, in Dallas, do we consider human? Whom do we consider to be worthy of opportunity? What are the requirements for citizenship in Dallas, Texas? Only homeowners? Only those who owe more taxes than they've had taken out of their paychecks every April 15th? How do you 'prove' you've earned the chance to begin again?
As long as we are able to stereotype and objectify people; as long as we are able to simply define people by the actions of the worst of 'their kind', we can feel comfortable relegating them to an occasional donation to a local charity. Or providing hot holiday meals, used clothes and spare change.
Attitudes like those exhibited on Monday night, are attitudes of people who don't believe the homeless are really human. And if they are less than human, they don't have the right to a roof over their head and the key to a room, because 'they' don't deserve it.
But, if they, the residents and the elected representative of North Oak Cliff are right; if the homeless are less than human as a 'class', if they can be railed against and their criminality and lack of morality can be held up and they can be ridiculed with impunity and without shame, then one has to wonder: are they that way, because that's who they are?
Or are they that way because that's the way we treat them...?