Thursday, January 19, 2006

Dallas: Among the Most Religious and the Sixth Meanest

The annual "meanness index" report is out from the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty. The report, A Dream Denied: The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities, ranks Dallas as the 6th "meanest city" in the nation if you are homeless.

This particular report studied 224 cities and tracked the popular urban trend that makes homelessness a criminal matter.

During 2005, like Dallas, city after city enacted ordinances making it illegal to sleep, eat, sit or beg in public spaces.

Why, Dallas even has considered a law making it illegal to give money to people who ask for it on the street. Talk about being innovative! The "can do" city does it again!

The national ranking of cities is based on several factors, including the number of anti-homeless laws in a city, enforcement of those laws, the general political climate regarding homeless people in the city, and the city’s history of criminalization measures.

While more cities, like Dallas, are cracking down on homeless people living in public spaces, cities do not have adequate shelter to meet the need. People are on the street because there are few, if any other options.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors report released in December 2005 revealed that 71% of 24 cities surveyed reported a 6% increase in requests for emergency shelter, with 14% of overall emergency shelter requests going unmet and 32% of emergency shelter requests by homeless families remaining unmet. Very few shelter beds are available that allow families to stay together.

Besides this, shelters are not the answer. Most shelter facilities in Dallas "dump" people back on the streets come dawn or earlier.

At the same time, as I have noted many times, Congress is cutting key social safety net programs that could help reduce homelessness. Legislation passed last month by the House and Senate proposes to cut Medicaid funding by $4.8 billion and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) assistance by $732 million over the next five years.

These cuts are supported by the Bush Administration, despite the Administration’s stated 10-year goal of ending “chronic” homelessness, which is especially prevalent among disabled homeless persons living on the street.

Go figure.

Another trend documented in the report is increased city efforts to target homeless persons indirectly by punishing or placing restrictions on service providers serving food to poor and homeless persons in public spaces. Dallas will begin enforcing just such a provision during 2006.

Just grand, huh?

Here in Dallas, Mayor Laura Miller contends that it is unfair to focus just on homeless control ordinances to determine a city's ranking on the "mean list." She points to all that Dallas is doing for the homeless, including the passage of a bond package that provides almost $24 million in new funds to construct a Homeless Assistance Center. She also points to all of the private relief activity being done in the city.

Just this week our homelessness czar, Mike Rawlings hosted a meeting to discuss the development of a "good neighbor" policy for our new Homeless Assistance Center. Before the conversation was over you got the feeling that the new center would be a high-wall, gated community that shuts homeless people in and walls them off from the rest of us.

During that meeting, my good friend and partner here at CDM, Executive Director Gerald Britt, asked a good question,

"If we are working on a 'good neighbor' policy, does this mean that only the homeless need to be good neighbors? What about those of us who aren't homeless? How can we be good neighbors?"

Good questions, Gerald!

Dallas social intelligence test:

Question: If you are rich in Dallas and living behind a wall, what do you call it?

Answer: Gated community

Question: If you are poor in Dallas and living behind a wall, what do you call it?

Answer: Prison or a homeless center/shelter. ______________________________________________

If we are talking about the attitudes of individuals in Dallas, it may be true to say that Dallas isn't any meaner than any other city in the country. Some would and could argue over this point, but folks here are about like everywhere else when it comes to our neighbors who are at the very bottom.

What makes Dallas so curious to me is the fact that it is one of, if not the most religious, "churched-up" place on the planet!

The problem here, as I see it, is that our churches are a collection of wonderfully nice individuals who seldom act in concert to affect the change we need. Further, somehow it seems that our faith never gets translated to the streets or to City Hall in any practical, systemic, comprehensive or change-producing manner.

So, we settle for "no panhandling" laws, rather than bearing down together to change our streets for the good of everyone.

Again, we are back to the same old conclusion. Homeless people will not go away until they have somewhere to go, as in homes. It ain't rocket science.

By the way, here's the entire list of really mean places:

1. Sarasota, FL
2. Lawrence, KS
3. Little Rock, AR
4. Atlanta, GA
5. Las Vegas, NV
6. Dallas, TX
7. Houston, TX
8. San Juan, PR
9. Santa Monica, CA
10. Flagstaff, AZ
11. San Francisco, CA
12. Chicago, IL
13. San Antonio, TX
14. New York City, NY
15. Austin, TX
16. Anchorage, AK
17. Phoenix, AZ
18. Los Angeles, CA
19. St. Louis, MO
20. Pittsburgh, PA


Steve said...

Atlanta (#4) is ruthless to those who are without residence.

When I lived in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games, the city gave all the homeless downtown a one-way bus ticket to anywhere in Georgia (and maybe the Southeast) in an attempt to "clean up" its appearance in front of the world. A few years ago, as Larry reported, the city made panhandling illegal in some of the more "touristy" parts of downtown.

Neal W. said...

I live near #2 on the list: Lawrence, KS, home of the University of Kansas. Of course, officials from the community were outraged and called it unfair; I even saw news footage of a city official shaking hands with an underprivileged person and with a big smile pointing inspiringly and showing him the way to the little social services building. It was ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Is there such a thing as the least mean/most friendly list, too? Are there cities out there that are successfully coping with homelessness?

I wonder if there are lessons to be learned from those cities so we don't have to reinvent the wheel, and so we can use those successes as leverage against reluctant or ignorant city officials.

Thurman8er said...

"How can we be good neighbors to the homeless?" The idea of the Good Samaritan never loses its offensiveness to some people, does it?

I just learned last night that you won't be coming to Fresno. I wanted you to know how sorry I am that I won't get to meet you. I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for how you let God lead you and was looking forward to learning from you.

Maybe next year.


Jeremy Gregg said...

Anonymous, that's a great idea! I am not sure if there is a "compassion index" . . . but we could definitely use one.