I attended a rather disturbing public meeting here in Dallas a few nights ago. I say "disturbing" because that's the only word that comes close to doing the proceedings justice.
Contrary to how the meeting's advance billing, there was no real attempt to gain new understanding. The majority voice in the crowd was rude, offensive, angry and aggressively opposed to gaining any new information. The target of their anger was a new plan to house the chronically homeless in a part of a neighborhood near their homes and businesses.
People had come to rail against a plan to elevate and assist the poorest citizens who try to live among us with virtually no resources.
To be clear and fair, the meeting was not a new experience for me. I've been to meetings like this one before where the tenor and tone of the agenda and the happenings felt much the same. I suppose it was the size of the crowd and the attitude of those who interrupted the public leaders who attempted to bring reason and understanding to the event, mostly to no avail whatsoever that really surprised me.
As I left the very discouraging event, I noted a gleeful delight in the eyes of those who ruled the volume of the evening.
One aspect of the evening proved most instructive for me.
Greeters for the meeting had been selected from among the homeless, the people who would benefit from the housing plan that was to come under extremely harsh criticism. These brave people sat at the registration table, welcomed folks as they arrived and even attempted to testify before the angry crowd.
At one point, one of the public leaders made reference to the presence of the people who would benefit from the proposed housing plan.
An angry voice responded immediately, "Don't you do that to us! Don't parade these people before us to make us feel guilty!" the woman shouted at the top of her lungs.
I've replayed that moment over and over again in my mind.
I think it contains a truth that should be analyzed and considered carefully.
What sounded like a shout of protest may have been an appeal for protection. It was as if the woman knew that if she got to see and to know the people, the individuals in question, she would have to look at the entire matter differently. She might even be tempted to place her fear aside and get to know the people in such dire need.
As long as the extremely poor can be categorized, stereotyped, objectified and kept at an impersonal, safe distance, the debate can rage on and on.
But as soon as the homeless poor gain an identity, become personal to us, as in friends with names and life stories and tears and fears, well, then we must regard them as they are: humans. Once you know some one's name, well, "game over." Recognition of identity shifts course to the point that community development becomes possible.
Don't bring them into our meetings. They might show us what we don't want to see--that they are just like us, but without all of benefits of adequate material resources to make life work.
I say the secret for moving through the current dilemma relative to our city's effective response to chronic, hardcore homelessness is round after round of face-to-face discussion with the homeless poor.
In fact, new rule: no more meetings about "the poor" without their presence in equal numbers for every discussion, and this includes our weekly City Council meetings.
What do you think?