In Dallas, reports a local TV station, "Main Street Gardens Park in downtown Dallas has become a bit of a homeless haven during the overnight hours. Residents heading to the park for an early morning dog walk are met by homeless people sleeping on benches, playground equipment, or whatever else may be in the park." The response to the story: "residents should start to see an increase in police presence around Main Street Gardens park almost immediately." Even in Big D, though, officials realize there's a limit to how effective a law eforcement response can be (particularly when the jail is already expensive and full):
So the problem is homeless people laying around in public with not enough shelters to house them without busing them off somewhere else, which in any event many resist. For that matter, some people understandably prefer fending for themselves on the streets to a homeless shelter with hundreds of others. A subset of homeless folks, many suffering from severe mental illnesses, cycle in and out of the jail near constantly - sometimes dozens of times a year. (The slang term for such folks in the Harris County Jail, which is today the largest mental health facility in Texas, is "frequent flyers.") So what's the longer term solution?For Dallas police, it's not just about enforcing the law anymore-- it's about getting the homeless in downtown Dallas the help they really need, so they won't feel they have to sleep in the park.
"We realize that just writing them tickets for just sleeping in pubic is not the answer," said Janse.So now, officers will work with Crisis Intervention personnel. They'll even take take those found sleeping in public to shelters like The Bridge in downtown Dallas.
Jay Dunn, Managing Director of The Bridge said the shelter has 300 beds for adults, and once those beds are filled, the facility has buses to transport people to other shelters in the Dallas area that have room. He said there are some homeless people they have had trouble engaging, but they are working to reach out to the homeless in the downtown area each day.
Residents who live near Main Street Gardens park say they just hope to see results soon, before the park's new tenants start driving folks away.
The most effective response I've heard of - something being tried out in Fort Worth, actually - is supportive long-term housing for the chronically homeless. But somebody's inevitably going to complain about that, too. There's a story out of San Francisco titled "Supportive housing: Cure for homelessness or community burden," where neighborhood residents also have complaints about that program. Neighborhood activists complain bitterly when such facilities are opened in their area. However, upon implementing its supportive housing program, "In its first year and a half, the number of homeless in San Francisco dropped by 28%."
One of the SF program critics declared: "It's a containment zone, it's absolutely a containment zone for crime and for the poor." Continued Mark Ellinger, "They're all containment zones, each one of these master lease hotels. They all have huge, huge crack problems. It's not like nobody knows about it - of course the city knows about it. Is there anything done about it to change it, to improve the situation? No, never. Never. Because it's contained."
Even granting all the speakers' presumptions about what's going on behind closed doors, isn't "contained" better than not contained? Would you rather have the problem of the Dallas neighbors, with homeless folks laying around the local park, or that described in San Francisco where the problem is "contained" through supportive housing? Containment may be the best we get on homelessness: It's not like there's an obvious solution to hand.
So the question becomes: Do cities want to manage the problem as a criminal justice issue, with homeless people either outdoors in the street or locked up the jail, or are urban neighborhoods better off when the homeless have a place to go? It may not be great for property values to have low-or-no rent housing on your block, but isn't that better than people lying on sidewalks and park benches? Supportive housing keeps those it serves off the street at night, as well as creating one-stop-shopping venues to provide mental-health, addiction, employment and other services to help folks get back on their feet. It's expensive, but so is dispatching police, taking people to jail, treating mental illness through the justice system, trying to process Class C tickets on people with no address, or busing people to far away shelters.
These are difficult problems, with every "solution" bringing its own, new complaints. But the whole "trail 'em, nail 'em and jail 'em" approach is particularly ill-suited to the situation, and to me it makes a lot more sense, whenever possible, to address homelessness with homes instead of cops.