Let me make sure I’ve got this straight: Business owners and residents don’t want the homeless people in their East Lancaster neighborhood; they’re not wanted downtown because their presence would negatively affect the Fort Worth Convention Center and other tourist traffic; they’re surely not wanted in Westover Hills. Well, where then?
Throwing money at the homeless situation will not fix it, nor will more arrests. The scenario reminds me of one I encountered while living in Dallas in 2000. There was need to build a new homeless shelter and of course a lot of discussion about where it should be. Even the laid-back recovering hippies on the “M” streets in East Dallas said: “Not in our neighborhood.” And I wondered, if the peace-and-love generation doesn’t feel compassion for down-on-their-luck folks, who will? I also wondered what in the hell this world has come to.
I take the issue of homelessness very personally – because I happen to know from experience that we’re all about one missed paycheck away from that situation. At age 42 I was on top of the world, blowin’ and goin’, running my own successful business. Then – boom! A massive stroke hit without warning. My left side was paralyzed, but fortunately it didn’t do much damage to my frontal lobe or my ability to speak, read, and reason. I was shocked and felt like I was under water for a while, but my big sister ran interference, advocated for therapy, and found a paid caregiver to help me back on the road to independence. I can once again live independently, though I still can’t return to my former occupation and have received assistance from state, county, and federal agencies. I tell my friends, “I am your tax dollars at work, and I’ll try to make good use of them.”
This whole business reminds me of a wry bit of advice one of my history professors gave to his young students: Always own a car, so that if you lose your home, you’ll at least have a place to sleep. I didn’t appreciate his wisdom at the time.
There are solutions out there, such as the building renovation programs in cities like Fort Wayne, Ind., and Big Rapids, Mich. In those places, older properties that qualify for federal historic preservation tax incentives are rehabilitated as affordable residences for senior citizens. Why wouldn’t a similar program work for others? I like the win/win idea of recycling older buildings for the homeless, because it breaks my heart to see cool old buildings demolished to make way for those soulless boxes made of ticky-tacky. I’m not very good with tools these days, but I can still wield a paintbrush, so maybe I can persuade others to help me start a project like that. It would help me recycle some of those assistance dollars on which I’ve been living.
I put my money where my mouth is by volunteering as a GED and literacy tutor, because I think education is key to helping others help themselves and to making this world a better place. Fortunately, I’m better at teaching than I would be at hanging Sheetrock. I’ll let the rest of you hang the Sheetrock.
Those who love Fort Worth may not know that it used to be one of a few U.S. cities to which the top architecture schools sent their students to study historic preservation. Surely, if we all pitch in, we can implement some good ideas, retain that status, and help give some people places to live. My friends and I have talked about a variety of ideas in addition to the building renovation program, including asking churches to open their doors to the homeless and setting up street counseling programs.
Statistics tell us that about 23 to 40 percent of the homeless are veterans, and about 25 percent may suffer from serious mental illness. I’m appalled, yet not surprised, that we take no better care of our veterans. I remember reading in these pages a couple of years ago about a proposal to turn the old osteopathic hospital building into a veterans’ hospital, but nearby residents were worried about the kind of street traffic it would generate. Ah yes, we really know how to “support our troops.”
I’m outraged too that we don’t better provide for those with serious mental illness. Sure, some homeless folks are drunks and addicts, but those conditions often overlap with mental illness. Our mental healthcare system does reach some people with counseling, meds, and treatment, but there are big holes in the net – and once in that system and labeled with a given disorder, people can still be stigmatized and marginalized for life. (Besides, the next time you look down your nose at one of those crazy street people, ask yourself how sane it is to buy so much stuff that you have to build or rent extra buildings just to have places to put the extra stuff.)
If I sound angry, it’s because I am. Fortunately I’ve never been homeless but have come too close to it for comfort. Had it not been for the help and support of friends and close family members, I might be sleeping in my car. (Thanks Dr. G. See – I took your advice.)
Linda Lee is a Fort Worth artist who just received a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from Texas Wesleyan University.