On West Magnolia Avenue on the Near Southside, a new sign outside of Melt Ice Creams reads, “Thumbs down for panhandling, thumbs up for helping each other out!” with instructions to text donations to the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition instead of giving cash on the street.
Fairmount has reached peak gentrification. Cute, hipster concepts like Melt aren’t uplifting the neighborhood for the existing community. They are pricing them out. In the process, everyone contributing to displacement has a privilege of distance, enforced by the city, local businesses, and police.
It doesn’t strike the gentrifier that his or her presence represents a violence while purchasing small-batch lavender ice cream. However, the city has an affordable housing crisis, not an adorable ice cream crisis, and despite a wide menu of services, more people experience homelessness year after year. With those services come paternalistic, bureaucratic, and exclusionary requirements from providers.
Fort Worth has more than 6,700 unhomed people, with an estimated 20 percent who refuse services for varied reasons, citing PTSD, mental illness, and having experienced abuse and theft in shelters as examples. Others, like Magnolia musician Russ Emerick, live in their vehicles or on the street, preferring to be unsheltered with their pets than sheltered without them.
Melt is just one business promoting a coordinated campaign of the city, police, and businesses called FWChange to discourage panhandling. The campaign follows City Council’s unanimous vote last year to cite and fine aggressive panhandling. Fort Worth police issued more than 1,000 related citations in 2017 alone. Citations can result in fines, fees for failing to appear in court, and, eventually, warrants and arrest, effectively criminalizing homelessness.
Punishing panhandlers falls under an agenda called broken windows policing that criminalizes visible disorder to support social control. Study after study has found that broken windows policing has no effect on crime.
That doesn’t stop police departments across the country from being empowered by this agenda in budget, technology, and flexibility to interpret the law and define “threat.” In 2014, Eric Garner was killed for selling loose cigarettes under broken windows policing. Garner’s tragic death illustrates the problem with this agenda: Law enforcement officers are afforded an enormous amount of leeway in determining who they believe contributes to disorder and crime in their communities. That’s where biases based on race, class, gender, orientation, and other factors come into play and how the disproportionate power the police have can become life or death over a misdemeanor. Broken windows-inspired laws like “Stop and Frisk” and anti-panhandling ordinances across the country are often eventually overturned on grounds of being unconstitutional and discriminatory.
We may feel a need to differentiate ourselves from the poor. We want to believe we’re fortunate because we worked harder, we were smarter, or we did what we were supposed to do. However, the more I speak with Fort Worth’s homeless population, the more I discover that they are us and we are them.
Home values are up 33 percent, 70 percent of Americans have no savings, and wages are stagnant. Most people are one catastrophe or diagnosis away from disaster, and increasing automation puts everyone on notice for unemployment.
Poverty is not a personal flaw or failing, just a lack of money. Cash can keep someone hydrated, fed, or as a paying customer to use a restroom, cool off, or warm up. Cash carries autonomy — a choice to use funds how one sees fit.
FWChange and the city’s anti-panhandling laws criminalize and dehumanize homelessness and teach us to trust agencies over one another. Melt’s sign may be well-meaning and on-brand, but it supports an ongoing violence against powerless people in favor of those who can fracture neighborhoods with their purchasing power alone.
Investing in neglected neighborhoods can only be praxis if it empowers, builds, or restores for the existing community. Otherwise, it’s just business, and it doesn’t deserve to be called philanthropy.
Lizzie Maldonado is an irreverent writer, community organizer with Democratic Socialists of America Fort Worth, and cofounder of the opioid prevention organization O.D. Aid. @lizonomics