A Modest Proposal: Train the Homeless to Be Better at Being Homeless

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Increasingly the last few years, as suburbanites continue to move into the city’s core, there has been much wailing, flailing and gnashing of teeth about the homeless problem. And let’s face it -- many homeless people smell, are scary-looking, and make us feel bad about the entire human experience. When confronted with these rusted-out hulks of humanity, some of us even feel something akin to survivor’s guilt, a sense of “There but for the grace of God go I.” And then we think, “Oh shit, he’s about to ask me for a dollar” and cross the street.

More prominently and of longer duration is the municipal obsession with being a “world-class city.” The Theater District touts itself as world-class. The Greater Houston Convention Center and Visitors Bureau says the Museum District is world class. Type Houston and “world-class city” into Google and you get well-nigh 15,000 examples of people saying this or that is “world-class” here.

Sadly, simple repetition does not make it true. In fact, all the overkill does little more than trumpet our own insecurity. Hell, the International Olympic Committee pretty much told us we weren’t there yet when they shot down our bid to host the 2012 Olympics.

Luckliy for us, one problem can help solve the other. Read on.

So what do true world-class cities have that we don’t? As it happens, there is a clear answer to that question. In 1999, the Globalization and World Cities Study Group and Network (or GaWC) conducted a study and ranking of world cities. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_city

You can read all about the criteria used at the link above; I’ll confine my comments to the cities that ranked ahead of Houston and alongside it.

Houston is ranked as a “Gamma World City” alongside cities like Amsterdam, Boston, Caracas, Dusseldorf, Melbourne, Prague, Taipei and Jakarta.

Here are the cities that outranked Houston: London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Chicago, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Milan, Singapore, San Francisco, Sydney, Toronto, Zurich, Brussels, Madrid, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Moscow and Seoul.

Of those cities, I have been to London, New York, Paris, and Chicago, Milan, Madrid, Mexico City, and Zurich, and there is one thing in common with each of them that is not tallied in the GaWC report: the huge homeless population of each of those cities.

And luckily for Houston, that is one area in which we can compete on equal terms. We may never enjoy San Francisco’s cool climate or heavenly vistas, Milan’s espresso-zipped fashionista buzz, the patina of centuries that coats London, Madrid and Paris, but we do have hordes and hordes of homeless people.

The trouble is right now that they are not world class yet in quality, or quantity.

First, about the quality. Think of the European cities. On the continent, many of the beggars are Gypsies, colorfully attired, free as the wind, pausing between picking pockets only to break into guitar-laced song. British beggars are beery sods, salty characters straight out of Hogarth, with cheery Cockney accents. In California, crusty punks are known to engage those who refuse their entreaties with salty, good-natured banter, and the parks of central Zurich are full of heroin-addled burn-outs from the Swiss rat race, each of whom is eager to serve as a neutral observer and mediator in any dispute you might have with your traveling companion.

And here in Texas, the average Austin beggars blow our homegrown varietals away in approach. On the Drag, where decades of practice have refined the trade into an art, one bearded practitioner donned a robe and placed a sign in front of his begging bowl identifying himself as a “Hungry Student Jedi.”

Houston bums, on the other hand, tend distressingly toward the direct “Gotta dolla?” approach, or at best, spin some lame tale about needing money to get a bus ticket back to Lufkin or Shreveport. The signs they hold aloft at intersection are passé to the extreme – they run all too commonly to the “tell me one I haven’t heard” lament “Homeless, hungry, God Bless.” Contrast that with two I harvested in Austin: “Shit out of luck, need help, if you can’t help kiss my ass” and “One Day I Will Not Phart Like This May Gods Bless Your Help.”

With a podunk burg like Austin out world-classing us like that, we clearly need to step up our game. To do so, I would propose the foundation of a charter school somewhere in Midtown, near the Greyhound station, wherein young apprentices could refine their trade under the gaze of master beggars imported here from true world-class betting hubs. Classes could be taught in artful cardboard-sign making, tale of woe-spinning, costume-making, and other such arts. What is now a loose rabble could even be organized into merry little Gypsy-like bands.

So much for the betterment of quality. As to the quantity, I am happy to report that we are already on the right track. Turning the mentally ill out on the streets has been a boon, not just to Houston, but to all American cities, as these often make for the most intriguing and stimulating characters to be found. All I can propose here is that we add more – all mental patients should be relentlessly screened. The more fascinatingly afflicted should be discharged from care with all deliberate speed and placed where they will have the most municipal impact.

For example, in indisputably world-class San Francisco, just off Market Street, I once saw a deranged homeless man collapsed with his pants around his ankles and a string of yellow crime tape trailing from his buttocks. That’s a truly cosmopolitan tableau this city needs more of.

But the turning out of the mentally ill is a sort of “rising tide that lifts all boats.”

And much the same could be said for the national mortgage meltdown, the vanishing of the middle class, skyrocketing health care costs, and domestic violence. We need to separate from the pack, and we are not going to do so through such sweeping national issues. That’s where we are fortunate to be in Texas. Thankfully, our state places the public education in much lower regard than it does the department of corrections, which has the auspicious result of creating homeless by the thousands.

Let other cities attempt world-classness by educating their citizenry. We will go about it the Texan way. I propose that we do away with public education altogether, thereby forcing tens of thousands of wee moppets into the streets to fend for themselves.

Think of the Dickensian splendor! There will be no need to drive to Galveston for Dickens on the Strand when Oliver Twist and his little band of hooligans are underfoot downtown every day. (An exception to the school shutdown: Those that show the most promise could be enrolled at the Homeless Charter Academy proposed above – in that regard, it could be seen as a sort of “magnet school.”)

Full disclosure time: we at the Press are not without a vested interest in this cause. We feel that the Chronicle is on to a good thing when it employs some of Houston’s underworked citizenry to sell their papers at intersections, and we would like to replace some of our downtown racks with newsboys, or newschildren if you must, to be selected from the ranks of these children. (We will give each of them a little cap and everything.)

We think the benefits are enormous. Sure you can read our cover stories in the racks, but just imagine how much more enticed you would be hearing cries of “Extra! Extra! Read all about the Fantastic Foreskin! Circumcised men are employing weights and pulleys to cover themselves back up!” – John Nova Lomax

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