The Handcuffs of Gentrification

A guest approached me the other morning at Manna House with disturbing news.

“I was handcuffed by the police yesterday.”

This is a guest who carries with him a well-worn Bible that he frequently and devoutly reads. We often talk together about “the Word of the Day” find some phrase or story that connects with our lives. Other guests often ask him to pray for them, and he does, right away. He puts his hand on the person’s shoulder, bows his head, and prays. He is in many ways a pastor for people on the streets. He is always ready to listen, to offer an encouraging word, and to share a passage from the Scriptures that might inspire. His Christian faith reminds me of St. Francis, a wandering ascetic whose love for others was always readily apparent.

“Why would the police handcuff you?” I asked, stunned that he would be subject to any police suspicion.

“I was sitting on the steps of a building with another guy. He doesn’t come here, but he’s a good guy. We were just sitting there. I had used a water tap to wash my face cloth. It was a hot day, and I needed a cool cloth. But the cops came up and grabbed us. They said we had broken into the building. They pointed to a window that was open.”

“Did they arrest you?”

“No. But we were in handcuffs for two hours.”

“Two hours? Did you at least get to sit an air-conditioned police car?”

“No. We were in the sun the whole time. They called the owner of the building and it took him an hour to get there. He knows me, and he immediately told the police they had the wrong guys. They should let me and the other guy go. The funny thing is that the window the police pointed to was the one I had told the building manager about last week. He told the police all that and then left.”

“And they still held you for another hour?”

“Yup. And threatened us, saying they could still arrest us for criminal trespass, and that we shouldn’t be in this neighborhood. I guess they didn’t like being shown up by the building owner or something.”

I thought of an article I read recently, about the criminal justice system and systemic racism. Systemic racism, the author wrote, “means that we have systems and institutions that produce racially disparate outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them. When you consider that much of the criminal-justice system was built, honed and firmly established during the Jim Crow era — an era almost everyone, conservatives included, will concede is rife with racism — this is pretty intuitive. The modern criminal-justice system helped preserve racial order — it kept black people in their place. For much of the early 20th century, in some parts of the country, that was its primary function. That it might retain some of those proclivities today shouldn’t be all that surprising.” (See,

Keeping black people in their place, like telling them they “shouldn’t be in this neighborhood.” Did I mention that this guest and his friend are both African American? And yes, it is not only about race, it is also about class. Systemic classism tells poor people that they are not welcome in certain areas.

What “Word of the Day” might speak of what this guest experienced in being handcuffed? Micah the prophet saw this oppression of the poor, and connected it to denying people housing, “But you rise up against my people as an enemy; you strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of war. The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant houses” (Micah 2:8-9).

This guest was handcuffed in the area now being called “The Medical District.” The plan is to make this area around the UT Medical School, the Southern College of Optometry, Region One [the Med], and LeBoheur more attractive for wealthier people to move into. You can’t have poor people in such an area, and certainly not homeless black men. This is how gentrification works.

While I was talking with the guest who was handcuffed another guest arrived. He had on a t-shirt that said, “Dixie Homes Reunion.” Dixie Homes was a large public housing project near LeBonheur that was torn down back in 2005. This guest, I found out, had grown up there. We talked about the reunion.

“Where are the people from Dixie Homes now?”

“All over the city.”

“Any live in the houses that were built on the old Dixie Homes property?”

“O hell no!” he said, “Nobody could afford to live in those.”

So, a little more from Micah to chew on in these days. God sees the injustice that is going on.

“Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (Micah 2:1-2).

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