The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Worthy or Unworthy…Is That the Question? April 28, 2008

“It’s not about whether people are deserving. It’s about our compassion.”

Journal Archives

Monday, 5/9/05

When the subject of  the homeless comes up in general conversation, people frequently want to discuss ‘Unworthy Homeless Persons I Have Encountered.’  Often that single, and sometimes unpleasant, experience with a street person becomes a certain knowledge of the ‘ubiquitous homeless.’  The ‘shiftless’ mother who, babe in arms, asks for money for formula and takes it straight into a liquor store somehow becomes every woman out on the street who has a child and asks for help.  The stories may well be true, but they miss a couple of points.

Helping the homeless is not about their worthiness.  It is about our giving.  If receiving blessings were dependent upon worthiness, would you and I have all that we have?

If you see someone misusing a resource they’ve been given, that’s not a reason to refrain from helping the person in need that comes along.  What if she’s in earnest?  If you give aid to five women in a row who buy liquor with the money and meet a sixth who’s on the level, would you deprive that sixth hungry child of the help she’d receive from you?  Or, if you want to be sure of how what you give is used, you could go and buy formula for the child yourself.

This is one of the reasons I have liked working with mobile soup kitchens, who go to feed the homeless where they live.  There are no questions asked, as Jesus asked no questions when he helped the poor and the sick.  The worthiness of the recipients is not at stake.  The work is about compassion.  There are no qualifications required except that a person be hungry, thirsty, cold, in need of solace.  “Ask, and ye shall receive.”

There is no single profile for a homeless person.  There are hustlers, manipulators and thieves on the street, yes.  Ditto drug addicts and alcoholics.  There are also veterans:  about 40% — people broken by war in body, mind and spirit, the same people who were heroes when they went off to war.  There are families who lost their jobs and missed a few house payments, finding themselves on the street.  There are mothers with children who ran from an abusive husband in the middle of the night and didn’t know how to seek out a shelter or couldn’t get in.  Do I want to feed and clothe these people if I have the opportunity?  Yes.  Do I want the woman who lives under a bridge because her ex-husband tied her up in their basement for a long period of time and she can’t bear confinement to get treatment for her trauma?  Yes.  If she doesn’t or is unable get it, do I want to offer her a sandwich?  Yes again.

Do I want to interview each of these people when I encounter them to determine whether they fit someone’s profile of worthiness?  Definitely, no.



Leadership: Go To the People April 26, 2008

Filed under: homelessness,inspiration,Leadership,Taoism,Uncategorized — Karen Shafer @ 6:28 pm

“Go to the people.
Live with them.
Learn from them…

Start with what they know;
Build with what they have.
But with the best leaders,
When the work is done,
The task accomplished,
The people will say,
We have done this ourselves!”

Lao Tzu (700 B.C.)


The Stewpot Calls for Volunteers, Donations at The Bridge April 22, 2008

Here is an excerpt from the current newsletter of The Stewpot, “In As Much”:

“Dear Friends,

Many of you have stepped forward in the fight against hunger. We ask that you go another round….
No knockout punch will be thrown in this ring. This fight is about endurance. It’s about compassion.

The Stewpot will continue to offer a wide range of social services at its current location. But in the next month we will move our meal service to the city’s new homeless assistance center (The Bridge), allowing us to expand from five meals a week to 21.

We ask that you consider adopting a day or a meal to assist our downtown neighbors. The Stewpot will underwrite 20 percent of the cost not covered by city funding. That means a $1000 donation will adopt a day for your congregation or group. A gift of $400 will cover lunch or dinner, and a gift of $200 will cover breakfast for the estimated meals that will be served each day. [Any amount will be appreciated!]

There are volunteer opportunities as well. Your congregation or group can adopt breakfast or dinner any day of the week at no cost. Lunch is available for volunteer groups to serve on the weekend.

Rev. Dr. Bruce Buchanan

To donate:
1. On-line credit card at:
2. Mail payment to: The Stewpot, 408 Park Avenue, Dallas, TX 75201
3. Call: (214) 746-2785, ext. 236, or E-mail Lee Hutchins at
[A percentage of every dollar donated between 3/1/08 and 4/30/08 will be matched by the Feinstein Foundation.]

To volunteer:
Contact Bobbie Taylor at:
Indicate day of the week, Monday through Sunday, and preferred meal times: Breakfasts from 6
— 7:30 a.m., Dinners from 6 — 7:30 p.m., Lunches from 11:30 a.m. — 1:00 p.m. (weekday lunches are already taken)
Please provide: contact person for church group; email and phone of contact person; organization name; address of church, city, state, zip; # volunteers available.


Going Political for a Moment April 18, 2008

Because much of what I’ve previously written elsewhere regarding homeless people in Dallas has been political, I generally prefer to stay away from politics on this blog. However, we are at a critical moment in our history as a city regarding our homeless friends: the moment is full of hope and also contains some potential pitfalls, so I’d like to address a few issues here that I think are important.

New Homeless Assistance Center, The Bridge

Something fantastic happened a couple of years ago in Dallas: voters put hearts, minds and hands together and approved a $23 million bond package to fund the creation of a Homeless Assistance Center, The Bridge, currently being built and set to open in early May, 2008 in downtown. This is a massive step forward in ‘catching up’ with cities like Miami and Philadelphia in developing a comprehensive plan to help our large homeless population (around 6000 by census, but some say closer to 10,000) into creating safer, more productive lives for themselves and into employment, mental health services and housing.

However, there are no perfect solutions to complex human problems. Like any step forward dealing with a problem as bewildering as homelessness, there are an unfathomable number of moving parts in this one.

Add to that the complexity of pleasing many disparate groups — the homeless themselves, homeless advocates, church groups who have fed and ministered to the homeless for decades, businesses trying to thrive in the area of downtown where homeless people stay, developers in a resurgent downtown, new urban dwellers, the police, politicians — and you have yourself a very complicated formula.

Taking into account the needs and desires of these groups surrounding the homeless is a daunting task, but a necessary one. And, for the first time, I believe that the city is attempting to do a comprehensive job in this regard. We have a mayor, Tom Leppert, who truly seems to care about people in each segment of our city and to make himself accessible to them, and we have a responsive City Council.

The more I learn more about every ‘side’ in this situation, the less I’m able to take sides, with one exception. I love my homeless friends downtown. They comprise an extremely vulnerable population. While often unable to exercise the responsibilities of citizenship fully and successfully, still, as members of a democratic society, they must be granted the rights thereof. How to balance their rights with the other groups listed above? Very, very difficult.

Here are some thoughts on a few of these groups and issues.

The Stewpot

The Stewpot, a 30-year homeless ministry of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Dallas, has been given the contract to provide meals at The Bridge. Since 1975, the Stewpot has served over 2,500,000 meals to the homeless downtown, and is also the primary provider of numerous other services as well.

In my opinion, awarding the feeding contract to the Stewpot is the most hopeful sign regarding how The Bridge is to be managed, because the Stewpot and First Presbyterian Church have by far the most proven track-record in homeless services for decades, and their integrity is beyond question.

For groups around the homeless to question the budget and intentions of the Stewpot at this point seems counterproductive for two reasons:
~~The contract has been a done deal since February. The time for other groups to question or apply for the contract would have been prior to that.
~~Implications that the Stewpot is making money on the contract is ludicrous. The contract with The Bridge is providing only 80% of the costs of feeding around 2100 meals a day, seven days a week (up from their current 600 lunches on weekdays), and the Stewpot is working hard at raising funds for the balance.

Dallas Police

In a recent meeting with some of their number in Central Operations Division downtown, I was struck by the compassion of the individuals involved and their sophisticated understanding of the issues on all sides. This was valuable information for me, because, as friends of the homeless, we hear more often of police abuses, which do occur. But I believe that a majority of Dallas Police do not wish to victimize the homeless, and are caught in the middle of the complex web which surrounds our most vulnerable citizens.

The Changing Role of Mobile and Volunteer Feeders

Those of us who have been able to meet with and feed our homeless friends at the Day Resource Center in the past few years are going through a time of transition and, at times, of fear. When The Bridge opens, the DRC will close, and so, temporarily, will volunteer and mobile feeding.

But the Stewpot has made it clear it not only welcomes but most definitely needs, in its feeding program at The Bridge, the hundreds to thousands of volunteers who have been feeding the homeless on the streets and in the DRC parking lot downtown. However, it requires about three months before it will know the level of the that need. So, for those to whom being with the homeless is a ministry, the shape of that ministry will change, but the ministry itself does not have to go away. That is not to say, though, that such a transition will be easy for anyone.

Again, there are no perfect solutions to complex human problems. But we are all on the same team, hard as that may be to remember in times of such enormous transition.

Ordinances Targeting the Homeless

Here are some concerns I do have in our dealings with our homeless citizens from here forward, expressed in a letter in the Dallas Morning News on 3/13/08:

“Letters for Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thankful for Stewpot

The new Homeless Assistance Center, The Bridge, is indeed an essential step in Dallas’ plan to end chronic homelessness. However, what will happen to those homeless individuals who refuse to be welcomed into The Bridge?

Those who know the homeless at the street rather than the organizational level know that some will probably not go in. Will the city revert to the disastrous if well-intentioned practices of Operation Rescue, arresting and criminalizing those who do not choose to be welcomed into The Bridge? Or will a more creative and tolerant solution be sought?

The staff at the Stewpot knows homeless people better than anyone, having been on the front line for this population for two decades. I am glad that they are providing the meals and as much expertise and wisdom as they are willing to give.

Karen Shafer, Dallas”

Besides humanitarian concerns, there are enormous problems with laws targeting certain populations, such as the homeless — populations that are ‘inconvenient’ but not a threat to public safety. Such laws carry an ominous and particularly insidious threat to democracy. These laws may be highly controversial, like our anti-panhandling ordinance. Or they may be sleeping in public, obstructing the sidewalk, etc.

Consider this: Think of how hard it is to get stalkers arrested, even with repeated threats to their victims. And think of how difficult it is to bring to justice perpetrators of domestic violence, even after they’ve committed proven mischief and while they’re still threatening bodily harm to their victims. In both cases, the perpetrators are, in fact, actual threats to those being pursued.

Now consider a group of people who are NOT a threat to public safety, the homeless (this was proven recently in a study commissioned by the Dallas County Commissioners’ Court which was published in the Dallas Morning News). However, this group is considered by many to be a nuisance, their actions and presence generally undesirable (and there are sometimes valid reasons for these objections.)

Consider that a group of laws has been CREATED SPECIFICALLY to target this group, to control their movements, to get them out of the way, to control even their speech. Here you have panhandling ordinances, obstructing the sidewalk ordinances, sleeping in public ordinances. Think of the legality and morality of a law which prohibits one such person speaking to another citizen on a public street, even if that speech is made in an unpleasant or even aggressive manner.

Next, you have people being ticketed who cannot pay the fines. Eventually you have warrants issued for their arrest. This wastes police time and takes up space in seriously-overcrowded jails. And, one should note, these are laws which would typically not be enforced if a person involved in the same behaviors looked and dressed ‘middle class.’

Such laws are not only immoral because they target a group of people who are a public-relations problem but not a public threat. Legal scholars (which I clearly am not) have said they also represent constitutional challenges to free speech and freedom of movement.

I abhor the social conditions which lead to begging; although it does not offend me personally, I realize it can be an offensive practice to some; and I have high praise for those people who are helping to obviate the needs that drive it.

Yes, the new homeless assistance center, The Bridge, along with adequate transitional and permanent supportive housing, will drastically impact this problem in a positive way. But these solutions will take between months and many years. In the meantime, we are going to have beggars. How are we going to treat them?

Some have said it is no longer the time to debate these issues, since we are taking such positive steps in city government towards solutions for the homeless. I would argue that there is never a time when these ideas shouldn’t be debated, because SUCH LAWS CARRY WITH THEM A HEAVY MORAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL CHALLENGE. When a city ceases to argue about laws which target a particular group, it is in danger of losing its moral compass, no matter how much it solves its problems at the practical level.

Such ongoing debate goes to the heart of democracy. When we set it aside because we are fixing things at a practical level, we are in danger of returning to unethical practices when practical plans run into the inevitable snags to which even brilliant solutions are prey.



Love In Action April 16, 2008

Filed under: healing,inspiration,peace,Vocation — Karen Shafer @ 1:13 pm

       “…love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will give even their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on a stage. But active love is labor and fortitude…” (Father Zossima)

                                                                                     ~~Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov


Christmas Angel April 12, 2008

Filed under: Christianity,homelessness,hunger,inspiration — Karen Shafer @ 4:22 pm

“Compassion is something other than pity. Pity suggests distance, even a certain condescendence… Compassion means to become close to one who suffers. But we can come close to another person only when we are willing to become vulnerable ourselves.”
                                                                                                            ~~Henri Nouwen, Here and Now

Journal Archives
Christmas Day, 2004

Christmas Angel

I went to noon Christmas Mass by myself today, the first time in years we haven’t gone to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass as a family, as my grandchildren, at age two, are too young to be out that late. Church was lovely, and, as I drove away, I took with me the special joy of receiving the Christmas Eucharist amidst the radiance of the beautiful sanctuary, awash with green pine garlands and banked with red poinsettias and white candles.

At the intersection of I-75 and Mockingbird Lane, I pulled up near a stop light beside a woman who was begging. I happened to have some extra blankets and sweatshirts in the car, so I rolled down the window as I approached the light and offered her a stack of these things.

The most beatific smile crossed her face as she took them, and, as she tried to thank me, I realized she could make sounds but was unable to speak. It seemed as if perhaps she was missing part or all of her tongue, I couldn’t be sure. But she opened her mouth and attempted to thank me, taking my hand warmly in her weathered palms. I was able to understand, “God bless you! God bless you!”

I pulled forward to the red light and turned to watch her as she walked away. She went over to a low concrete wall and laid the stack of clothes and blankets on it. Bending over the pile and beginning to sort through it, and evidently pleased with what she found there, she suddenly raised her arms and face toward the sky and began a joyous, wordless dance! I will never forget the look of bliss on her face, the brilliance of her smile, the ecstacy in her body over the stack of clothing.

I began to cry as I headed to meet my daughters and their families for Christmas lunch, and I couldn’t stop. There was something about this woman that stuck with me, the image of her wordless praise, her arms reaching toward heaven. She broke my heart and touched me so deeply that, opened by church and the Eucharist, I was suddenly emptied of whatever concerns I’d had before I’d met her, to be refilled with a scalding mixture of pain and joy that would sting me for weeks whenever I thought of her, which I often did — this miraculous Christmas angel.



The Dalai Lama on the Millennium April 10, 2008

Filed under: Buddhism,healing,inspiration,peace — Karen Shafer @ 5:01 pm

Thanks to my friend, Lynn Trostel, for sending this along.

This is what The Dali Lama has to say on the
millennium, which begins 01/01/2010.

1. Take into account that great love and great
achievements involve great risk.

2. When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.

3. Follow the three Rs: Respect for self, respect for
others, responsibility for all your actions.

4. Remember that not getting what you want is
sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.

5. Learn the rules so you know how to break them

6. Don’t let a little dispute injure a great

7. When you realize you’ve made a mistake, take
immediate steps to correct it.

8. Spend some time alone every day.

9. Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your

10. Remember that silence is sometimes the best

11. Live a good, honorable life. Then when you get
older and think back, you’ll be able to enjoy it a
second time.

12. A loving atmosphere in your home is the foundation
for your life.

13. In disagreements with loved ones, deal only with
the current situation. Don’t bring up the past.

14. Share your knowledge. It’s a way to achieve

15. Be gentle with the earth.

16. Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been

17. Remember that the best relationship is one in
which your love for each other exceeds your need for
each other.

18. Judge your success by what you had to give up in
order to get it.

19. Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.


Rightness April 7, 2008

Filed under: Christianity,healing,peace — Karen Shafer @ 9:09 pm

       “My Father, open the eyes of my soul. Cause me to see that any issue that causes distrust or anger between me and another…even my own iron ‘rightness’ on matters of faith…can cause me to make a desert ‘in the name of the Lord.’”

                                                                                                            ~~St. Augustine


Street Voices: Sherry Parker, Poet April 4, 2008

Filed under: homelessness,hunger,inspiration,Street Voices,Vocation — Karen Shafer @ 9:53 pm

Tonight, I sat on the parking lot of the Day Resource Center and took dictation of this poem from gifted poet, Sherry Parker. Sherry, much like myself, doesn’t really ‘do’ technology. With her permission, I publish it here. Many thanks to our friend, Reagan, for arranging my meeting with Sherry tonight and for recognizing her talent.

Sherry has lived on the street for twenty years. What she wishes me to say about her is that she’s “not running on empty.”


Always and Forever
by Sherry Parker
April 13, 1981

Expecting to arrive,
I got there — never,
Not remembering back
Or looking forward either.
And now that I’m here,
I wonder whether
I expect to be here forever.

I had a good time,
Waiting to turn twenty.
Having passed my purity,
Still, I learned plenty.
Passing by my hopes and dreams,
Somehow left me empty,
Searching for security.

Expecting forevers,
I’m enjoying the ride,
Biding my time,
Expecting to hide.
Walking thin lines
And laughing inside.
To live and accept
Is so much better.

Expecting forevers,
I’ll get there somehow.
I don’t know where or when,
But I surely do know how.
I’m biding my time
And laughing inside.
To live and accept
Is always better.

[copyright Sherry Parker]


As the Spider Spins April 3, 2008

Filed under: Hinduism,inspiration — Karen Shafer @ 7:22 pm

‘6. ‘That’ which is invisible,
Without family,
Bodily form,
The Eternal,
All pervading
‘That’ is which the sages
As the Source of all Being,
Consciousness, Reality, Love.

7. As the spider
And draws in its web,
As plants grow,
As hair springs from the head and body,
So does all
Arise from this Indestructible Consciousness.’

~~From The Principal Upanishads, The Essential Philosophical Foundation of Hinduism,
“The Mundaka Upanishad,” Book I, Part 1


Little Ones April 2, 2008

BLOGGER’S NOTE: Regarding the children in this story, I am glad to report that I have rarely seen children on the street in about the last three years. This is purely subjective, but our city seems to be doing a better job of getting them into shelters. I am printing this story to show what children sometimes go through.  KS

Journal Archives
Thursday, 2/19/04


I went to help crew the mobile soup kitchen truck at the last minute today, as some volunteers had cancelled. I didn’t need to buy the prenatal vitamins for Robin after all, as she and her husband, Sean, had left for the Gulf Coast last night. I didn’t meet Sean last week, but the director told me he is movie-star handsome and is in fact an actor. He was in a soap opera in Los Angeles, then came out to Dallas for an acting job that fell through, which is how he and Robin ended up on the street. He just procured a job on an oil rig at the coast, so they’re headed south.

I worked ‘on the ground’ for the first time tonight, which means standing outside the truck receiving the food from the passthrough at the rear of the truck and handing it to people — sort of crowd control, although there’s nothing to control — our customers are usually very polite. There are most often male volunteers out front, but it was a ‘girl group’ of workers this time. I like the closer contact with people that being on the ground provides, getting to reach out and touch them and talk to them for a minute.

We gave away all the socks I’d bought at the dollar store at the first stop. There was one young man at the City Hall Plaza, dressed in a single light shirt, who asked for a blanket, but we didn’t have any. Blankets will be my focus this week at thrift stores.

One of the people that touched my heart especially tonight was a young man who couldn’t speak — though he could make sounds, I couldn’t understand him, and I hated that I couldn’t. He was asking for something and pointing, perhaps another sandwich, but we had run out.

Little Ones

It was a pretty upbeat run because it wasn’t too cold, and at most stops we had enough food for people to go through the line several times. Then at the third stop came a stomach punch. A mother and two daughters, ages about eight and ten, came through the line and got their food. The director made a special effort to get off the truck and visit with the little girls, giving them some extra cookies.

When we’d finished handing out food, I noticed the family of three sitting together under a tree across the park. I walked over to talk to them and saw that they’d made a bed on the ground out of one thin sleeping bag, so I asked if they had a place to stay for the night. The mother said they’d been kicked out of two shelters. I asked her why, but couldn’t understand her answer; then she told me the shelter said she didn’t do her chores. Privately, I questioned her story, but didn’t confront her about it. I have not known the shelters to kick out children.

For the first time since I’ve been doing this, I thought I was going to start sobbing: those beautiful, trusting little girls with their brilliant smiles were looking up at me from the ground. I asked the mother what she needed. ‘Blankets,’ she said, but we didn’t have any, so I went back to the truck and got a heavy plastic bag for them to put under their sleeping bag and also gave them two thick sweaters I had brought along. ‘Will you be safe here?’ I asked her. She said she hoped so.

The director and I wondered aloud if in fact the shelter did kick out this mother with kids, but just before we left the stop, the mother told me she might be able to get into Austin Street Centre tonight after all.

I continue to be really shaken up by this experience, finding it devastating, and I’m haunted by the thought that I should have done something more to help them. But what? Call 911? Would that have made their situation better or worse? Bring them home to stay at my house? Although the latter may be the answer in my heart, it’s almost certainly not realistic and brings up all sorts of questions. But don’t radical problems require radical solutions?

In retrospect, I believe I made a mistake in not calling 911. I had never encountered such a situation before, and we left the scene before I could think it through. One thing I know: little girls sleeping under a tree in the cold in a park in downtown Dallas is not acceptable.