Thursday, December 4, 2008
Last night, armed with a carload of heavy coats and blankets given to us by an Anonymous Angel, I went out on a mission into the heart of downtown Dallas with a good friend. We went in search of the city’s homeless people who have been banned from sleeping in the Bridge courtyard as of December 1 and are now back to ‘sleeping rough.’
After an hour of driving around, we couldn’t find anyone out on the street, but we knew they were there — just in hiding. It we could have found them, though, so could have the Dallas Police, who had been issuing written warnings and citations to them for the past two days. We talked to the very few homeless individuals who were walking on the downtown streets. “Where is everyone sleeping tonight?” we asked them. “They’ve scattered,” a woman told us. “The police have really been after us and came this morning at 6 A.M. to the freeway fence where people were sleeping and started ticketing them. Media crews showed up about that, and it saved some.”
My friend and I knew the obvious places where homeless people used to sleep before the Bridge opened, and we drove there. Not a soul could be seen at any of these locations. After that, we checked out the places we knew of that are farther out from the central district downtown. No one in sight, no heaps of blankets on the concrete containing sleeping human beings.
We guessed where to look even farther afield, and we guessed correctly. When we found them, we stopped our car and got out. They knew us, trusted us, and began to come out of hiding, one or two at a time, in the dark, in the cold, to talk to us. Near where we parked, one person had found a single piece of wood about 2 inches wide and 3 feet long, had been able to light it and was huddled over it, trying to stay warm. Some people were sleeping under cardboard, some just blankets, most well out of sight. One man said, “I’d been sleeping at the Bridge until they shut us out on Monday.”
It had been a Godsend that our ‘angel’ had showed up that afternoon and given us enough coats and blankets to give away. I stood at the rear of the vehicle and handed people blankets one by one. “Can I have one for my wife?” someone asked. “She’s sleeping right over there around the corner.” At our vehicle’s side door, my friend fitted people with warm jackets. We also had some socks, hats and gloves. We stood around and talked. Word spread that we were there, and more people showed up. Everyone hugged us, thanked us, hugged us again. At the end, they wanted to pray with us, so we put our arms around each other’s shoulders in a circle, and one of the men spoke a prayer of thanks and offered requests for our well-being. The Miracle of the Coats and Blankets was that, when we were finished at the end of the night, we had exactly one blanket left.
Of course, even though people are now hungry — because some are no longer allowed on the Bridge campus at all due to the new identification procedure and some only have day passes which keep them off the Bridge campus after 5 P.M., so they either miss all meals or the evening meal — it is illegal for us to feed them. All feeding of the homeless outside the Bridge (except on private property) is now officially banned by the city. So there are currently many people who can at this point neither eat at the Bridge, nor can they be offered food outside it. I had heard already since December 1 the dinner numbers at the Stewpot’s Second Chance Cafe (the Bridge dining hall) are down to the mid-200’s from the steady number of 750-900 per meal since the homeless assistance center opened in May of this year.
Last night, we left our homeless friends and drove around some more downtown. A number of people were sleeping on the sidewalk next to one of the shelters, which was full. These people were clearly not shelter-resistant: we spoke with some of them, and they had tried to get in.
Once again, the poorest of the poor are being criminalized and driven underground. The ‘fringe’ people are being forced back to the fringes and beyond. It is a tragic turn of events.
Designed to serve in particular the ‘chronically homeless,’ the Bridge is not effectively doing that for large numbers of them at this time. For a few days this week, these people were back out on the street. For a couple of days after that, they were persistently ticketed by police at the orders of undetermined entities at City Hall. Now, they are in hiding: in the open, on the ground, cold, hungry. Tonight, I heard a weather report that a ‘bitter’ freeze is on its way to the Dallas area. Imagine how that will feel sleeping outdoors without even the shelter of a building to lie close to.
We can do better. We have done better for the past few short months. And we must do so again immediately, before people begin to die from the cold.
We must deliver on the emergency shelter that has been promised. At the very least, we must allow the shelter-resistant homeless or those the shelters can’t accommodate — especially women — to sleep back on the Bridge campus away from predators and violent offenders. As the Bridge management sorts through who is ‘qualified and unqualified’ to receive shelter there, we must follow through on the the commitment that the Bridge has clearly and emphatically put forward to the public through the media since it opened in May and even before: to provide safe refuge and access to the meals that the Stewpot is offering to all those who need it.
For heaven’s sake and for our own as well, it is time to stop playing politics with people’s lives.