The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

A Middle-Class Homeless Crisis in Dallas? May 21, 2008

This blog received a comment on the post entitled “Broken” from a friend in my church, Church of the Incarnation (Episcopal) that I hope you’ll go back and check out (May 15, 2008.  Click on ‘Comments’ at the bottom of the post.)  

May I just say…I love my church, not only because it is a beautiful, old building with lovely, reverential services, but because of people like English, who care enough to ask the hard questions and to show up on Christmas Eve at the Hyatt Regency Dallas for the SoupMobile’s Christmas Angel Project — and to go to Honduras to build schools, and to New Orleans to rebuild houses, and to fight poverty in Belize, and to mentor in areas of poverty around our very blessed church property, and on and on (it requires an entire book to list all of the outreach that is done out of Church of the Incarnation, thanks to Outreach Director Martha Lang and many others).  My fellow parishioners and our priests put their love on the line constantly all over the place.

Anyway, I hope you’ll read the comments of the “Broken” post where English asked an important question:

“Do we have a middle-class homeless crisis in Dallas?”

and read the response from David Timothy, AKA SoupMan, of SoupMobile Mobile Soup Kitchen.

I would love to know what readers think.  What is your experience and what are your observations?



Broken May 15, 2008

Journal Archives

Thursday, 12/22/05

I was out with the mobile soup kitchen on a feeding run tonight, and unlike most nights, the vibe was strained on the truck.  For starters, I’d arisen from my sick bed to show up for the commitment I’d previously made, realizing that in the past few weeks I’ve been writing about the homeless, thinking about them, talking about them a great deal… but that I needed to see them, touch them, talk to them — that being with them is what I love, not doing politics about them.

I felt ill on the run, alternately sweating and freezing, thinking I might pass out.  There’s nowhere to sit on the truck, and the floor was slimy with spilled soup, so we volunteers slipped and slid around as it bumped along through the downtown streets.  One of the regular volunteers was tired, which made her very sharp-edged.  When she was rude to the rest of us one too many times,  I came within an ace of walking away and hitching a ride back to my car.  It was an unusually wretched start and middle to the run, and I was determined to just endure.

Then I began talking with Joe, a homeless man we picked up at the first stop to ride with us and help us feed. Wanting to get the real lowdown, I was asking him how things were out there.  It was a grim, unflattering and unsympathetic portrait of who was out on the street and what was going on.

As the van clattered and lurched along, between bouts of bending over to slop scalding soup into paper cups, as I sweated and froze and felt I’d faint, as the grouchy volunteer barked irritable orders at everyone, as an uncharacteristically-rowdy, block-long line of ragged people milled and pushed and shoved and shouted outside the truck in front of the Day Resource Center, I thought to myself, “Now, exactly why am I doing this?”

Joe offered to do the ladling, and I stepped away to rest my back.  He was so kind to notice I was tired.  Then the director asked me to come outside the truck and ‘work on the ground,’ which I love, so it was a relief to get outside and hand people food and talk to them a little.  “How are you?  How’s it going?”  “God bless you all for being out here!” they’d say, or  “I’m OK, but I could sure use some work.”  “Joseph, I’ll pray for you.”  “Oh, thank you.”  A man getting mock angry when I let a woman be served ahead of him.  The woman giving me a hug, and then another.  “Why do the women get to go first?” a man asks.  “Does it make you men feel like chopped liver?” I joke with him.  “You call them ladies, but you call us men.”  “OK, we’ll call you gentlemen from now on!”

I was starting to loosen up, to remember, to feel what this was about.

And then I began to look into their faces, one by one, as they stepped up in line to receive their soup, sandwich, cookie and banana.  A young woman with cerebral palsy, looking brave and dignified, not wanting to meet my eyes.  A man who could barely stand, trying to signal something as he swayed away, almost as if he were crossing himself.  A woman deathly pale with a yellowish pallor to her skin and a cap pulled down that barely covered the absence of hair.  People with skin leathered and hands swollen from the cold.  Someone blind.  Someone on crutches.  So many of them thanking us, blessing us, wishing us Merry Christmas.  Loving us for loving them.  Dark faces, pale faces, every kind of face in the world.

Broken faces.  Broken, as we all are.

Beauty.  Real beauty. 

We left, and as we rumbled back toward our starting point, I thought, “This is why I do it.  To be near them.”

But, still, why?  What is the Grace that’s near them, that spills over onto me, that makes me want to be out in the cold, ladling soup, giving away sandwiches?  When I try to pin down a reason, it slides away, like mine and Joe’s tennis shoes on the soupy metal floor of the catering truck.

And then, sitting here in Barnes and Noble, drinking my hot cocoa, feeling less at odds and less resentful of the middle-class Dallas culture than I did in my first entries into this journal a year ago — accepting it, even, and my place in it, and the fact that I drive a nice car while many people have no homes…  Remembering that driving here, I drove all the way down Beverly Drive looking at the stupendous displays of Christmas lights and didn’t need to turn away in frustration, accepting that that kind of wealth is part of life, too — just observing, not judging…  

Anyway, I got it, sitting here, remembering the beauty, the desperation, the softness, the fear, the humanity, the love, the blankness, the greed, the need — in those broken faces in the crush of people outside the Day Resource Center — giving to them out of my own brokenness, as they gave to me.  I got it…

The beauty, the grace is in the brokenness.

But it makes no sense!  And when I once read that Henri Nouwen said it, I thought, well, my great hero is just wrong on this one.  Beauty in healing?  in unconditional love?  in service?  Sure.  But in brokenness?  

The only connection I can make is with Christ’s broken body on the cross.  But wasn’t the beauty in the resurrection?  The brokenness of Christ’s body I find devastating!  Do we have to be broken first in order to be healed?  Is it because only through brokenness comes the possibility of Grace?

The Spirit of Love is out there on the street, for sure — in the people themselves — surrounding them, hovering near them.  I feel the intensity of Christ’s Love there, have always felt it.

It a mystery, a magnificent mystery.

And our street people show it to me.  Every time.



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.