Bum's rush

As downtown's upscale residents find themselves surrounded by an army of street people, many wish these 'dopers and crackheads' would move on -- or at least find a toilet

Bob Shaw, a professional photographer who has lived in a converted industrial plant in the Cedars for 20 years, says the feedings make the neighborhood dirty, and that in turn invites other problems. "What happened to cleanliness is next to godliness?" says Shaw, adding that he's been greeted with hostility from street-feeders when he asks them to pick up after themselves.

The sense that the feedings attract the homeless -- which is disputed by homeless advocates -- is strong among even the most carefully spoken critics. "These men are resourceful," says Weisfeld of the vagrants. "If these services were moved to Highland Park Town Hall, people would be bathing in the creeks, relaxing and lounging under the shade. They wouldn't be downtown."

Approaching the subject from a far more confrontational angle, Mehdi Aboodi, owner of the Farmer's Grill, can't stand the feeding outdoors or in more institutional settings. He likens the homeless to flies on excrement and says he finds no takers for the work he offers -- little jobs such as cutting weeds at the back of his parking lot. Since the Stewpot, a Monday-through-Friday provider of free breakfasts and lunches, moved in a block away earlier this decade, Aboodi says, his restaurant has been hit with waves of broken windows, trespassing, and major thefts. The homeless foot traffic out front is constant. Someone got on his roof and stole about $700 worth of parts from his 20-ton air conditioner, he says. It cost him $15,000 to fix. "Look at this," he says, handing over a stack of yellow complaint cards from the police: half a dozen trespassing and theft complaints in just over six weeks. One woman who wanted to use his bathroom after he was closed broke his front window just to spite him. Another guy walked in, grabbed his cash register, and ran. Another broke in through the roof and stole $600 in coin rolls and some meat. He attributes them all to the area's "army of dopers and crackheads."

Howdy neighbor: one of the homeless who frequents the Cedars area
Mark Graham
Howdy neighbor: one of the homeless who frequents the Cedars area
Tony Miglini looking through the gated entrance to his loft on Cadiz Street
Mark Graham
Tony Miglini looking through the gated entrance to his loft on Cadiz Street

Showing off his Plexiglas front windows, burglar bars, and the major display of coiled concertina wire on his roof, Aboodi says his business now looks like Sing Sing. So does every other business that has stayed on the surrounding blocks.

Talk to Aboodi, Weisfeld, Miglini, and Gaylen long enough, and they arrive at some pretty conventional solutions.

In the plainest of terms, they offer the old bum's rush: Move 'em along. Apply enough pressure that they feel a need to go elsewhere. You don't want 'em in your neighborhood; we don't want 'em in ours.

Miglini suggests shifting the homeless to "some residual area of the city." Gaylen likes "down around Industrial Avenue where some of the services are." Weisfeld ponders the idea of adding a homeless compound to the multi-dimensional Trinity River project.

"They want to live outdoors and have certain amenities. Perhaps we could provide bathrooms and showers and services such as that near the Trinity," he says, tossing out the idea for discussion. "They could gather and do their drugs and alcohol. The Trinity River project has so many components to it, maybe this could be another one to include."

A well-organized group from Pleasant Grove's Johnson Church Center pulls up on Ervay Street in several vans and cars, hauls out some tables and a portable PA system, and gets to work. "We have chicken, rice, and vegetables," says organizer Janette Williams over the lovely, full-voiced hymns being sung by Deacon Michael Reed.

About 50 men go through the serving line, receiving their white styrofoam cup of iced tea at the end. The feeding is over in a hurry, and as it ends, the dozen or so church volunteers fan over the area with trash bags, picking up the drifts of litter the homeless have left in their wake. Then Williams and others ask whether anyone wants to pray with them. As they form their circle on the sidewalk, there are only two homeless men willing to pray. "Pray I get some money," one street citizen yells from a distance. "Yeah," says another, "I need money."

At the corner, a man calling himself Catfish recounts from his memory all the street-feedings available in a given week: chicken here, sandwiches there. "The chicken lady comes on Friday," he says, referring to Betty Bramble, who has brought fried chicken several Fridays a month for the past 10 years. All in all, he says, it's hard to go hungry. In the background the Johnson Church Center finishes its prayer: "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus."

While the Johnson group was performing its mission on Ervay, Rip Parker, Dallas' Johnny Appleseed of street-feeders, was helping a Sunday-school group from the First United Methodist Church of Richardson distribute sandwiches, water, and clothing in front of the Stewpot.

This being a Sunday, it is closed, but men are lined up waiting for the churches -- the "rolling stewpots" in homeless lingo -- to arrive. Before the church van even pulls out, one of its customers is trudging up Young Street. He doesn't even break stride as he tosses down a wrapper, then the half-eaten sandwich. Another group has just rolled into a parking lot across from the main library.

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