By Jim Schutze
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Parker, who works in conjunction with the Park Cities Baptist Church, is known on the street at "The Rev." To the well-intentioned would-be street-feeders who lack street savvy, Parker sometimes acts as an urban trail guide, showing them the gathering and feeding spots and guiding them through the task.
He sees no no ill effects from his charitable work, which began in 1992. "If I didn't feed them, they'd go hungry. That's all there is to it," Parker says. "I don't contribute to their lifestyle except by filling up their stomachs." He says that he's seen many of the same people over the years and that their problems are always the same. "Drugs and alcohol. It's so simple, yet it's so hard to solve."
Parker, 62, says he doesn't consider the areas in downtown and the Cedars where he street-feeds seven days a week to be residential: "I don't see anyone living there." So he's a little curious about who is complaining.
Those who work with the homeless, providing food and services in the city's institutional settings, say the street-feedings complement their services by filling in when they're closed. "There are gaps in services," says the Rev. Bruce Buchanan, who runs the Stewpot as the associate pastor for community ministries at the First Presbyterian Church.
His facility, just south of the church at the corner of Park Avenue and Young Street, feeds a hot lunch to an average of 270 people a day, 125 at breakfast. Buchanan says that he tries as hard as possible to get the street-feeders to partner with the church, but most like to go their own way.
Unlike the street-feeders, the Stewpot is a licensed kitchen that must follow health-department guidelines and sanitary standards for food preparation and storage. It also attempts to offer a wider range of services: casework, dental care, laundry, showers.
Several other professionals who work with the homeless -- none of whom would speak on the record -- said it is preferable to feed the homeless in a more structured setting. Once they begin conforming to the most basic rules and interacting with staff -- people who will begin to make them consider alternatives to the street -- there is more of a chance of getting them back on the road to the mainstream. The workers were hesitant to publicly criticize street-feeding because they're not in the business of criticizing charity, and the street-feeders are, in some ways, very much part of the city's homeless safety net.
According to Eugenia James, assistant director of the city's health and human services department, even if the city were to take issue with street-feeding on health grounds, there are no regulations covering it. "Licensing only covers selling food, not giving it away," she says. Discussion of the city's providing a central location -- indoor or outdoor -- for charities to feed the homeless usually turns to issues of liability, she says. "If you start sponsoring it, you are liable for what goes on," she says.
Buchanan and Ron Cowart, manager of the city-run Day Resource Center, say the central business district and environs collect the homeless for reasons other than a concentration of freebies. The Farmer's Market provides casual employment -- a few hours a morning unloading trucks. There's also the confluence of transportation, plus enough empty buildings for outdoor sleeping. Interestingly, Buchanan says, there was a deliberate effort in the late 1980s to move street-feeders from the parking lots behind City Hall to the Interstate 45 underpasses between downtown and Deep Ellum. That food provided the seeds of what blossomed into the teeming shantytown that itself became a major issue in 1994, when the city fenced it off and bulldozed it in advance of World Cup soccer coming to town.
Those same guys are now among the throngs behind City Hall.
"You have to look at the problem in terms of the nature of homelessness," says Cowart, a former cop. "We categorize two different types of homelessness. There are traditional homeless, driven out in the streets by some catastrophe or employment problem or domestic violence or whatever. They have a great deal of dignity, and they will do anything you ask them to. For them we have what we call our professional services, to help them gain employment, housing. They tend to stay in the shelters, and they tend to move up and on. Then there's street people. They won't stay in shelters. The majority are addicts with convictions, or they suffer from mental or severe emotional problems. The success rate of getting them off the street is nothing that would make news. For them we have what we call incidental services. Showers. Laundry. Mail service. Medical. There is a homeless personality."
Services provided by both the public and private charity sectors for both categories of homeless have expanded over the past decade, Cowart says. "Dallas used to be criticized for ignoring the homeless. That doesn't seem to be the complaint now," he says.
As part of that expansion, the First United Methodist Church plans to renovate the second floor of the Stewpot building into a $1.2 million homeless assistance complex. Some of the services to be provided there -- such as sack lunches -- will move over from the church's main complex on Ross Avenue. Critics contend the move will further concentrate the population, conveniently moving them to a place where they won't bother the rest of the Methodist congregation.