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

"We have run into some minor opposition to our plans," says the Rev. John Fiedler, the church's senior minister. He says his congregation has considerable contact with the homeless it tries to serve and will continue to in the future. "We have worship services with them. We shake their hands in worship services. We aren't strangers to them," he says.

Fiedler says he'd like to find common ground with "folks trying to maximize the city's commercial potential and bringing about this wonderful development. But it's important we don't watch the safety net fall to the ground."

A homeless man wanders down Cadiz Street past Tony Maglini's loft.
Mark Graham
A homeless man wanders down Cadiz Street past Tony Maglini's loft.
Homeless wait outside the Day Resource Center to be fed.
Mark Graham
Homeless wait outside the Day Resource Center to be fed.

South of I-30, in the heart of the Cedars, talk about the homeless and crime and neighborhood blight pretty soon turns to two words: the Bunkhaus. If there is something that unites homeless advocates and property owners, it's their utter contempt for the for-profit shelter, which is owned by the same Houston family, the Joekels, that owns Pacesetter Personnel Service, a day-labor office at the same address.

Two homeless men, both of whom asked that their names not be used because they often sleep at the $7-a-night shelter, gave similar descriptions of the place. "You can check in drunk, high, it don't matter," said one, who described himself as a former DART driver with a drinking problem. Shelter employees sell beer, drug dealers operate inside and out, and the loan sharks are easy to spot. They're waiting for the day-labor buses to start returning to begin collecting their loans. One type of currency at the Bunkhaus comes right from the church groups, says another resident. Guys stock up on free sandwiches given away on the outside, sell them to other homeless guys, then use the money to buy beer or crack.

Ron Cowart, the resource center manger, says his agency refuses to provide its more extensive aid and training services to men living in the Bunkhaus. "We require them to be in a structured environment, and Bunkhaus certainly isn't that."

In 1989, the city's Board of Adjustment ordered the Bunkhaus to close at its old location on Exposition Avenue, where it generated the same complaints. Just days before a city ordinance took effect that would have kept it out, the Bunkhaus applied for a permit to move to its location in the Cedars. What ensued was a two-year legal battle and a lot of hardball politics in which the Joekels, who run labor halls across Texas and several other states, found some friends in Austin and at City Hall.

In February 1991, Dallas passed an ordinance setting up regulations on labor halls, including a prohibition on their placement in residential areas. That same spring, the Texas Legislature, led by several members from Houston and Dallas, including former state Sen. Ike Harris, passed a law that prohibited local licensing, and instead set up a weak system of state regulation that did not include placement.

"I'd rather they not be there. We tried hard to move them, but we were unsuccessful," says Bennett Miller, whose loft projects, such as the American Beauty Mill on South Ervay, have been at the forefront of the area's renewal.

Miller, who filed suit against the city and the Bunkhaus, does not seem as exercised as some of his neighbors over the concentration of homeless services. "Some are good for the homeless, some are bad," he says. But mostly, he doesn't think "criticism in the newspaper will get anything done." Simple economics will in time, he says, pointing out that compared with most other major U.S. cities, the number of residents in Dallas' core is still very small.

In the Cedars, there are about 1,500 residents -- perhaps a fifth of them high-income professionals, artists, and other newly arrived residents, Miller says. In three years, that number will grow to perhaps 2,500. "There's really no buildings left to convert," he says. "Any growth will have to be new construction, and I think the sociology of the neighborhood will have to change before you see much of that."

"There's no legal question about our right to be there," says Tony Garrett, a "media consultant" for the Bunkhaus and Pacesetter Personnel. Garrett, who returned calls placed to the Joekels in Houston, has been active in electoral politics, working in 1992 as Ike Harris' district manager.

Garrett says the Bunkhaus absolutely does attract drugs and prostitutes, but he says none of that goes on with the blessing of management. "These guys get paid in cash. If you paid everyone at TI in cash, there'd be that trade outside their gate too. We do the best we can to regulate the types of people who work for us," he asserts. "We're not dealing with monks. This is the rough end of the ladder. There's gonna be problems, but you can't suggest we cause these problems."

In Garrett's hard-nosed view, "people have a kind of cloud-nine vision in what's going to happen in that neighborhood. The so-called Cedars has never been different than what it is right now. It's always been a tenderloin. It was bad 30 years ago, before we were there."

As the liaison between the Dallas Police Department and several downtown business groups, officer Eric Tabbert is a professional listener of complaints about the homeless. From a police viewpoint -- the enforcement of laws against public sleeping, urinating in public, drunkenness, and more serious crimes -- "We have ongoing enforcement efforts that don't have any long-lasting effects," Tabbert says. "It's usually a temporary fix." The police do street sweeps, issue misdemeanor tickets, and pick up homeless guys who haven't paid those tickets and have outstanding warrants for their arrest, he says.

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