By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The unwritten rules that Choice is charged with enforcing are few. People prone to violent outbursts are pressured to leave. Any drug use should be discreet and any selling even more so. Litter goes in barrels to be burned. Bowels and bladders are emptied well outside the camp. Adherence to the rules isn't absolute, but it is the norm, and the results are notable. The dwellings are widely spaced. There is little smell or noise, other than the constant thrum of traffic overhead. Choice often mediates disputes over property or money. Even Dallas officialdom noted the orderly atmosphere. Just before Mack's Camp was leveled last year, Karen Rayzer, Dallas' director of environmental health services, paid a visit. "I went out there, and the ground was swept, it was very neat," she says. "It makes it hard to say, 'Yeah, you need to clean this out.'"
Hard, perhaps, but not impossible. At the time of Rayzer's visit, the camp had grown too comfortable for the city's comfort. The population had climbed to possibly 100. One resident had tapped into a billboard's power supply to run a microwave. A church had supplied portable toilets and dumpsters for trash, giving the settlement an air of permanence, the last thing the city wants. The camp had to go. A year later, Mack's Camp is again dotted with more than 20 shacks, though they are more modest than before.
Foolish pride had taken root in another bridge encampment a few blocks away. "They were building huts like fortresses," says resident Cheyenne Fuller, homeless for four years and a close friend of Choice. When Fuller returned from her night construction job, she found her belongings had been bulldozed--yet she says she doesn't blame the city. "There was a guy that had built an upstairs," she says. "Not out of cardboard; he had metal plates that went across that you could walk on. It was huge, had four rooms in it, and he had the nerve to paint it brown. I was like, 'Man, you've done lost your mind.'"
As the afternoon wears on, a white state highway department pickup rolls through the gate into camp. Choice heads over to chat with the driver, a sympathetic acquaintance. When Choice comes back, he looks grim. "He said, 'Get ready.'" Somebody in the group calls the warning a bad sign. "That's not a sign," Choice says. "When the state man comes, it's a done deal."
In fact, Choice's source turns out to be wrong. Though at least three sites are bulldozed over the next two days, Mack's Camp is spared. But the anxiety lingers.
"I'm not going to sleep at all tonight," Choice says.
You never know when the bulldozers might be coming.
Timothy turns to the volunteers in the van and begins his briefing, a speech that covers every detail of handing out large quantities of food to even larger crowds. He is a paunchy, gregarious 57-year-old with shaggy black hair that has a suspicious absence of gray. "Most people we shake hands with, we just touch hands with a closed fist," he reminds his crew. "Some people will want to shake hands. If you were to see some open cuts or sores on the person's hands that you shook hands with, that raises the question as to whether you should change gloves. The answer is that you should, but do it in a discreet way that's not going to make anybody feel bad."
Since Timothy founded his mobile kitchen in the summer of 2003, he has spent most of his time feeding at the homeless camps, including Mack's Camp, where he became fast friends with the mayor. Under the city's new feeding ordinance, however, that's no longer an option. The Soupmobile now plies its trade in the parking lot of the Resource Center on Cadiz Street, the city's main outlet for homeless services. Several weeks after the change, a routine has developed. The music is a signal, and by the time Timothy finishes his briefing and drives through the open gate in the high metal fence surrounding the lot, an orderly single-file line has already formed, and Timothy's six preferred client-volunteers are waiting to begin unloading the food.
The van's battered interior is jammed with tubs and coolers full of food and drink. There is as much art to packing the Soupmobile as there is to serving its clients. "We try to greet everybody that we're serving in some way," Timothy continues. "'Hello, how are you doing?,' 'That's a nice hat you're wearing,' or 'Isn't it cold today?'--it doesn't matter. These people are used to being completely ignored, shunned."
Ironically, two months ago it was impossible to ignore the homeless around the Day Resource Center. As the name suggests, the facility was intended to serve as the hub of Dallas' homeless assistance projects only during the day, but until February 1 it was also the overnight host of up to 300 street people. When the building was full, sleeping clients would fill the surrounding sidewalks as well. The complaints of the building's owner, also its next-door neighbor, led to a ban on sleeping in or around the building. In exchange, the owner renewed the lease until 2008, when the center will be replaced by the planned Homeless Assistance Center.