By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Soupmobile fare today is hot dogs and spaghetti along with cookies, chips and drinks. As fast as the volunteers can dish out the food, the line of about 40 inches forward. Some are still eating as they rejoin the line for a second or third turn, while those departing are replaced by hungry stragglers. For more than half an hour the serving goes on. Volunteers chase down stray litter while Timothy runs the show, greeting every customer as promised. A backup tray of peanut butter sandwiches is brought out until finally there are no more takers.
The virtuoso feeding performance of the Soupmobile is the product of a steep learning curve. "One time I remember specifically, as I sat in the van with the doors open passing out food, all I could see was hands reaching out," Timothy says. "There must have been easily 50 people crowded around the van reaching, trying to get what I was passing out. I was a rookie; I didn't know any better. That was an experience you don't want. I mean, they were on top of me. I learned real quick to set up a line." His story illustrates the strange mix of deep empathy and stern paternalism that homeless service providers develop. "It's not because they're bad people; it's because they want to eat," Timothy says.
The ordinance that brought the Soupmobile out from under the bridges is getting mixed reviews from providers and homeless alike. Timothy's operation, which he anticipates will serve about 75,000 meals this year, is Dallas' largest mobile provider. He sees the ordinance's benefit to property owners and lauds the provisions bringing meal providers in line with city health codes, but he also worries about unintended consequences. "We're afraid a lot of people are going to wind up diving in dumpsters to get their food," he says. "We hope it doesn't become a situation where, God forbid, they're stealing to get their food, but it's definitely going to make it tougher for the people under the bridges."
Rayzer counters that the policy has already led to improvements. In planning the change, her agency monitored a popular feeding site near City Hall. "On one particular day we had 15 different entities come down to feed," she says. They ranged from individuals with a few leftovers to church groups serving elaborate meals. "You can imagine the litter. There was no possible way that anyone could eat 15 meals, so people were saying, 'I want this part of the meal but not that' and leaving food lying around."
Since the ordinance was adopted last year, two more sites have been added to the original seven, which were mostly churches and shelters. One new site is at the Dallas International Street Church only a few blocks from Mack's Camp. The mobile providers complement the hot meal Pastor Karen Dudley serves after every service at the church. Robin Bethea, a resident of Mack's Camp for about a year, rattles off a list of free food options. "Pastor Karen will feed every night," she says, her words tumbling out in a husky voice. "MLK Resource Center will give a hot meal on Wednesdays. Hunger Busters used to come [under the bridge], but now they park over at Sister Karen's." She chuckles. "They figured if they ran off the feeders we'd starve, but that didn't work."
Mike Rawlings, appointed Dallas' "homeless czar" in September, agrees that the combination of charities, shelters and mobile feeders is effective. "You can get a meal in Dallas if you're a homeless person," Rawlings says. "You may not get three squares, but you can get two. You're not going to go hungry." In fact, the ordinance, designed to lure people to sites where other services are available, may be working too well. The Reverend Bruce Buchanan, director of the city's largest private soup kitchen, The Stewpot in downtown Dallas, says he has seen a slight drop-off in his lunch numbers as the mobile feeders have become more predictable for their clients.
Other providers have been more confrontational, led by Phil Romano. "It made it harder for us to feed them, and if that's what they wanted to do, that's what they did," Romano says. The accent that hints at his Italian roots inevitably brings to mind the mob drama The Sopranos, and Romano is just as tenacious, though in a better cause. He says that he essentially won exemption from the ordinance for Hunger Busters, his feeding organization. "I went to Mike [Rawlings] and I said, 'I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to stop. Then who's going to take care of the 1,400 people we feed?'"Rawlings defends the ordinance, but he sees Romano's point. "Frankly, some of the ordinances, if you look at the flip side, can criminalize somebody trying to do something good," Rawlings says.