"When the numbers got up to about 150, we decided to move them to the chapel lot. It was a more contained area. But at that point we decided we needed to add another shift of security."

And so now this tragic little village has occurred on the First Presbyterian Church chapel parking lot at night—not by anyone's plan or fiat, driven instead by brutal cross-currents of need, empathy and order. Deficit, accident, mercy and loopholes turn an anonymous expanse of concrete into the harbor where all the most desperate need of the city gathers and pools, like Casablanca in World War II.

I asked Cowart's boss, Dave Hogan, who is over the city's entire crisis intervention program, what harm it does for Dr. Clifford to offer the wretched of downtown a point of sanctuary. And here we come to the first of two key crunch points.

Is providing the homeless a place to sleep outdoors really a good deed?
Brandon Thibodeaux
Is providing the homeless a place to sleep outdoors really a good deed?

Hogan expressed admiration for the courage and dedication of Clifford, the other clergy and members of First Presbyterian. But he said the real mercy is not to enable the homeless to continue to live on the streets.

"In our eyes the man [Clifford] walks with the saints because of this effort," he said. "The problem is that in a lot of cases it just enables a lot of the people to stay longer on the parking lot instead of getting them into the shelter and into the treatment that they need."

The second crunch, however, is this: Hogan and Cowart say that in October and September of this year their outreach teams contacted 1,662 people who qualified for some form of voluntary treatment or shelter. But of those there were 227 who could not be placed anywhere because no space was available.

Dr. Clifford thinks on any given night the crunch can be far worse than even those numbers would indicate. "They put five people into beds, and the system is full," he said.

The mission of the police, as Deputy Chief Golbeck explained to me, is to enforce the law and preserve order. He cited instances in the past where the police have experimented with looking the other way. They found what First Presbyterian has found: Every loophole or rag of sanctuary becomes a gathering place and then a major problem. So their mission now is to close the loopholes.

But all the best efforts of the outreach teams and the private missions still fail to find places where all of the homeless can be safely housed and treated. The result is a cruel equation by which some of the homeless are not allowed to be anywhere. They are not allowed to exist.

It's perfectly understandable how all of this comes about. Everyone has the best intentions. But a condition that does not allow human beings to exist is evil and an anathema, and into that breach steps First Presbyterian.

Clifford is clear why he believes the church must take that step: "They have to have someplace to go," he said. "They have been our congregation for 32 years at the Stewpot," the church's soup kitchen mission.

"We are called to serve them. They are the least of these in our community, and Jesus has taken up residence with them, according to the gospel, and he is to be found in their midst. We exist to serve Christ, and according to Matthew 25, that's where Christ is, so we serve them."

The Dallas City Council takes up the issue this week to decide if rules can be bent so that the downtown homeless can sleep inside the city's Day Resource Center at night until the new Homeless Assistance Center becomes available next February. Given how extremely difficult this issue is for everybody involved—First Presbyterian, the police, the private missions, the city's outreach team and, of course, the homeless—we have to hope the city council will find some mercy for them all.

It isn't black and white. It isn't bad guys versus good guys. But it does come eventually to a point of ultimate cruelty or ultimate mercy. Arranging them all in rows and putting them out where we can see them on that parking lot brings it home somehow.

One of those lumps could be my former publisher's mother. My own loved one. Me. You. The lumps are people. They were all gorgeous children once, full of wonder.

This is up to all of us. For now we are the good guys and the bad guys, the black and the white of it. But the minute I find somebody else to blame, I'll let you know.

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