Sarge says he spends most days at his "duty station." The tall, gentle-sounding man appears to be talking about a single metal folding chair parked under a scraggly hackberry tree a block south of Dallas City Hall, just out of reach of the withering sun. But he is also clearly half out of his mind.
Sarge has positioned himself directly across a narrow side street from the First Church of Christ Scientist, a landmark classical revival-style edifice of tan brick and white stone best known for its distinctive gray metal dome. The building has been surrounded since early August with an 8-foot chain-link fence. For the last five years, Sarge lived in the front door of the sanctuary, which was all but abandoned to vandals and thieves in the late 1980s. When the fence went up, Sarge told the building's new owner, investor-developer Hershel Weisfeld, that he was expecting to be reassigned to a new post someday, so he didn't mind moving off the property.
He is still awaiting that new assignment. By all indications, though, he has moved for good to his new spot just across Browder Street. "I'm with the Army. I'm not here to watch automobiles, and I'm not security," says Sarge, who wears a Ralph Lauren button-down, a knit cap, and a pair of grimy black sneakers. "I'm here in the protocol area awaiting stationing. If you want to know more about me, go around the corner and ask the Armed Forces Director of Personnel down there at the Day Resource Center."
Not willing to volunteer anything else about his name, age, or years living on the street, Sarge says, "You have to talk to high-ranking personnel over there." Asked how he feeds himself, he says, brightening, "You can eat seven days a week 'round here. The churches come by."
The former church that Sarge has adopted as his "home" is about to become yet another cog in the near south side's engine of change, the wave of residential and commercial redevelopment in the Cedars area, which by old-time markers begins at the back door of City Hall and extends across the Interstate 30 canyon into the Old City Park area and southwest to the former Sears catalog warehouse. Weisfeld's project will become the Sara Ellen & Samuel Weisfeld Center, an alternative performing arts space for music, dance, and theater. "There'll be an endless list of opportunities to expand this part of the city culturally, like never before," Weisfeld says from his art-filled offices just off Turtle Creek. "I'm trying to be a good citizen and figure out how I can work with my neighbors."
But Weisfeld's neighbors aren't your standard next-door nuisances -- the Winnebago-parkers, the snotty adolescents, the lords of weedy lawns.
Before he put up the fence, his neighbors filled the window wells around his building with broken 40-oz. beer bottles. They crapped in his bushes and urinated on his lawn. They fell asleep on his property and threatened him and yelled obscenities when he had the nerve to wake them up. They covered his lawns and parking lots with their casually discarded styrofoam plates and cups, which had been handed them minutes before by drive-by church groups.
His neighbors are the hardcore street people who have turned nearby Ervay Street into a Champs d'Elysée of destitution. They stroll the street by the score with brown sacks of malt liquor and whatnot, from the Dallas Public Library, the city's de facto homeless day room, over the I-30 overpass, past Old City Park, and south to the Bunkhaus, a for-profit crash pad. On any given weekend, the brick shelter at 1818 S. Ervay St. is surrounded by a teeming bazaar of hookers, loan sharks, crack dealers, and now and then a vanload of charitable sorts handing out sandwiches, cold chicken, or old clothing.
Judging from the long list of people Weisfeld has talked to about his problems -- city officials, homeless-service providers, police, and neighborhood groups -- he's been busy. So far he's extracted a promise of a few more trash cans along the street and the cooperation of a few church groups that are thoughtful enough to pick up after their mass street-feedings. For the most part, however, the relationship between Weisfeld and his neighbors is symbolized by Sarge and the old church.
They sit facing each other. A stand-off.
On one side is a hip comer, one of a growing collection, with plans to expand the tax base and revitalize an area that has been a blighted backwater for more than 40 years. On the other side is a problem the city has herded from neighborhood to neighborhood, out of Deep Ellum, into the Cedars. They represent a problem nobody has managed to resolve as downtown's last frontier -- the Farmer's Market area and the southern edge of downtown, down to Corinth Street -- shows signs of new residential and commercial life. Nobody talks about the endless car burglaries and thefts and piles of excrement on the front step left by their neighbors, who many Cedars residents suspect have been deliberately concentrated in their part of town by a host of public and private policies.
Given all the renovations in the Cedars, more well-to-do settlers are expected to move in, their wagon trains pulled by Chevy Tahoes and Ford Explorers, freighted with leather sofas and wide-screen TVs. On pure economic grounds, the sod-busters are destined to win.
And while for the moment the homeless are holding the high ground in the streets, tensions are beginning to rise as the classes collide. Some beleaguered upscale residents are calling for changes in the way the city handles its homeless population.
As always with the "nonconforming homeless," as the service professionals call them, there are far more problems than solutions, more losers than winners.
Two blocks east of Weisfeld's arts center, Tony Miglini has created an urban home in a cool gray stucco building with nearly 4,000 square feet of living space, soaring ceilings, abstract paintings, a high-tech media room, and a kitchen in granite and steel. It's on the tax rolls for nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
"I love living downtown -- everything except the homeless, and they're so bad they're going to drive me out," says Miglini, a 28-year-old who describes his occupation as "having some investments and doing some producing." Sitting at his serving bar, fielding calls on his cell phone, Miglini flips through photos of his life as a downtown resident and property owner, a member of the inner-city avant-garde. One snapshot shows a pile of syringes in his gutter. There's another of a broken window in his SUV. Another of a dozen men loitering just around the corner. One time, he says as he flips the pictures, a homeless man chased his girlfriend into the house, informing her along the way of all the things he'd like to do to her. Then there's the human excrement, the public sex in his courtyard, and the extra $45,000 he spent to wall off the front of his building, install security cameras, and secure his parking area.
Miglini's misfortune, he says, is living in the apex of the homeless Bermuda Triangle -- between the First Presbyterian Church-run Stewpot, the city-run Day Resource Center, and the old Union Gospel Mission, where the homeless still mass to catch mission buses that run to its present location on Irving Boulevard. "The problem is, the homeless have more rights than I do," he says, insisting that the issue is not rich vs. poor but right vs. wrong. "They're allowed to do what they want. Nobody wants to hurt their feelings."
At a time when crime is down around the city, car break-ins are so bad on his block that his friends have stopped coming to visit, he says. He leaves his own car unlocked because "they break a window and cost you 300 bucks just to steal 35 cents." Some of the damage is so blatant, Miglini has begun to suspect that the homeless are deliberately targeting new residents in an effort to drive them out. "I see some of it as a vendetta, like what's going on in the Mission District [in San Francisco]. They do not want anyone coming into the area. They think it's their area. Stay out."
Last year, Miglini put his concerns -- and home photos -- in a letter to Mayor Ron Kirk, and he was put in touch with several city officials in charge of the city's homeless programs. "Their attitude was, you should be a lot more compassionate and maybe the shit on the sidewalk wouldn't bother you so much. They told me to start donating my time to the homeless.
"I'll tell you, I do a lot for charitable causes...I don't consider these guys one of them. For them, being without a home is a chosen occupation. It's their career."
About seven blocks southeast of Miglini's house, architect Gwen Gaylen and her husband have purchased a nondescript warehouse on Harwood Street, moved in, and begun renovating the building into lofts. She likes to call the area SODO, for south of downtown. They aren't big players, like some others moving into the same quadrant, people such as nightclub developer Spencer Taylor, who is putting a Gilley's entertainment complex on Lamar Street south of I-30; or Matthews Southwest Corp., which is converting the massive red-brick Sears catalog buildings further south on Lamar into 450 loft apartments, plus restaurants and shops; or the city, which is putting its new $59 million police headquarters on donated land on the same strip.
Gaylen's top concern is narrow and about as hot a button as you can push in the Bible Belt. Simply put, she doesn't think the homeless should be fed in the streets. "There are consequences to the neighborhood -- litter, loitering. All they are doing is enabling the street lifestyle with absolutely no strings attached. Just as if they were handing them money, they're supporting their drug habits." The feedings tend to concentrate the homeless in her neighborhood, she says -- a "feeding the pigeons" dynamic applied to street folk.
"People get a good feeling by coming down to my neighborhood from North Dallas to feed the homeless when they wouldn't tolerate having homeless people where they live," she says. "People in these churches have to come to my neighborhood to feel good about themselves being charitable."
Bob Shaw, a professional photographer who has lived in a converted industrial plant in the Cedars for 20 years, says the feedings make the neighborhood dirty, and that in turn invites other problems. "What happened to cleanliness is next to godliness?" says Shaw, adding that he's been greeted with hostility from street-feeders when he asks them to pick up after themselves.
The sense that the feedings attract the homeless -- which is disputed by homeless advocates -- is strong among even the most carefully spoken critics. "These men are resourceful," says Weisfeld of the vagrants. "If these services were moved to Highland Park Town Hall, people would be bathing in the creeks, relaxing and lounging under the shade. They wouldn't be downtown."
Approaching the subject from a far more confrontational angle, Mehdi Aboodi, owner of the Farmer's Grill, can't stand the feeding outdoors or in more institutional settings. He likens the homeless to flies on excrement and says he finds no takers for the work he offers -- little jobs such as cutting weeds at the back of his parking lot. Since the Stewpot, a Monday-through-Friday provider of free breakfasts and lunches, moved in a block away earlier this decade, Aboodi says, his restaurant has been hit with waves of broken windows, trespassing, and major thefts. The homeless foot traffic out front is constant. Someone got on his roof and stole about $700 worth of parts from his 20-ton air conditioner, he says. It cost him $15,000 to fix. "Look at this," he says, handing over a stack of yellow complaint cards from the police: half a dozen trespassing and theft complaints in just over six weeks. One woman who wanted to use his bathroom after he was closed broke his front window just to spite him. Another guy walked in, grabbed his cash register, and ran. Another broke in through the roof and stole $600 in coin rolls and some meat. He attributes them all to the area's "army of dopers and crackheads."
Showing off his Plexiglas front windows, burglar bars, and the major display of coiled concertina wire on his roof, Aboodi says his business now looks like Sing Sing. So does every other business that has stayed on the surrounding blocks.
Talk to Aboodi, Weisfeld, Miglini, and Gaylen long enough, and they arrive at some pretty conventional solutions.
In the plainest of terms, they offer the old bum's rush: Move 'em along. Apply enough pressure that they feel a need to go elsewhere. You don't want 'em in your neighborhood; we don't want 'em in ours.
Miglini suggests shifting the homeless to "some residual area of the city." Gaylen likes "down around Industrial Avenue where some of the services are." Weisfeld ponders the idea of adding a homeless compound to the multi-dimensional Trinity River project.
"They want to live outdoors and have certain amenities. Perhaps we could provide bathrooms and showers and services such as that near the Trinity," he says, tossing out the idea for discussion. "They could gather and do their drugs and alcohol. The Trinity River project has so many components to it, maybe this could be another one to include."
A well-organized group from Pleasant Grove's Johnson Church Center pulls up on Ervay Street in several vans and cars, hauls out some tables and a portable PA system, and gets to work. "We have chicken, rice, and vegetables," says organizer Janette Williams over the lovely, full-voiced hymns being sung by Deacon Michael Reed.
About 50 men go through the serving line, receiving their white styrofoam cup of iced tea at the end. The feeding is over in a hurry, and as it ends, the dozen or so church volunteers fan over the area with trash bags, picking up the drifts of litter the homeless have left in their wake. Then Williams and others ask whether anyone wants to pray with them. As they form their circle on the sidewalk, there are only two homeless men willing to pray. "Pray I get some money," one street citizen yells from a distance. "Yeah," says another, "I need money."
At the corner, a man calling himself Catfish recounts from his memory all the street-feedings available in a given week: chicken here, sandwiches there. "The chicken lady comes on Friday," he says, referring to Betty Bramble, who has brought fried chicken several Fridays a month for the past 10 years. All in all, he says, it's hard to go hungry. In the background the Johnson Church Center finishes its prayer: "Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus."
While the Johnson group was performing its mission on Ervay, Rip Parker, Dallas' Johnny Appleseed of street-feeders, was helping a Sunday-school group from the First United Methodist Church of Richardson distribute sandwiches, water, and clothing in front of the Stewpot.
This being a Sunday, it is closed, but men are lined up waiting for the churches -- the "rolling stewpots" in homeless lingo -- to arrive. Before the church van even pulls out, one of its customers is trudging up Young Street. He doesn't even break stride as he tosses down a wrapper, then the half-eaten sandwich. Another group has just rolled into a parking lot across from the main library.
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.
"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."
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.
Homeless advocates such as Clora Hogan, editor of the homeless-sold newspaper Endless Choices, contend that the sweeps are increasing. And she is probably right, given that there are more residents around to make complaints and prompt sweeps.
If arrested for outstanding misdemeanor warrants, the homeless are jailed, released for time served, and returned to the streets, Tabbert says.
Beyond that, he says, cops have better things to do than watch street-feedings and wait for some poor vagrant to drop a piece of litter. "It's a tightrope to walk. You start messing with these churches' charitable mission, and you become the devil incarnate. 'How dare you. We are doing God's work.' So they pass out food and run back home. They don't have to deal with the aftermath. This thing is a sacred cow."
That's why the police don't issue many tickets for church vans parking on the sidewalk.
Then there's the criminal side of the street population, he says. "What a lot of these guys do is absorb the free services, the food and medical and clothing, and then go out and burglarize cars and buildings or steal metal to feed their habits. A lot of 'em are scrappers. We've had a fire escape, a huge metal one, torn off the side of a building for scrap."
And the street population has grown, Tabbert says. "For some reason, more street people have come here. It's known as a good place to be." Politically, he says, the city has been quite tolerant of the homeless. "We don't have a strong enforcement policy.
"This is happening at the same time that people are investing more and more money, putting in their time and effort to renovate. They're beginning to form crime watches and organize and start demanding some solutions. We're creating a monster of a problem. It's getting bigger and bigger the longer we don't address it."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.