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At Homeless Games Day, A Respite From Life on the Street (But Not From the Heat)

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To a casual observer, Homeless Games Day at Reverchon Park looked like a typical company picnic or a church field day. The adults played volleyball, touch football, horseshoes and engaged in plenty of good-natured trash talk on the basketball court, while the kiddos had a blast in the bounce houses and on the playground. A pair of big barbeques churned out grilled chicken and burgers, and the older men played dominoes and chess in the shade.

The only differences in Saturday's festivities were nearly all of the men, women and children there were homeless, and instead of playing their usual role as society's outcasts, this was a party for them.

Volunteers from Trinity Bible Church in Caddo Mills, Union Gospel Mission, Dallas Life Foundation and others early this morning helped bus in over 500 people for the annual Homeless Games Day, a sort of field-day-cum-Olympics for Dallas's homeless population. For many, the event provides a fleeting interlude of fun and camaraderie in lives often devoid of the simple pleasures of a game of volleyball or a nourishing lunch -- even if they had to battle brutal temperatures while doing so.

"When you're homeless, you never have enough," says Fred Hamilton, a tall, gray-haired man with owlish wire-rimmed glasses and a huge smile, "You never have enough money; you never have enough food." Today, money ceased to matter, and food was ample -- every person received a boxed lunch with a hamburger, a hot dog, a chicken breast, chips and a drink.

Hamilton's been here before. In 2006, he went through Union Gospel Mission's discipleship program, a faith-based curriculum designed to get homeless men back on their feet by concentrating on one life skill at a time. But, after that, Hamilton relapsed and started using drugs again. This time, he's been in the program five weeks, and he's hopeful it'll make a difference in his life. For now, though, he's free to focus on his chess game.

Hamilton and Juan D. Gabriel, a white-haired man with a cane and an impressive Fu Manchu mustache who sometimes stays at Union Gospel's shelter, are battling for the right to play in the finals. Next to them, dominoes clack quickly across the table, and a group's heated discussion about Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is cut short by the announcement that a raffle for Wal-Mart gift cards is about to begin.

Hamilton's story -- getting help, relapsing and seeking help again -- is not uncommon here. Daniel Jennings, who's been a disciple at UGM for five months, has been at several homeless shelters across North Texas. Jennings, 39, has lived on the streets for most of his life, and even getting shot eight times during a drug-related incident in Atlanta -- Jennings spent 89 days in a coma -- he says it's hard not to go back to life on the street.

"When I hit a peak, it was good," Jennings explains from the sidelines of the basketball court behind Reverchon Rec Center, describing brief interludes of getting back on his feet and having a job, an apartment and a girlfriend. But when he lost his job or ran into old friends, it was easy to slip. "I went back to the streets to do what I knew best: getting high," he says. "My life was like a cycle."

Like Hamilton, Jennings seems sure that this time will be different, and he owes the difference to his renewed faith in God. Jennings is tall and muscular -- the only evidence of his past is a scarred recess in his neck from a bullet wound -- and wears a white polo shirt with the UGM logo. He stops only briefly to watch the basketball game, and then hurries back to help organize the food line.

It seems like there are as many homeless people helping as there are being served. A man named Edward ("Everybody calls me Hot Sauce," he clarifies) is busy watching the horseshoes game to make sure the heckling doesn't get out of hand. Hamilton, too, has abandoned his chess game to pick up trash and keep the lunch line moving.

After lunch, most people concentrate on eating, but others are just relaxing. On the swing set, a fifty-something homeless woman grins as she swings, and two adults wander by with faces painted to look like a tiger and a zebra. Under a tree, two men are lounging in the shade on flattened cardboard boxes, chatting languidly.

After the raffle, organizers begin giving awards to the winners of the running races and board games, and a group of men -- one with wide, flat dreadlocks, is dressed like Michael Jackson, complete with the patent-leather shoes -- begins to assemble at the bus stop.

By 2 p.m., most people are back on buses headed for The Bridge, Dallas's $21 million homeless assistance center that opened in May 2008, other shelters or wherever they came from. But some like Gabriel carry the secret mantle of champions with them-- not a point of pride, Gabriel tells Unfair Park afterwards, as much as a moment of blissful unconcern for the usual worries.

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