Last week on the worst night of the freeze, Dallas police arrested 11 people on outstanding warrants when they showed up among some 300 homeless seeking shelter in the city’s Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center downtown. Clergy who had helped transport people to the center said the arrests were a betrayal of trust and cried shame on the city and police department.
Give me a break. Who are the saints in this movie?
The police department said it pulled in only violent offenders whose presence in the center overnight would have put other nonviolent homeless people at risk. One thing we know for sure. The world where the homeless live is dangerous, violent and cruel every day and every night of the week.
I found myself searching for a man I hadn’t spoken with in decades, Father Jerry Hill, who was a founder of the shelter movement in Dallas in the mid-1970s. Hill, an Episcopal minister, partnered with Dallas First Presbyterian Church to establish the first feeding center, the Stewpot, now in its 44th year on Young Street downtown. When he opened the doors on bitter cold nights and invited homeless people in to sleep on a concrete basement floor, it was the first time in Dallas that anyone had sheltered the homeless indoors.
He’s still around, retired from the active priesthood and serving as a volunteer assistant at a suburban Episcopal Church. I called him to check out a story I remembered from back in the day, apparently apocryphal. A cop told me once he found Father Hill standing at the door of the Stewpot with a baseball bat, culling the sheep from the wolves as people flowed in for the night. When I got him on the phone, I asked if the story was true.
“No,” he said. “I didn’t have a baseball bat at all at the Stewpot.”
But he did cull the sheep from the wolves. Armed only with his own imposing physical presence and a clerical collar, Father Hill stood at the door of the Stewpot on cold nights like a nightclub bouncer and decided who could come in and who could not.
“It was an issue, because you could take in one person, and they could throw everything in disarray. I catered to the people over 40. The younger group generally caters to drugs. The older group generally is not on drugs. Maybe they have been, but they will switch to alcohol later on just to try to get off drugs.
“An alcoholic you can reason with. But those on drugs you cannot reason with. You have to make a decision.”
He told me those decisions came harder when he was younger and newer in his mission. He started working with the homeless when they were still called bums, on Chicago’s old skid row on West Madison Avenue on the city’s near west side.
“I had an old house where I kept people at night. I had one guy who would come in, and every night he’d start fights on the floor. I threw him out one night, and it was snowing and everything. He was telling me, ‘You’re a man of the cloth, and you’re putting me out, and I’m going to freeze to death.’
“He touched my heart, and I had all this guilt that was raised up in me. I said, ‘All right, I’m going to let you stay, but don’t give me any more problems tonight.’
“Well, he did. So the next night, here he comes again. He starts giving me problems and starts fights on the floor. I told him he was going to get out. I wasn’t going to put up with it that night. And there he goes again, tries to play my guilt, I’m a man of the cloth, I’m going to throw him out in the snow and he’s going to freeze to death.
“I told him, ‘I’m not throwing you out. I’m throwing your behavior out. When your behavior changes, your body can come back in with it.’
“I’ve stayed with that over the years. I would do that again today. I would not change that.”
The accusation of betrayal lodged against police and the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions by clergy last week was based on assurances the clergy said they had given to homeless people that there would be no background checks. The question is where those assurances originated.
Monica Hardman, managing director of the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions, told me the assurances did not come from her. She called screening of admissions “industry practice, the industry standard.” She said she never told anybody there would not be screening and she doesn’t know why anyone would have told people otherwise.
“I’ve been trying to figure that out over the last couple days myself,” Hardman said. “They keep saying, ‘breach of trust by the city.’ I’m the director, and I haven’t spoken to anyone (about background checks). So I’m not quite sure where that messaging came from. It did not come from me.”
Screening for warrants or past criminal histories is not a cure-all. Sam Merten, the former COO of The Bridge, the city’s homeless shelter, said the issues are not as simple as keeping the bad guys out based on screening. Merten, now a political consultant, was in charge of security at The Bridge during his tenure there. He points out that many homeless people have led troubled lives.
If you’re going to bar everybody from entrance who has had trouble with the law, he suggests, you’re going to leave a big portion of the homeless problem unresolved: “Part of the reason The Bridge was set up was that a lot of the other shelters were screening people for past felonies. So then you start thinking about that layer of it.
“Do I feel any less safe because the guy sleeping next to me has an outstanding warrant compared to sleeping next to somebody who’s already spent 10 years in prison for a violent crime?”
Merten’s larger point, echoing Hardman and Hill, is that the land of the homeless is a dangerous place. Homeless people are susceptible to great peril and harm every day of their lives, as are people who venture into that world or invite the homeless into their own world.
“As somebody who has been deep in the underbelly of the encampments,” Merten said, “I would be lying if I told you there weren’t some things I saw and heard myself that really made me feel unsafe.”
The fact is that people attack the problem at all sorts of levels and in all sorts of ways, depending on the resources they have at hand and on their own appetites for difficulty. The groups that do tailgate street feedings, for example, have been accused of a cut-and-run approach that does little to resolve underlying issues. But they feed people. Is that a bad thing?
The larger reality is that dealing with human beings at the desperate margins of existence is never going to be easy and it’s never going to be sweet. People I have known who have been involved in various kinds of homeless outreach often tell me about deeply rewarding moments and experiences, but in order to get to those moments they must strengthen their hearts against the sadness, and they also have to try to ensure that nobody gets physically hurt, including themselves.
The people who need protection from the homeless more than anybody are the homeless. They are the ones out there on the streets during long nights, unprotected from rape, robbery, assault or murder. But who will take on that part of the mission, protecting them?
Others may feed them from the backs of trucks, shelter them on cold nights, take them to clinics and give them counseling. But who is going to take on the job of protecting them from rapists, violent thieves and killers?
The cops. That’s who does that job for the homeless, for us, for everybody. And how do the cops do it? By arresting people. It’s their mission. They’re set up to do it. We call them to do it. I asked Jerry Hill how he kicked somebody out, if he didn’t have a baseball bat. He said he didn’t. He called the cops.
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot is at the forefront of a national movement among progressive prosecutors to decriminalize homelessness by refusing to prosecute many arrests for vagrancy, loitering and trespassing. Creuzot’s argument has been that sending people to jail for being homeless solves nothing.
Jailing them merely puts the homeless in an even more dangerous place, jail, making their lives meaner, more cruel and more without mercy. But Creuzot has never said there aren’t people who deserve busting, people who pose a threat to others by walking around free.
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There’s never going to be an effective approach to homelessness that doesn’t involve significant security issues, and there will always be a point where those issues come down to cops arresting people. That’s the hard edge of the reality, and it would seem that people familiar with that reality would know that.
Some of the more harsh criticism of the cops last week, using words like betrayal, for example, felt gratuitous. Does anybody really think the cops want to stand out in the cold and arrest people on old warrants out of sheer meanness?
Even though we’ve made tremendous progress in this city on a number of social justice fronts, we’re not there yet. The angry blowback from some quarters when Creuzot announced his new policies was evidence that we still have a long way to go.
But let’s be sane, every little chance we get. One person arrested last week at the convention center had an outstanding warrant for aggravated sexual assault of a child. Another one had a warrant for criminally negligent homicide. What kind of betrayal of trust would it have been for the cops not to have arrested those two and let them in?