It has been decades since Ron Cowart was a grunt in Vietnam or a SWAT cop on the streets of Dallas, but he still has the bearing. Now head of the city's homeless outreach team, he is more gray about the ears than when we met a good 20 years ago but no less a soldier.
I asked him why the city feels it must bulldoze homeless encampments. Unfortunately, I asked him just as our food was coming to the table at Café Brazil.
"These encampments are environmental disasters," he said. "They're cesspools of sickness like you've never seen before."
First Presbyterian Church
The waitress put his toast and extra-crispy bacon on the table.
"We have found mounds of human excrement mixed in with carcasses of dead dogs," he said. "We have found that the vast majority of people who are there are physically sick with contagious diseases, everything from HIV to active tuberculosis."
My chicken quesadillas arrived.
"We have found women who live in the encampments, not 99 percent but 100 percent, every woman that lives in a box encampment is assaulted on a daily basis. The perception of the men there is that these women are living outside the embrace of society and they are fair game. They are raped every day of their lives."
I nudged my plate away with the back of a hand.
"In very severe weather most homeless people will go to a homeless shelter, but they leave behind the sickest of the sick, the people who are completely debilitated from untreated mental illness. We have found people near death underneath soggy blankets in disintegrating boxes."
I looked out the window, and an image floated to mind: A newspaper publisher once told me how her severely mentally ill mother often disappeared in the dead of winter. She and her husband hunted the alleys downtown hoping to find her alive in a box.
"We work our hardest on rainy, windy cold days," he said. "We found during the late spring sleet storm last year a woman wrapped up in three ice-encrusted blankets."
He told me about staph infections and gangrene. He said, "We do not believe it is morally acceptable to just walk away and leave people out there to die in those conditions. We must do better than that."
This wasn't what I wanted to hear. He was complicating the picture for me at a time when I badly needed things to be black and white, good and evil, white hats versus black hats. Every night on her way from work my wife drives up Young/Canton Street past the parking lot where the downtown homeless have been given sanctuary by First Presbyterian Church. Especially on bad nights the sight of them sleeping on cardboard pallets out in the rain rends her heart. I have driven her back down to hand out used suitcases and things, and I have seen what she means.
Why were they easier to ignore when they were scattered here and there downtown, gray lumps crumpled into doorways, sodden humps beneath a bench? Something about seeing them lying there in perfect ranks watched over by a security guard in the stone bosom of the church: The very orderliness of it somehow makes it all the more Dickensian.
They are no longer dirty little accidents of nature. They are people doing what we told them to do. Go lie on the hard street in the cold rain, old woman or old man, and pass the night while I lie warm in my house. Cower in rows, quiet until dawn.
Last September the Dallas Police Department launched a new "zero tolerance" policy for people sleeping in the streets downtown. First Presbyterian, for more than 30 years a sponsor of missions to the homeless, decided that its parking lots would be sanctuary for them at night, a place where the police were not authorized to come in and remove people.
Of course the police could remove them if they really wanted to. It's not a Boy Scout camp. But this is all a heartsick compromise. Dr. Joseph J. Clifford, senior pastor of First Presbyterian, explained to me that he and his church never really set out to become a sanctuary and certainly never meant to defy the police.
He said the church has always had good relations with Deputy Chief Vince Golbeck, commander of the Central Patrol Division and a respected figure among homeless activists. He said Golbeck came to the church and informed them of the new tougher policy and warned that a round-up was to be launched.
"They were seeking permission to clear our property," Clifford said. "For the last 30 years our church has never given that permission.
"Basically we just said to Chief Golbeck, 'We can't give you permission to clear church property.' And within about three days the homeless figured that out.
"So our population of five to 10 people went up to about 75 to 100 people. We had to start power-washing down our sidewalks with chemicals because they were going to the bathroom.
"There were a lot of challenges around this. We brought in our security guard earlier to wake up the guys who were at that point staying in our parking lot that was in front of our day school.
"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.
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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