Sanctuary Isn't Simple for Dallas' Homeless

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."

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.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze