DALLAS-When Will Edwards gathers the troops at Park Cities Baptist Church, one of the volunteers notices something different. "All cleaned up now, I see," says one volunteer wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hat in decidedly Dallas Cowboys territory. "You know, I do this on occasion," replied Edwards, who today is wearing his gray hair short and is cleanly shaven. Volunteers in Rip Parker Memorial Homeless Ministry who regularly go with Edwards to feed Dallas' homeless know Edwards better with longer hair and a grizzly, unkempt beard like the one on his driver's license.
What's the occasion, Will? "We're in court now, so I got to look like a nice guy," Edwards fires back. What he means is, not like a homeless guy, which the 52-year-old Edwards has been off and on his entire adult life.
He's been off the streets for a few years now and he works during the day refurbishing car interiors. But his real passion-the reason he's going to court-is homelessness. Specifically, what the city is trying to do to homeless people and those who try to help. And his lawsuit against the City of Dallas could ultimately change how cities across the country deal with the estimated 3.5 million people who experience homelessness in any given year.
Today Edwards and about a dozen adult and children volunteers from Flower Mound United Methodist Church are planning on doing something that's technically illegal. City ordinances forbid groups like this from giving homeless people food or water unless it's a certified group with special training (for what? Edwards asks) and unless it's at one of a handful of locations specified by the city as homeless feeding areas.
At the end of January, Edwards teamed with another feeding group, Big Heart Ministries, to sue the city of Dallas for its restrictions. His lawsuit serves as the first strike against a city that has spent the last four years trying to push what many call the visual blight of the homeless out of sight. In a city historically devoted to business interests, most applaud the city's barrage of ordinances to push vagrants off of street corners and underpasses. Ordinances have helped dislodge a homeless population that called the Cedars neighborhood near downtown home for decades. With vagrants gone, the area has opened up to real estate developers who have sought to transform vacant buildings into condominiums. Few fight City Hall, but Edwards thinks this is a fight he can win. He admits his clientele may not "do anything because they don't want to do anything," but "that doesn't mean they have to starve."
Lawyers from the Washington, D.C., and Houston-based law firm Howrey LLP have agreed to represent both Edwards' Rip Parker and Big Heart ministries pro bono. They believe the city of Dallas doesn't have much of a defense. Dallas' ordinance, said Howrey attorney Jason Norwood, doesn't square up with state law.
City rules also may violate constitutional guarantees for religious liberty by narrowly limiting how church groups fill the biblical mandate to feed the hungry. Making a constitutional case could set precedent for eight other cities-Jacksonville, Fla.; Fort Myers, Fla.; Gainesville, Fla.; Orlando; Las Vegas; Santa Monica, Calif.; Wilmington, N.C.; and Atlanta-with ordinances against feeding the homeless.
Four years ago Will Edwards was just like thousands of other homeless people in Dallas and the surrounding Metroplex. A bogus criminal charge cost Edwards his job working in a shipping dock in Irving, Texas. Then he lost his apartment. "It did so much to hurt me," Edwards says about the criminal charges that were dropped when authorities realized they had no case. "It made me an angry, bitter man."
Later, as Edwards tried to sort out his legal mess, he resorted to living inside an abandoned Mitsubishi Expo minivan, sleeping under plywood with boxes on top to make it seem like there was no one living in the car. Edwards slept at night parked outside a 24-hour Garland, Texas, restaurant and by day went through a tedious routine of trying to earn enough to eat.
"You do what you can," Edwards explained. "You collect cans. You see if you can get a job for the day."
Eventually a friend told him he could get a job from Rip Parker, a man whose decade-old sandwich ministry made him one of the most respected men in the city. Edwards says he showed up on a Friday to go with Rip to feed other homeless guys downtown. From there, he was hooked. Parker taught Edwards to love the gospel and that his faith could grow arms and legs.
Parker helped Edwards get a job. Then a place to stay. And before Parker died of cancer in November 2003, he told Edwards he wanted him to continue the feedings after he passed away.
Now more than three years later, Edwards is still at it. After work every day, he heads into downtown with sandwiches made by area churches to feed whoever might be on the street and hungry. It's nice to have purpose. "Jesus said if you love Me, do what I say," Edwards says. "Almost everybody has a better understanding of this than I do."
The same year Parker died, the city began its big push to sweep from sight the homeless populations. Critics alleged Dallas' series of ordinances took on a tone of social Darwinism: If the city could eliminate the things the homeless rely on to survive, perhaps the thing the city and its residents largely saw as an unwashed scourge would simply disappear.
After winning election, Dallas mayor Laura Miller (a Democrat in an formally nonpartisan office) fulfilled a campaign promise and pushed through an ordinance in May 2003 banning panhandling.
In the months after the ban, police began ticketing the homeless men holding up cardboard signs at busy intersections. In the first six months, police issued nearly 450 tickets for panhandling. According to court records, not one had been paid. How is a panhandler supposed to pay fines that are as high as $500? "For a while I would roll down the window and yell and scream at them to get off the streets," Miller told the Dallas Morning News at the time. It seemed to be the prevailing civic sentiment. City leaders like Miller didn't care to solve the city's homeless problem, just make it invisible to voters driving around the city's roads. Dallas voters elected to build a brand new $21 million homeless assistance shelter that will provide 100 beds for short-term use and a pavilion to provide sleeping space for 300 more every night. In the meantime came more ordinances-against the homeless' shopping carts and a public sleeping ban.
Dallas isn't the only city to ticket homeless people out of sight. Chicago's anti-panhandling ordinance in 1991 severely curbed the numbers of homeless folk out on the street. But a 2001 lawsuit by a few homeless men arguing the city's ordinance amounted to a violation of free commercial speech forced the city to relent. Chicago eventually paid a $500,000 settlement.
In Atlanta where Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus donated a brand new state-of-the-art aquarium to the city, Marcus says the city will spoil the entire effort if they can't get the city's homeless to stop hanging around the street outside the facility. For its part, Dallas' mayor Miller has said the few hundred homeless folk still wandering around downtown present the primary obstacle to revitalizing the city's downtown. It raises the question: Are city leaders in Dallas-or elsewhere-interested in reducing homelessness or simply pushing it out of sight?
Out of sight is exactly where the ordinances have pushed Dallas' nearly 10,000 homeless people. As Edwards makes his route past four popular homeless hangouts in downtown, he notes only a few hundred homeless people actually live there now. Most scatter throughout the rest of the city, including several massive encampments in South Dallas.
Today when Edwards hits a downtown side street outside the Stewpot, a popular soup kitchen that doesn't provide Saturday's lunch, a few dozen homeless men mill around the block. One black man in a wheelchair tosses crumbs to a mass of pigeons that amble around his feet. "How long you been out here?" one man absentmindedly yells to another. Twenty years is the answer.
Climbing out of his small white sedan, Edwards yells across to one of the men he knows. "How are ya?" he shouts, grabbing bread loaf bags of sandwiches from various churches. "Blessed and highly praised," the man replies, adding, "A man might starve to death waiting on you." To make sure he doesn't, the man eats only one of the sandwiches Edwards gives him. The other he stashes away in an empty Doritos bag of to save for later.