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Not in my backyard

Special Issue | Dallas mayor criminalizes homelessness and those who try to serve the homeless

Issue: "Building a city," March 24, 2007

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.

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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.

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