Features

Not in my backyard

"Not in my backyard" Continued...

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

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.

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