The small church parking lot on the busy corner of Young and Harwood streets downtown has been drawing plenty of stares lately as motorists pass the growing crowd of people sleeping on cardboard scraps just a few feet away.You can curse the darkness of this story, wondering why government at every level fails entirely to consider these people citizens who need shelter, rather than "the homeless" who need to get off the streets. The mayor's reaction, for example:
More than 150 homeless people turn to First Presbyterian Church's guarded parking lot each night, raising concerns about the impact on downtown businesses and the safety of the homeless as the temperature drops. More than 150 homeless people consider the cramped spot at First Presbyterian Church to be their last refuge after police and city officials recently moved them from nearby streets.
"I think it's a blessing from God that they're doing this," said Kenneth Cole, 55, who says he has been homeless for a year. "This is our last stop."
The new makeshift shelter at a major entryway to downtown also has become a growing nuisance, some neighbors say, with homeless loitering around downtown businesses. Others are concerned that, as the weather gets colder, the site will become more dangerous for those on the street.
Mayor Tom Leppert plans to meet Monday with the Rev. Joseph Clifford of First Presbyterian to look for solutions. He said the city is trying to balance the needs of the homeless with the need to attract investment downtown.He could be criticized for assessing the problem that way. Then again, he's the mayor, not a pastor, not a prophet, and the business of most American cities is business, like it or not. So you could curse the darkness, and wonder about the pastor of the church, who admits:
"I'm not comfortable with the parking lot. There's not a night that goes by that I don't wake up and get out of my king-size bed ... and think about the fact that there are 150 people sleeping in our parking lot – and they're thankful for that. Something about that is really twisted," he said. "The phrase that keeps coming to my mind is we can do better. I know we can, and we will."Or you can see an effort as better than doing nothing at all. Or you can excuse the church, noting that they are doing what they can, and what else can they do? Homeless shelters cost money and require staff and, frankly, churches aren't in that business: charities are. Even church-related charities are not churches per se. So you have to cut First Presbyterian a lot of slack, and admire what they are willing to do, which is apparently more than anyone else in Dallas will do; or at least as much. And you could note that, sadly, this is not a new problem, but it remains an invisible one, or one clearly some would like to keep invisible:
First Presbyterian has been committed to helping the homeless since they started populating the area in the 1970s.And it is a problem of human beings, who resolutely insist on being human beings, no matter how they are relegated, treated, discarded, or resolutely ignored:
"It intimidates people," he said. Mr. Watts added that he has called police about homeless people urinating in public and, in one instance, people having sex on the church steps. The parking lot sits against a backdrop of the glowing downtown skyline.When I pastored a church we occassionally had someone sleeping on the grounds. We'd know because we'd find a flattened cardboard box in the bushes, or some other indication. One time we found a pile of sh*t on the sidewalk. There's no nicer way to say it. It upset me at first; then I realized there were no facilities, and not too many places on the grounds that weren't wide open, and while the sidewalk faced the street it was barricaded by a hedge. I also realized our overnight visitors were human beings. And sometimes that's the biggest problem of all. Human beings against a glowing downtown skyline. And we tend to prefer the skyline.
There is a window here, too, on how we care for our poor, and who we consider 'poor':
Some in the crowd defy stereotypes about homeless people in that they work, mostly for temp agencies providing day labor. Martin Cabrera, 32, gets up at 4 a.m. to get work from a temp agency that pays $5.85 per hour, which he said isn't enough to get his own place.For the prophets, the code words were "widow" and "orphan." It didn't matter how much you made, or whether you could work. Those excluded from economic society were women without husbands, and children without parents, or just without fathers. The law of Moses, the prophets reminded the people of Israel over and over again, required the people of Israel to take care of these least and last. And not just because the law said so, either. Even the liturgy would remind them:
The maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, Who keeps faith forever,--Psalm 146:6-8
secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free;
the LORD gives sight to the blind. The LORD raises up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD protects the stranger, sustains the orphan and the widow, but thwarts the way of the wicked.
The LORD shall reign forever, your God, Zion, through all generations! Hallelujah!
He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing.--Deuteronomy 10:18
You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;--Psalm 10
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
18 defending the fatherless and the oppressed,
in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.
Give the king thy judgments, 0 God, and thy righteousness unto the king's son.--Psalm 72
2. He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment.
3. The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness.
4. He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.
Help us, Lord,
for no one stays loyal,
the faithful have vanished.
People lie to each other,
no one speaks from the heart.
May the Lord silence
the smooth tongue
and boasting lips that say:
"Our words will triumph!
With weapons like these
who can master us?"
Then the Lord speaks out:
"I will act now,
for the poor are broken
and the needy groan.
When they call out,
I will protect them."
The Lord's word is pure,
like silver from the furnace,
seven times refined.
Lord, keep your promise,
always protect your own.
Guard them from this age
when wickedness abounds
and evil is prized above all.
Obviously, I could go on. In the end, we have the Psalms to turn to:
Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.And we remember that justice itself is weak; which is why it is eternal. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
*This one was thanks to Tena, who always returns at just the right time.