Homeless and Hungry in the Big D: Keeping the Family Together

Magazine cover reading "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards"

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 15 No. 3/4, "The Best of the Press: Southern Journalism Awards." Find more from that issue here.

Thousands of people in Texas are caught between bourgeoning urban growth and a depression in the state's traditional industries. Other individuals, trapped by the limitations imposed by advanced age, fixed incomes, or mental illness, add to the ranks of a seldom recognized, but ever-increasing population of the hungry and homeless. Photographer David Lesson and reporters David Tarrant, Melinda Henneberger, Leslie Pound, and Dan Barriero from the Dallas Morning News provided a searing portrait of the city's destitute on Thanksgiving Day last year. Their 16-page special report elicited more than $750,000 in contributions from readers for volunteer agencies that feed, clothe, and shelter the homeless. 


Dallas — Pam Lovejoy turns her head toward the wall and winces as the attendant in the plasma center gingerly slips the hypodermic needle into her vein. Pam squeezes her hand repeatedly, working her fist like a piston, trying to force the blood faster from her vein through the clear tubing into the one-pint bag slowly filling beside her. 

She draws a deep breath and sighs. Already in the past month, the 22-yearold woman has felt the needle pierce her skin eight times. "After a while," she says, "you get used to it so you don't feel it no more." 

The hefty, T-shirted donor in the chair next to her has been watching. "You're earning this money," he says. 

"I do every time I come here," Pam says. "I clog up a lot. I got poor veins." 

"Bag down," she yells across the room to the attendant, alerting him that she's finished. "Finally." Exhausted, she slumps back in the chair. This is the second time this week. 

Afterward, Pam joins her husband, Bob, and Joshua, their 10-month-old son. They meet on the sidewalk beneath a sign that reads: 

Community Plasma Center 

Your Donations Save Lives 

Immediate Cash for Donations 


It is not benevolence this chilly second day in October that brings Bob and Pam Lovejoy and others like them to the gray brick building at Ross Avenue and Peak Street. They bleed instead for money: $8 for their first donation and $16 for their second — an $8 bonus for giving twice in one week. 

Unemployed and living temporarily in a downtown shelter, the Lovejoys receive the bulk of their income this week in exchange for their donation at the plasma center — money for milk and diapers for Joshua, the $5-a-day charge for the shelter, cigarettes, coffee and bus money. 

Recent figures compiled by the City of Dallas indicate that at least 20 percent of the city's estimated 14,000 homeless street people are the "new poor," including families suffering financial distress or lack of housing. 

Families, in fact, are the fastest growing segment of the homeless in America, according to congressional testimony this year. They represent 27 percent of all the homeless. 


There have been precious few blessings in Joshua Lovejoy's first year of life. Born Thanksgiving Day last year, Joshua has lived at a half-dozen addresses, sometimes wedged with other families in one-room bungalows, sometimes crying himself to sleep next to strangers in crowded homeless shelters. And a few times, huddled in his mother's arms beneath a bridge at night. 

Pam and Bob were married August 3, 1984. Dallas was in the midst of an economic boom, preparing for the national spotlight of the Republican convention and the renomination of President Reagan. Bob had his own painting business. Virtually overnight after they married, the young couple's fortunes nose-dived. Bob's truck was stolen and with it, the tools of his trade. 

In the fall of 1984, Bob tested the job market in Seattle where his family lived. In Seattle, Bob looked for work at the shipyard and found the job market depressed. In early 1985, after several months of working only odd jobs, the Lovejoys set out again for Dallas. 

Once again the young couple was on the move, driving through California and Arizona, sleeping in their '67 Olds Cutlass, stopping only for temporary work. 

One night in Phoenix, they pulled over at a motel. "We were just going to stop for a day or two, see what the work situation was," said Bob. "At that point we probably had about $150 — just whatever I had been able to stick back. The car was right under our window. Got up the next morning, open up the door to the motel room and — no car!" 

Pam and Bob were left with a sleeping bag, several pairs of pants and some shirts, he said. 

Phoenix doled out the Lovejoys' first taste of homelessness. By day they ate stew at the Salvation Army soup kitchen. By night they huddled with other drifters beside fires along the banks of the Salt River, which cuts its way through the city. 

For extra cash the Lovejoys donated blood at the plasma centers, but Pam said she finally had to stop. "We'd get through donating, and we'd go get something to eat and I'd start passing out," she said. "So I quit giving plasma and went to the doctor and he told me I was pregnant. 

"He told me to settle down and have a baby." 

Two days, two nights, and 1,010 miles later, they had hitchhiked their way back to Dallas, "totally, unadulteratedly broke," Bob said. 

"I've never had trouble getting work in Dallas. Ever. So I thought to come down here and maybe do a little better." 

For Pam, a native Texan, and Bob, who left Seattle for a series of jobs as a painter and short-order cook in Dallas, life on the streets is nothing short of jarring. For weeks under the long shadow of an impressive skyline, a symbol of prosperity for the more fortunate, the Lovejoys have made do foraging for the basics: food, shelter and clothing. 


Bob and Pam, with Joshua in his stroller, walked 13 miles from the shelter to check out a job prospect. He filled out an application, and the employer, a manufacturer of bed frames and other metal products, had sounded optimistic, telling him to check back in a week. 

The next day, Pam and Bob walked through downtown hawking newspapers. Pam used a borrowed umbrella to shade Joshua as he sat nearby in his plaid stroller. 

A few passers-by, noticing Joshua with Pam, had tipped her a dollar, and one woman bought Joshua a pint of milk. Others simply stared past her as they hurried by. A few meddled. 

One young man stopped Bob near InterFirst Plaza and offered unsolicited advice: "If you say 'Extra! Extra! Daniloff freed!,' you'll do better." 

"Buy one and I'll say it," Bob snapped. 

A woman carrying a Bible started reading verses to Pam. Joshua dropped his bottle on the sidewalk and started crying. The woman left. 

The weekend brings good news on Bob's job application at the metal products company; he starts Monday. "We're hanging in there," Bob says before starting his new job. "It'll work out, I guess." In a few weeks, he figures, he'll have been able to put back a little money to rent a house, the first permanent home in Joshua's life. 


Four Trips to Terrell & Counting 

By Melinda Henneberger 


Throughout the night, darkened forms move soundlessly through the cavernous shelter, standing over sleeping bodies or pacing up and down the rows of narrow beds in the dim red glow of an exit sign. 

Among these figures lies 27-year-old Maxwell Maxey, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic released only today from Terrell State Hospital with a plastic garbage bag full of wrinkled clothes and a paper sack full of medicine. 

Fully clothed and still wearing his dirty gray sneakers, Maxey writhes painfully on the bed and, head twisted back, finally curls into a contorted fetal position. 

Burt Gasaway watches from the next bed. "What's wrong with him?" 

"Nothing right now," Maxey answers for himself. "My neck twitches to the right and left." 

"Man, don't tell me it's going to be one of them nights. I don't need one of them nights. Don't kick the bucket tonight. Wait 'til I leave tomorrow." 

Before Maxey succumbs to the sleep he says is his only reprieve from the "faded mirage voices" that whisper unspeakable thoughts, the newly released mental patient wonders what life on the street holds for him. 

"I hate to see what tomorrow will bring if this is my first day out of Terrell State Hospital." 


Maxey is but one of the thousands of psychiatric patients throughout the state and nation who are stuck in a revolving door: treated in a state institution, released to fend for themselves on the streets, referred to overburdened and inadequately funded community mental health centers and, eventually, readmitted to the state hospital. 

Maxey has gone through the turnstile four times. 

When caseworker Terry Paul first found him 18 months ago, Maxey was living in an abandoned railroad tank car on an abandoned track south of downtown. Maxey had lined the tank car with cardboard and carpet scraps. 

He had begun a rapid downward spiral that landed him on the streets after symptoms of schizophrenia — voices, paranoia and delusions — cost him his job as a furnace operator at a tank manufacturing company. Physical symptoms — violent shaking and the neck and arm movements — also kept Maxey from working; bizarre and sometimes violent behavior barred him from shelters for the homeless. 

For 151 days in 1982, 96 days in 1983 and 119 days in 1984, Maxey had been hospitalized and treated for schizophrenia. "I've been in and out of Terrell four times, and I'm not that sick," he said. "I've got to get something done about this merry-go-round in and out of Terrell State Hospital." 

This last time, after threatening a traffic cop with a three-inch pocketknife and begging him to shoot him, Maxey was committed September 18, 1986, to the East Texas hospital for another 90 days. 

The knife incident was triggered, Maxey says, by the relentless voices "telling me how sorry I am and things like that." 

"I pulled it out and told him to kill me," Maxey said, "But I want to live as much as the next person. I was in a trance." 

After 45 days in the acute stabilization unit — half the time ordered by the court — Maxey has been stabilized on medication and is being released today. He is full of bravado, but later he admits being insecure about going back to Dallas alone. 

Just before two p.m., amid a chorus of good-byes and well-wishes, Maxey is handed his belongings in a garbage bag, and steps into the hospital van. 

"Stay crazy," says one who isn't going. 

Boarding the Trailways bus for Dallas, he pauses for a last look and hugs a worker who has accompanied him to the bus stop. 

"I'm sure I'll be back." 


Growing Up on Skid Row 

By David Tarrant 


"All my friends are big," says Venus. "Harvey and Stretch, they call him Stretch because he's the tallest one over there." 

"Over there," in 10-year-old Venus' terminology, is the only home she's ever known in Dallas, a one-story orange brick warehouse on Austin Street on downtown's southwestern edge. 

"The shelter I stay in is nice," she says. "I get a bedroll to sleep on and some food." 

While most of the Austin Street Shelter's transient residents are adults, occasionally a few kids her size show up. 

After school lets out, Venus walks home from the bus stop at Old City Park with her mother, Deborah. This afternoon, she's singing a song by Boy George. As she turns into Austin Street, she spots a couple of her big friends tossing a Frisbee. 

Venus, her tousled blond hair flashing in the sunlight, sprints the last block and leaps for the Frisbee, which floats softly, slowly just beyond her reach. 


Venus' hair falls over her eyes and tears roll down her cheeks. The moon still shines in pre-dawn Dallas as Venus and her mother leave the shelter for the bus stop where Venus will catch a ride to Pearl C. Anderson Elementary, a few miles southeast of downtown. 

This morning, Venus would rather have stayed behind at the warm shelter. In the 45-degree chill, she thrusts one hand deep into her blue sweatshirt worn under a ski jacket and overcoat. Dragging her blue book bag along Canton Street, she trudges past Dallas City Hall, past a billboard of a smiling Michael J. Fox of the TV sitcom Family Ties

Inside a rusted-out structure of steel pipes at the comer of Harwood and Cadiz Streets, homeless men huddle around a fire or curl up on tom cardboard. Deborah and Venus quietly walk past them and stop farther up the street for coffee at Burt's lunch counter. 

At Burt's, Venus makes a collect call to Arizona. 

"Guess what, Grandma? I got my ears pierced," she says. "I just wanted to call you before I went to school. . . . 

"I love you too, Grandma." 


In the 18 years of work with the homeless, the Rev. Jerry Hill has seen the change come over the streets. It isn't easy for Hill to discuss the little ones who climb the steps of his shelter on Austin Street and others like it in Dallas. At the Salvation Army alone, almost 600 children and their families have spent the night this year. 

"The by-product of this," Hill says, "is that we're raising a new Skid Row generation."