Donna McWilliam, Associated Press
Homeless people gather on a Dallas church parking lot Tuesday. The church is responding to recent police crackdowns on the poor.

DALLAS — In response to a police crackdown on the homeless, a downtown church has opened its parking lot to homeless people, allowing as many as 150 of them to sleep on the pavement while a security guard keeps watch.

The First Presbyterian Church started the practice after police began removing people found sleeping in public places. The Rev. Joe Clifford sees it as a temporary solution until more options are available.

"We continue to approach the homeless issue as a criminal issue," Clifford said. "While there are criminal elements within the homeless population, it is a social problem and requires a societal response."

The National Coalition for the Homeless has labeled Dallas among the "meanest" cities in the country for its approach to homelessness. In the past few years, city officials have passed laws banning panhandling, restricting shopping carts on city streets and limiting feeding of the homeless to designated areas.

"Most churches close their doors at night and flee to the suburbs," said Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the coalition. "They should be applauded."

Deputy Police Chief Vince Golbeck said he understands the church's mission, but authorities must enforce the law.

"A majority of property crimes in downtown Dallas are caused by the homeless. I'm not saying all homeless commit crimes, but the suspects, arrested persons we deal with, do have a lengthy record, and their background is homelessness," Golbeck said. "Those are just facts."

Golbeck said other city departments may have to determine whether the church has the appropriate permits to continue offering the sleeping space.

Stoops insists the church is within its rights.

"They're doing what churches are supposed to do, to help the poor and stand up for the poor," he said. "It's a legal thing to do, a moral thing to do, and the church has the right to allow the rich or poor to stay on their property."

Other cities have grappled with similar issues.

In New York, an appeals court last year upheld a ruling that found the city had violated the rights of a Presbyterian church by removing homeless people from its steps. The decision stemmed from a 2001 case in which Fifth Avenue Presbyterian sued the city to stop police from rousting homeless people sleeping on church property.

In the Seattle area, a number of tent cities have moved between churches for years, some of them drawing complaints from neighbors and code enforcement officials.

David Farrell, 53, has stayed in a shelter but had his belongings stolen. He said the parking lot provides a safer place to sleep.

"It makes people feel more at ease," he said.

Billy Garrett, another homeless man, praised the church's generosity.

"I think it's good because a lot of people are getting tickets and going to jail, and only so many people can get into the shelters," Garrett said.

The church opened its parking lot in response to a city program called "Operation Rescue," in which police accompanied social workers to identify chronic homeless in a four-block area and to move homeless people into shelters or treatment.

Clifford said the intent of the program was admirable but pointed to a larger problem: The city has more than 5,000 homeless people, according to a census, and only 1,300 available beds.

Golbeck said the opening of a $23.8 million homeless shelter in April will help. The 24-hour shelter would provide beds, restrooms, showers, job training and mental health treatment.

"We do empathize, and many of our officers have used their own money to help the homeless," he said. "This is not an 'us versus them."'

First Presbyterian Church:

National Coalition for the Homeless: