DALLAS, Nov 10 (Reuters) Terrence Parker is grateful just to have a place to sleep, even if it is an open parking lot.
''I feel comfortable here,'' he said as he ate an apple and settled onto a piece of cardboard for the night. ''Everyone here acts like family and we look out for each other.'' Parker, 45, is one of scores of homeless people who have found overnight refuge in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas.
This patch of pavement, which slowly filled on a crisp autumn evening as darkness fell, has become a microcosm of the U.S. homeless problem, from police efforts to clean up downtown cores to faith-based activism to address the issue.
The church's senior minister, the Rev. Joe Clifford, says the church made its property available as an open-air shelter a few weeks ago in response to a crackdown on the homeless by Dallas police.
The church provides portable toilets and security guards to ensure the people are not preyed upon by criminals or drug dealers.
''In September the police began enforcing ordinances more strictly, such as one against sleeping on the sidewalk,'' said Clifford, an affable man with an easy manner.
''Most of the police don't like doing this job. Who becomes a cop to hassle homeless people? But it's our belief that this is not a criminal issue but a social one,'' he said.
It's obviously not a popular policy in the parking lot.
''We don't have any money to pay fines for tickets issued by the police,'' said Parker.
Clifford, who sees helping the poor as Biblically sanctioned, said a few people had been sleeping on the church grounds but word quickly spread that the police were not allowed to clear the homeless off church property.
ANGERING LOCAL BUSINESSES Now between 150 and 200 people camp out there on any given night, angering some local businesses while throwing many of the issues surrounding poverty and income disparities in the United States into sharp relief.
Most of the parking lot's residents are black. Several clearly suffer from mental illness or substance abuse; some are ex-military; many feel persecuted.
''The cops harass us homeless people,'' said Tony Clark, a 45-year-old African American man who said he was had served in the army for several years.
According to the Washington-based National Alliance to End Homelessness, an estimated 750,000 people were homeless in the United States in 2005.
Dallas officials say they are trying to address the problem and an assistance center is set to open in April next year.
''We have made a significant commitment to the assistance center,'' Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert told Reuters.
The private sector is helping to fund the center which is being built just a few blocks from the church parking lot.
Leppert said the center would tailor its efforts to the individual needs of homeless people, such as drug addiction or mental illness. But he said as mayor he also had a duty to make the downtown attractive for visitors and business and that meant effective policing as well.
''We want to make sure that we address the downtown ... we want to have a downtown that is going to be as attractive as any downtown anywhere,'' he said in a telephone interview.
Leppert and Clifford both agree that the parking lot is hardly a long-term solution to the problem.
But for Terrence Parker and scores of others, it is their only nocturnal respite for now.
REUTERS JT ND0922