By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In the coming months, Dallas will begin a new debate over ways to tackle Big D's increasingly visible homeless problem. Miami has an important message for fed-up Dallas residents: Put up or pony up.
In this commercial pocket just north of downtown, the HAC stands out from its rusty neighbors--not because it became the eyesore people feared it would become when it was built in 1995, but because it is an oasis.
With its neatly manicured grounds and sunny buildings, the HAC looks more like a private school than a homeless shelter. Though it is surrounded by businesses still wrapped in razor-wire fences and old houses collapsing beneath the weight of burglar bars, the HAC itself could fit in next door to the Versace palace in trendy South Beach just as easily as it does here.
At 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, a yellow school bus pulls up to the HAC and unloads a gaggle of backpack-toting kids dressed in school uniforms. The children bounce and giggle their way into the place they now call home. The only oddity is that the kids parade past a team of unarmed security guards and clear a metal detector guarding the front door. "Children are so resilient. A couple of days of good nutrition and they bounce back. Our primary objective is to get kids back in school within 72 hours," says Al Brown, the HAC's deputy director. "We concentrate on trying to get people back into the mainstream."
Brown, who's worked here since the HAC opened, is conducting a whirlwind tour, something he's done hundreds of times. One recent visitor was Mel Martinez, the new secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who called the place "marvelous."
"It gives us a lot of reason to throw our chests out and feel proud about what we're doing here," Brown says.
It's little surprise Martinez was impressed. Behind the front gate, a collection of yellow and blue two-story buildings is clustered around a lush courtyard, which is landscaped with red flowering plants and shaded by columns of palm trees. "It's just like a hotel," Brown says. "Everybody is called Mister, Sir or Ma'am. Everyone is treated with respect. However, we expect the same treatment from them."
The "campus" offers 350 emergency beds arranged barrack-style in three second-floor dormitories--one each for men, women and families. The dorms, each bearing a corporate logo representing its sponsor, are stripped of everything but the bare necessities. Each client gets a locker, complete with padlock, and they share a common bathroom. The dorms also have one "common area" equipped with couches, coffee tables and a single television, hung from the ceiling to diminish its presence. In the family dorm, the only decoration on the wall is a poster that lists "12 alternatives to lashing out at your child."
The sleeping quarters are segregated, but the campus itself is open. As the dinner hour approaches, the atrium is filled with mothers pushing baby carriages, many of them with two or three other children in tow. One mother sits with her three children at a picnic table. Their backpacks are stuffed with books, and their noses are buried in homework. Outside the men's dorm, the male clients while away the remainder of the afternoon by quietly socializing in an open-air lounge.
A former military officer, Brown commands the respect of his clients--particularly the men, who nod but keep their distance as he passes by on yet another publicity crawl. There is a somber aura surrounding the men, but they generally appear relaxed. They are also clean and neatly dressed, most donning HAC-issued outfits of donated jeans, collared shirts and tennis shoes.
The children, however, aren't put off by the towering Brown. "Mister Brown!" exclaims a little girl, whose hair is wrapped meticulously in plastic beads. She races up to Brown and embraces his leg. Her little brother follows behind her, holds up his palm and says, "I'm 4."
When he got here, Brown figured the idea of housing homeless men--many of whom are hard-core addicts with criminal backgrounds--in an open setting with women and children was a front-page headline waiting to happen. But the HAC's clients have proven more willing to go along with the program than he'd guessed.
"I thought there would be drugs. I thought there would be cuttings. I expected the worst. We've never had to call 911 as a result of a weapon being used inside this facility," Brown says. "Now, there is a pecking order here. If somebody lights up a cigarette, we'll know it before the match goes out."