A Place of Their Own

Tom Dunning's homeless task force learns an old lesson: If at first you don't succeed, try again.

"With SROs, you can help this person, hopefully, get back on their feet," Dunning says. "They take their medication on a regular basis. The social workers try to help them get into a detox program or an AA program. They try to help them get back into a permanent job. This is what's working."

He has the evidence to back him up: Philadelphia, Miami, London and New York have all employed SROs to great effect in their battles with chronic homelessness. Sporty is ready for one of those, after hearing a basic outline of the idea.

"That's a big step, right there alone," he says. "Just having someplace to go home, get away from everybody. Hey, I can go home, close the door, bam!"

Kareem, top, homeless himself, has watched the city 
struggle with half-hearted efforts to help people like 
him, and he's tired of lip service. Meet your neighbors, 
bottom; a camp near a downtown bridge is their home--
though not one they like.
Hal Samples
Kareem, top, homeless himself, has watched the city struggle with half-hearted efforts to help people like him, and he's tired of lip service. Meet your neighbors, bottom; a camp near a downtown bridge is their home-- though not one they like.
Bill Banks was soon to leave the streets for assisted housing but was killed by a motorist.
Hal Samples
Bill Banks was soon to leave the streets for assisted housing but was killed by a motorist.

He's so excited about the prospect, I don't have the heart to tell him Dunning proposed the exact same thing to the city 15 years ago and nothing happened.

Maybe that's being too cynical. Maybe Sporty should be excited. Maybe people in Dallas are ready to accept the concept of SROs now. Dunning believes they are, and everyone seems to be saying the right things. But is that just talk, another example of "the great Dallas contradiction," as Central Dallas Ministries' Larry James calls it, how Dallas can be "such a churched-up, faithed-up place verbally and have so little moral action?" One thing is certain: The city had better be ready. No one has another 15 years to wait for a better solution. No one has $18 million to waste on a homeless center doomed to mediocrity by lack of planning. It already costs in excess of $50 million a year to manage 6,000 homeless on the streets. What's it going to cost in another 15 years?

It all comes down to this very simple idea, which happens to be the backbone of the SRO program: How do you stop someone from being homeless? You give them a home. Not a bed in a shelter. A home.

"If you have SROs as part of a master plan, you fundamentally turn people who are on the sidewalks into neighbors that have a place to be," James says. James has a stake in all this, both as a minister and an entrepreneur. His nonprofit Central Dallas Ministries wants to be in the business of building SROs. His conscience wants to see people in them. "There are people on the street, in large numbers, whose lives would be changed dramatically if there was a place for them to sleep every night that they could call their own."

Sporty could be one of those neighbors. If he were given the chance, he'd probably be a good one, too.

"Everybody's not a bad person, man," Sporty says. "Believe that. Believe that, man. Some things happen in a person's life, man, sometimes you come up, sometimes you don't. A lot of these guys really don't want nothing, but then they do, but then they scared to reach out and get it. I mean, I guess you get complacent, and then they give up. My girl's like that. She'll give up in a minute. Baby, you can't do that. I'm not gonna let her give up, because I'm not gonna give up. So it's gonna click. One way or another, man. I'm coming up out of this rat race, man. Believe that."


Tom Dunning was stunned when he saw the hand he had been dealt when Mayor Laura Miller appointed him to the new homeless czar post on September 1. No new net shelter beds, very little in the way of transitional or supportive housing and more than twice as many homeless people as there had been in 1990. He had no idea that he had failed 15 years ago, or rather, that the city had failed him. He thought it had been taken care of. He thought he'd helped take care of it.

Back then, Dunning was asked by then-Mayor Annette Strauss to lead a 64-member committee for the Community Council of Dallas dedicated to coming up with a solution to the homeless situation. Hadn't they studied it from every angle, until the answer was obvious? What had happened in 15 years?

Nothing much.

"What we did recommend 15 years ago was for the city to add 100 beds--100 SRO beds--every year, and I want to say until we reached 600 or 700," Dunning says. "And the only one that's been added [Prince-of-Wales, on Live Oak Street] was added about 12 years ago. That has 61 beds. So this is where we are. I mean, I think that's why you see so many more people on the streets."

All told, Dallas has 125 SROs. That's at least 1,000 or so fewer than what is needed, according to the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance's 2004 inventory of the city's homeless population and housing options. The city is, in fact, short on all housing fronts, but SROs are key, because that's where the homeless community can start swimming instead of treading water.

"SROs are found to be one of the most effective means to provide longer-term housing," MDHA's Honey says. "It's worked in several other cities, especially in New York--Pathways to Housing. They work very much on a housing-first model, which is that when a person is ready to go into housing, there is housing available for them. It's the philosophy that a person in--how can I put this quickly?--it's better to house a person first, then provide the supportive services for them to stay in housing than to require the supportive services for them to get to a certain point of recovery and then go into housing, because they can't reach recovery while they're still living out in the streets. I think philosophically, we're getting very close to that point of view."

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