A Place of Their Own

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

But in practice, Honey adds, Dallas is still very far away from that ideal. It could have been much closer, had Dunning's committee been given more support. Dunning isn't sure why the city added only about 10 percent of the number his committee recommended, but he has a few ideas. In 1990 the number of homeless was small enough to ignore. No one had to go out of his or her way to help. No one, for example, had to approach the religious community to get involved.

"I think that it's not been a priority," Dunning says. "I'm not aware of any elected leadership who has gone to the large churches, synagogues and mosques and said, 'Hey, would you take on a responsibility? Would you build another shelter? Would you sponsor an SRO?' And that's what we do plan to do. We plan to go to these organizations and say, 'Look, if you band together and come up with a way to build a 90-person SRO...'" He pauses for a moment. He's getting ahead of himself.

"Experience says that if you just build an SRO and put people in there, it ain't gonna work," he continues. "You have to have the social services. Now there's two problems out there: You can build an SRO anywhere, but when you add the social services, then you have to get a special permit from the city. And if you build a shelter, then it has to go before Planning and Zoning. This was a rule the council came up with in 1992, which makes it very hard. Nobody wants a shelter in their district."

The Reverend Sheron Patterson, a member of the city's homelessness task force, says the city has a lot to learn about the homeless before it can find a solution.
Mark Graham
The Reverend Sheron Patterson, a member of the city's homelessness task force, says the city has a lot to learn about the homeless before it can find a solution.

There it is, the same not-in-my-back-yard song that everyone knows by heart by now. Thing is, though, it's too late. While everyone was singing it for the past 15 years, the homeless community quietly moved into everyone's back yard. That's the biggest difference Dunning noticed when he became involved with the homeless issue again. In 1990 most of the homeless were squatting in abandoned buildings downtown, camped out near the old TU Electric generator (where the American Airlines Center now sits), scattered among a few other encampments in the downtown area. Now, they're everywhere.

"I mean, it's rampant," Dunning says. "You go along Central Expressway, Walnut Hill, Meadow Road, Royal Lane, Forest Lane--you'll see the homeless. The homeless are in the creeks, at White Rock Creek, Skillman. They're in and around White Rock Lake. They're in many shopping centers in North Dallas. Up and down Harry Hines, you see people walking up and down Harry Hines. All along the Trinity River. Then, of course, downtown. You go into the Cedars area and South Dallas, there's hundreds of homeless walking down there. And, finally, we haven't even gotten to Oak Cliff, and, of course, there's homeless throughout there."

In other words, everything he and his committee predicted in 1990 has been brought to fruition. What was once a worst-case scenario on paper has sprung to life, pushing wheelchairs and baby strollers loaded down with their meager belongings through every neighborhood. That's why, when Dunning came back onboard, he brought his old plan with him. After all, what's worse: a homeless person living in your alley or next door?

The city didn't really ask him to do this; his responsibility was to find a place for the new homeless assistance center, period, and he's doing that: His task force (a 14-member team that includes state District Judge John Creuzot, developer Bennett Miller, Dr. Susan Spalding from Parkland hospital and Trinity Industries Executive Vice President John Adams) has already recommended a site near the Farmers Market and presented the city council with funding options. Dunning quickly realized, though, that if he gave the city only what it asked for, he'd be back in another 15 years, staring down the barrel of the same problem. He also realized that if he wanted to include SROs in his plan, he'd better get the bandwagon warmed up well in advance.

"We've already contacted at least two companies who believe that they can build [SROs]," Dunning says. "There's a lot of government dollars out there. There are major tax credits that you get through the state of Texas."

Larry James agrees. "Many people on the street are eligible for veteran's benefits," he says. "A lot of people on the street, with a place to live, they can work. My contention is an SRO is not a bad business deal, nor should it be. If we can make an SRO work in the market, let's do it. Let it be market-driven."

But Dunning, as much as he believes in the humane and fiscal reasons for building SROs, knows that won't be enough. So he's also talking low-demand shelters (ones with fewer rules) and outdoor pavilions (for those who aren't ready to come inside) and whatever else he thinks might work. If Dunning has learned anything in his second tour of duty, it's that there is no simple answer to the question "What do we do with the homeless?" He likens it to a jigsaw puzzle with 6,000 pieces, each unique in its own way. Some are easy to fit in, others less so.

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