A Place of Their Own

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

The homeless assistance center will help them with the pieces on the edge. The rest? It's going to take some work.

Larry James was on his way to an appointment downtown when he noticed a group of guys walking ahead of him. There were five of them, bundled up against the cold, obviously homeless. He walked a little closer so he could hear what they were talking about. He was in a hurry, but he had time for this.

As he walked along behind them, the men discussed what they were going to do for the next few hours. It sounded like a chat he might have with a few of his buddies after a workout, the kind of thing people take for granted when they actually have somewhere to go and something to do. He was struck by the normalcy of conversation and the men who were having it. They weren't drunk. They weren't mentally ill. And he was struck by something else: These guys could get out of here, if someone were willing to help them do it.

Sporty doesn't want to lead the homeless camp where he lives. He wants to leave it behind.
Hal Samples
Sporty doesn't want to lead the homeless camp where he lives. He wants to leave it behind.
Tom Dunning's second effort to guide the city to a solution for chronic homelessness resembled his first--only this time things were worse.
Mark Graham
Tom Dunning's second effort to guide the city to a solution for chronic homelessness resembled his first--only this time things were worse.

"Had I had a little more time," James says, "I would've gotten in the middle of the group and I would've said, 'Can I ask you guys, if I had an apartment building down here and I had rooms that you could rent, and if we provided you the assistance you need to access what [social services] might be available to you, would you be interested?' I know I would've had a really sane, civil, interesting conversation with those guys, because I've done that before with people on the street."

That's exactly what I'm having with Kareem right now, outside the downtown branch of the Dallas Public Library. Like the guys James eavesdropped on, he's not drunk or, as far as I can tell, mentally ill. His clothes are clean, and he's well-groomed, save for a bit of stubble on his cheeks. If I hadn't been told he was homeless, I never would have guessed.

But like most of the others, Kareem is bitter and alienated. Kareem won't give up his last name (he signs "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar" on a photo release form; he may have lost his identity, but not his sense of humor) and he won't give any other details about himself, other than to say he moved to Dallas in 1980 "just for the fun."

"I don't have a story," he says firmly. "This is not about me."

Kareem knows what this is about. He's familiar with all the angles and all the players related to the homeless issue. He's at all the city council meetings, and he's been to most of Dunning's task force meetings, too. He reads the newspaper and scans the Internet for information from a computer station at the library. That's where he'd be right now if I hadn't asked him to step outside. In all of this research, Kareem never sees himself, what the city plans to do for people like him.

"Not all those people are nuts or abusing drugs or all that stuff," Kareem says. "Some people can go to work. If you look at those [MDHA] surveys, you'll see that most people who filled them out--or the ones that I've seen--say that they lost a job. Didn't say that they were abusing drugs or anything else. They were just people who lost jobs, and you ask them what do they want that they're not getting, you'll see that most of it is employment and housing. There's a perception out there that homeless people are the scum of the earth. That's not necessarily true. Or, that's the small percentage they get to see...People go through their lives every day and don't cause a problem. They're not factored into the equation."

Unlike most of the people out here, Kareem is aware of all the previous plans to alleviate the homeless problem, including the report from Dunning's commission in 1990. The knowledge frustrates him. He's also read all the reports that state the homeless population is responsible for downtown's lack of a pulse. This frustrates him more. He wonders if someone decided not to spend $250,000 at Neiman Marcus because a homeless person asked for a quarter.

"Don't tell me that it's causing some great catastrophic impact on the city, and you're giving it lip service," Kareem says. "You can't have it both ways. Hell, if you don't want homeless people downtown, get the ones who are employable employed. Where is the Chamber of Commerce in all of this? Aren't they the ones that are supposed to be into commerce and economic development? I would think that if you gave a guy a job in the suburbs, hell, he wouldn't be downtown impeding Neiman Marcus' business or whomever the heck else. Just apply some logic to this."

That's what Miami did. The greater Miami area is roughly the same size as Dallas, and so is its homeless population. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the two cities approached the needs of their homeless communities in much the same way. That changed in 1993, when Miami adopted the Miami-Dade County Community Homeless Plan--a wide-ranging approach involving the city and county, existing service providers and, most important, the business sector--and formed the Miami-Dade Homelessness Trust to facilitate it.

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