A Place of Their Own

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

"Of course, Dallas is so weird. I mean, we put our downtown underground. Go figure."

Hal Samples began taking photographs of homeless people almost two years ago. It started as a hobby, something to keep him occupied and sober, but it eventually became bigger than that, turning into the Hero to Zero project (see "What's Wrong With This Picture?," Dallas Observer, January 14, 2004), aimed at increasing awareness and funding for the homeless community. But taking photos wasn't enough for Samples. As he spent more time in the camps and alleyways where they stayed he knew he had to do more. He came up with ambitious plans and shoved them in front of every important set of eyes he could manage.

One of those plans is an SRO. As someone who's been on the streets himself, Samples knows what's needed to make one work. He has a vision. He just doesn't have any funding--not only for an SRO, but for himself. He's been on the verge of eviction from his South Side on Lamar loft for the better part of a year. Every photograph he sells funds the project, leaving him with nothing but a sick bulldog named Cash and a pile of bills.

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.

Samples does, however, have a new workout plan, one that's trimmed more than 30 pounds off his frame.

"I have all these big developers come here and sit on that couch," he says, pointing with his cigarette. "They say they want to help, and after they're gone, I go, 'Yeeeeah!'" He shoots his arms out and clenches them back to his chest, squeezing every muscle in his upper body. "Then a few days later, they say they can't, and I go, 'Nooooooo!'" He repeats the move. When he pulls up his shirt, it's clear he's been doing this a lot lately.

Still, he keeps at it. Every time Samples wants to give up, he'll run into a homeless person he's taken a photo of. Almost every one of them carries that photo around, and when they show him they still have it, he knows he can't stop. But it's a hard life, getting close to people on the street. "I counted it up the other day," Samples says. "Of all the people I've taken a picture of, 63 of them have died."

Even if Samples knew every homeless person in Dallas, that's an eye-opening death rate. Forget $50 million, the damage done to property values in downtown and the burden on city services. The real cost of the city not heeding the advice of Dunning and his committee all those years ago is in those 63 people. People like Bill Banks.

After being on the street for four years, Banks was a fraction of his former self, a 300-pound hulk reduced to little more than a husk by the crash diet that came free of charge with his wrecked life. He'd lost much more than weight by then: his family and friends, his job, home, the van he lived in after that, part of his sanity and most of his dignity. The little he had left wasn't much help; his eyes were bad and his feet were worse, and those were merely the parts of his broken body that bothered him most. It didn't help that he spent his nights sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Day Resource Center at Cadiz and Ervay streets in downtown, along with dozens of others. That's where he was on October 28.

The day before, Banks had filled out paperwork to see if he could qualify for housing, as part of an ad hoc program the Resource Center's James Waghorne had set up. He had failed his assessment before and waited for months to get a second chance. Maybe he would make the grade this time and, as soon as there was an opening, he would have an apartment, his first home since his ill-advised move to Dallas from Oklahoma. He felt good about his chances, because it all seemed to be coming together for him. He had some money coming to him from the Veterans' Administration--not much, around three grand or so, but it would be plenty. He could get cleaned up and find a job. He could get some of his old life back. Maybe some of his weight, too.

Yes, he was getting out this time. He wasn't exactly sure when it was going to happen, but knowing that it would was enough for him. If he could spend years living on the street, he could handle a few more weeks. Months, too, if it came to that. He was going to get out. That's all that mattered. He just had to wait.

The wait was shorter than he expected. That night, a runaway truck crashed into the throng in front of the Day Resource Center. The truck hit three men: David Decker, Edward "Rick" Strickland and Banks. Decker died at the scene; Banks the next day at Baylor University Medical Center. Banks was 51 years old.

Here comes the punch line to the cruel joke: While Banks was at Baylor, Waghorne mentioned to the people who'd gathered there to pray for him--including his estranged family and Samples, who'd been looking after him for much of the last year--that Banks had passed his assessment. He had qualified for housing.

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