A Place of Their Own

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

"It was like a scene from a movie," Samples says. "But even if it was a movie, people wouldn't believe it."

Under the current rules of the game, it couldn't have happened any other way. Even if there had been one, a bed in a shelter wouldn't have saved Banks. He wouldn't have been hit by that truck, but he would have ended up back on the street eventually, once he couldn't stand living in the shelter any longer and grew tired of the crowds and the rules and the limited possibilities of his life there. He still would have died. It merely would have been a slower and, in the long run, more painful death.

"I would challenge anybody to live like that for a month," MDHA's Honey says. "A lot of these people may have been successful businessmen in the past. They may have a college education. Something happened. Maybe it was a divorce they could not handle. Maybe it was the loss of a job. Maybe it was a physical impairment. Maybe it's mental illness coming on in middle adulthood or early adulthood. Things might have been going very well for these people. They ease into the homeless situation.

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.

"I always think: What is that first night like when someone finally has to say they're sleeping on the street?" she continues. "When they've given up on the shelters, the friends have kicked them out, they have no family to go to--what must it be like that first night, when you really don't know what to do but you just cower down in an alley and put a trash bag over you to try to keep the rain off of you. And then, eventually, you start getting used to that. I don't think anybody just woke up one day and said, 'I'm not going to work anymore.' It's a journey into homelessness, and it's a difficult exit."

Even though most of the initial report Tom Dunning's homeless task force presented to the city discussed the need and the advantages of SROs, the idea has yet to become a front-burner topic at City Hall. You could say the members of the city council are wary of even broaching the subject, as one source claims, based on conversations she's had with council members about building SROs in their districts.

"If you want to freak them out, just go down there in a session, step up to a mike on Wednesday when there's time for open comment and start asking about SROs in Dallas," she says. "It's like rats running out of a burning building. They're afraid that this tool, if you will, this strategy will scare off any potential investors."

You could also say the current focus on the strong-mayor initiative has precluded such a discussion even taking place. But the truth is, most people simply don't understand what SROs are. "I think the problem is jargon, social-work jargon," Honey says. "What does transitional housing mean? What does permanent supportive housing mean? I mean, I think people understand what emergency shelter is, so they understand what the homeless assistance center means."

Even members of Dunning's task force weren't clear on the concept when they first convened in September, but they're all behind it now. That doesn't mean they expect everyone to get it right away. It's going to take time.

"It has to catch on with everybody else," says the Reverend Sheron Patterson, senior pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church and a member of the task force. "And because the homeless situation is so complex, it takes a lot of education to understand the need for SROs. The average person looking at the homeless situation might not understand that as readily, but after you've gone through weeks and weeks and weeks of training, then you understand. So I think Dallas is going to have to grow into the SRO movement."

Dunning believes it can. For one thing, the numbers are too large to ignore this time. For another, he has solid success stories to back him up, which weren't easy to come by in 1990. Philadelphia has virtually eliminated the homeless population in its downtown area by using SROs. New York has shown it can work in even the most drastic cases. San Diego, Seattle, Boston, London--it's working everywhere. It can work here. But to do that, he's going to need--apart from millions of dollars--an army of dedicated social workers and the support of the city, and not just its government, but its residents, too. Dunning is already getting more of that than he did before.

"People come up to me now and say, 'I really feel for what you are doing. My brother was on the streets for a whole year before I finally was able to convince him to come in,'" Dunning says. "Another guy said, 'My best friend from college and medical school ended up on the streets, and I couldn't get him to come in.' People come up to me all the time with stories about family."

But story time is over, and Dunning knows it. It's time for action.

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