By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
As Choice laughs his creaky laugh, it's hard to deny that he's fully come to terms with homeless life. He is as aware of that as anybody. "Sometimes you get too adjusted, too comfortable," he admits. He looks out into the sunlight from under the shadow of the bridge. "I call that out there the real world," he says. "This isn't the real world. It's like in jail, you get institutionalized. In here, you look out at the real world like a mole."
The Reverend Bob Sweeney couldn't disagree more. The new director of the Dallas Life Foundation, one of Dallas' largest private shelters, Sweeney is vehemently opposed to what he considers handouts, especially the gourmet offerings from Romano's restaurants Nick & Sam's and Eatzi's that Hunger Busters sometimes distributes. He expresses his disdain in a characteristic rapid-fire style that is disconcertingly free of pauses. "Sometimes there are donors--wrong word--sometimes there are do-gooders who do it for themselves. 'I'm coming to serve you my world-class soup because God told me to.' Well, basically, you're doing it for you."
When Sweeney arrived from Flint, Michigan, last June, he instituted a new policy of accountability to govern the distribution of the Foundation's help. His rigorous 10-month rehabilitation program subjects the participant to random drug tests, mandatory Bible study (with essay requirements) and strict curfews. But it also claims a 75 percent success rate in transitioning graduates back into society. Under the new regime, the first three nights a person stays are free, including meals, but after that a client must either enroll in the rehabilitation program or begin paying $9 per night. "After three days, if you're just coming at night, sleeping and leaving in the morning--no chapel, not coming to hear about our programs--yes, you have to pay," Sweeney says. "We're not helping you by providing an inside bridge. If you're outside sleeping under a bridge, it's by choice. If you're inside and sleeping under a roof and we do nothing to encourage you to enhance your life, that goes against everything we think ought to be offered to the homeless."
That view leaves Sweeney implacably opposed to the philosophy that Rayzer espouses. "We don't give up on anybody," she says. She sees it as her duty to entice even the most recalcitrant, shelter-resistant client. "They've been out there for years, so it's not going to happen overnight, but based on what we've found, constant, consistent, aggressive outreach, really getting to why are you truly out here, [can work]. Not just accepting, 'Well, I'm OK, this is where I want to live.' No, there's a breakdown in there somewhere if you've chosen to live out there, and it's the caseworker's responsibility to find out what that breakdown is." But Rayzer doesn't apologize for the strong-arm tactics like razing camps. "Some people will say you're doing an inhumane thing," she says, "but to leave those people to live in some of the conditions that they're in is the inhumane thing."
Rayzer works closely with Rawlings, a business executive and former president of Pizza Hut. "We think of the homeless as the folks that live under I-45, but the truth of the matter is they are a very small sliver of the homeless community," Rawlings says. "I think we as a Dallas community really take care of the bulk of the homeless in a really good way." Different methods of counting the homeless population in Dallas yield results of anywhere between 5,000 and 10,000. Of those, the city believes that more than 1,000 qualify as chronically homeless, those who shun the relative comforts of shelters or the prospects of rehabilitation for the rough independence of a camp. Rayzer says there are at least 30 large camps in the city, including Mack's Camp.
The 2004 plan to deal with the problem includes intensive outreach programs and development of long-term housing in the form of single-room occupancy (SRO) units. In November voters approved a $23.8 million bond issue for the Homeless Assistance Center, the public shelter conceived as the gateway to all the planned services. The target date to open the HAC is 2008, but wrangling goes on over where to build it. "We've done passed a bond issue," says Don Williams, a former resident of Mack's Camp who often visits Choice. "Laura Miller knows that, so why don't she tell the police to back off until the place is built?"
Plans for the HAC include an outdoor pavilion, an enclosed, roofed yard that will provide an area for dyed-in-the-wool camp dwellers to live--if they can just be enticed or forced to come. The HAC will offer many of the same types of counseling as Dallas Life, though without the religious component or many of the restrictions. In theory it closely resembles another program already up and running in Dallas at the Austin Street Centre, a private shelter run by the Reverends Harry and Beulah "Bubba" Dailey. Their "psycho-social rehabilitation program" is run out of their own transitional housing unit and has 40 participants. Of a similar number that began the program two years ago, 35 are now living and working on their own. The Stewpot also offers transitional help.