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In fact, the HAC will address the only area of service in which Rawlings says the city already does pretty well. Rawlings gives Dallas a personal grade of B-plus when it comes to temporary housing of the kind to be offered at the HAC. In serving the immediate needs of the homeless on the streets, things like showers and bathrooms, Dallas rates a C-minus. In the third area, long-term housing, Dallas gets a resounding F. Yet of the nearly $24 million in bond money, only $2.5 million is slated for SROs. Many are confident that the HAC will streamline the delivery of assistance to the homeless, but a quantum leap forward it is not.
Rawlings later raises the city's long-term housing grade slightly when he takes into account the 80 SROs already in place. There appear to be more on the way: Two weeks ago, Central Dallas Ministries, a social service agency that grew out of a food pantry at Preston Road Church of Christ, announced plans to remodel a downtown building into about 75 SROs and 125 low-cost apartments. For that small step toward Dallas' stated goal of 700 SROs by 2014, the group wants $1 million of the $2.5 million in city SRO money. At that rate the funds won't last long, but Rawlings isn't worried. He stresses that the money was always intended just to help the first few projects point the way. "I think we're well on our way to making this thing work," he says.
But even if the goals for services and housing are all met, it's not clear how effective any of it would be in drawing in what Rawlings describes as the "tough nuts to crack," Dallas' 1,000-plus chronically homeless. Sweeney succinctly encapsulates the problem: "If a person wants to sleep under a bridge, many of them do not want assistance from you or me, the city or anybody else. They just want to be left alone, and from that perspective I respect those wishes. I think the issue comes when you have agencies that come in to play and say, 'We're going to get out there and love them into our facility.' They didn't ask you for your facility, and whatever you build for a facility they're not interested in. They want to be left alone."
But even for them, Romano has a few ideas. "Why not put bathrooms underneath the bridges like they have in the rest stops along the highways?" he asks. "They've got these in California along the beach, and these things are pretty much bulletproof. They've got stainless steel toilets attached to the ground, they've got no doors--the way they've got it set up, you can go in there and hose the thing down to clean them." Romano says he has asked state Attorney General Greg Abbott to look into the idea. "Maybe the answer is under the bridges because nobody owns that property," he says. "It's not any value to anybody."
Except to the people who live there. "I'm out here because I want to be," Cheyenne Fuller says. She has relatives in Dallas, but Fuller says she doesn't want to involve them in her problems. "When I get tired, I go home and rest up." Choice also gets a regular flow of overnight visits from friends. "For a lot of people, being out here is a release," he says. Robin Bethea even has the dream of making the camp legal by, in effect, squatting on their own land. "Some of us have been talking about pooling our money to, you know, buy a lot," she says.
The Soupmobile rolled into Mack's Camp as usual that day roughly 18 months ago. "Typically under the bridge, even though [Choice] has given me safe passage and done a lot for us in that sense, normally it's been us giving to them," Timothy says. "This was his opportunity to give to me."
After the food had been distributed, Choice approached Timothy with his hands behind his back. "I was thinking, 'Now what's this all about?" Timothy says. With an irrepressible grin, Choice presented Timothy with the new suit. "It wasn't that he needed to; I didn't expect anything back," Timothy says. "The fact that he was willing to do it was deeply touching. That had to be the nicest thing he had gotten his hands on, and he gave it to me."