Old Building, New Lives

How do you help the homeless? Duh, give them a home.

Larry James steps through the dusty glass doors of his new building and flicks on a low-powered flashlight. He points the light toward a bank of elevators that haven't been used in years. "We'll have to take the stairs," he says, shuffling in the darkness.

The building, at 511 N. Akard St., has sat vacant for more than a decade. Built in 1956, its windows are now covered in dust. James finds the stairwell and begins the long hike to the top floor.

Fifteen minutes later and huffing for breath, he steps from the stairwell and enters the 14th floor, the only floor in the 15-story building that has been gutted. Plumbing pipes and red metal studs are all that remain. James switches off his flashlight and walks toward one of the windows. From here, he can see much of downtown Dallas. Across the street is the 45-story Lincoln Plaza, which literally casts a shadow over this building. From another window, he can see the Fairmont, one of the city's swankiest hotels, and its balcony resort-style pool.

Larry James
Brian Harkin
Larry James

"I think it's important as a symbol," James says of what he plans to do with this building. "We feel like it sends a message to Dallas."

The message, James says, is that Dallas cannot ignore its poor. Over the next 18 months, James' Central Dallas Ministries will spend $24 million renovating this building, converting 12 floors into one- and two-bedroom apartments. Of the 209 planned units, 159 will be rented out to people who make less than $30,000 annually, give or take. Fifty will go to the homeless.

Not everyone likes this idea. James points down at the First Baptist Academy, a brick building across the street. The head of the 700-student school, Jake Walters, has said he worries that housing indigents so close to a school could be dangerous. Councilman Mitchell Rasansky agrees. Besides being close to a school, the building is next to the Arts District and a planned park over Woodall Rodgers.

"They're afraid we're going to turn this into a flophouse down here in the best part of downtown and just have total crazy homeless people who every now and then will break out and do some damage or hurt someone or something," James says. "It's going to take some time to alleviate their fears, and we're going to be selective in the people we select to live here because of that. But the stereotypical understanding people have of homelessness is just wrong. It's really amazing, when you treat people in a certain way and approach them with expectations, the outcome you get."

Giving homeless people a key to an apartment may seem like a revolutionary concept, but it's not a new idea. It's something that cities big and small have been trying all over the country for the last several years with varied degrees of success, largely because of Philip Mangano, a Bush appointee who heads the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. For five years, Mangano traveled the country preaching the "housing first" philosophy to mayors and governors. The basic idea is that it's cheaper to put the homeless into apartments than to cycle them through shelters, soup kitchens, rehab centers and emergency rooms. In Denver, a homeless advocacy group has determined that it costs about $15,000 to house a chronically homeless person for a year, or about a third of what it would cost on the street.

"The empirical evidence is upwards of 85 percent or more of homeless people stabilize on their own if they can just get a key to an apartment," James says. "Now 15 percent or so need some other things, mental health services, that sort of thing, but the vast majority of people we see in Dallas who are homeless today do not have to be. And the answer's not a shelter bed. It could be for a short period of time, but the ultimate answer is not building shelters. The ultimate answer is building housing."

To date, more than 200 cities have started "housing first" programs. In some cities, homeless residents are given rooms rent-free and then after some time are required to pay rent. Programs in Denver and Seattle are aimed at the hardest cases—people with drug and alcohol problems, and often criminal records, who have been on the streets for years. If nothing else, proponents argue, these programs save cities money.

James' building, called City Walk at Akard, will be different than some programs. All residents will pay rent, ranging from $348 to $1,000 (there will also be a handful of units rented at market value), and no one with a criminal record will be allowed to live in the building. There will also be 24-hour security at the building. Central Dallas Ministries will have its offices on the third floor, and James hopes to rent the first two floors out. The first floor will be retail, and the second floor will be office space.

Most of the funding for the building comes from state and local governments. But James still has money left to raise, which his organization will begin focusing on in January.

"This will be a great project," he says. "But obviously it's not going to end homelessness. There's a lot of work left to do."

 
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