By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Dream a little dream: Buzz just needs to stay away from some people. Grown-ups, mostly—guys like Michael Faenza, president and chief executive of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, who is working hard on behalf of the city's neediest people to make Dallas a better place. You spend a little time with this man, with his hope and his energy, and you realize your cynicism might just be laziness and people who do good works are not necessarily suckers or self-interested.
Thinking like that can really muck up your cushy media job. Thanks a bunch, Faenza.
We met Faenza last week to talk about the homeless alliance and its efforts to raise money to help run the downtown homeless assistance center, being constructed with city bond money and scheduled to open next April. A reader who works downtown had written in, commenting on the huge numbers of homeless he passes as he goes to his job: "I came upon an alley of homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks, the steps of the empty building, and a few sprawled out on the curb of the street. I began to think to myself how littered the street looked with bodies of hopelessness. How has society banished these lives? But by the time I made it to the end of the street, stopping at the stop sign, I gazed into my rear view mirror [and] I could see a man preparing his arm so that he could inject himself with whatever kind of narcotic that he may possess. Then it hit me society did not fail these people. For some reason they gave up."
In the space of one block, the letter-writer's viewpoint went from soft-hearted liberal to hard-nosed conservative, a journey that most folks spend at least a couple of decades making—usually from their 20s to 40s. What, he still wanted to know, was the city planning to do about this mess?
So we called Faenza. He met us toward the end of an extremely busy day he had just spent visiting representatives of a charitable organization. Though it doesn't yet have a formal contract with the city, the alliance will manage the center and be on the hook for half its $6.4 million operating budget. Imagine doing the equivalent of panhandling for several tons of spare change on behalf of people nobody really likes that much for a center that's not even built yet. Discouraging? Ha. Somehow, this guy thinks Dallas can end chronic homelessness of the alcoholic-junkie-sleeping-under-bridges variety by 2011, and listening to him, even Buzz wasn't so heartless as to snort derisively, because Faenza is not muddle-headed Dudley Do-Right.
"We're determined to work with people who are very hard to work with," Faenza says. For the junkies, the rummies, the woeful number of legitimate crazies who need meds and beds, the new center can be more than a temporary shelter. Put aside the 12 steps and acknowledging a higher power. Faenza and others have different steps in mind: a hot shower, clean toilets, a safe place to sleep, access to psychiatric and substance abuse care, even a barber shop—all at a place serving 1,200 meals a day, 365 days a year.
"My goal," he says, "is you're going to see these people in a very safe place."
Make them safe, fill their bellies, then see what can happen. That's the plan, and yeah, the cynical part of Buzz wanted to suggest that what you'll most likely see is a cleaner sort of person stealing your car radio, but that seemed small-minded.
The oddest part of our conversation was the fact that Faenza does not come across at all as a dreamer. He knows the center will be dealing with the hard cases, and still he believes that 2011 goal is attainable. In fact, he doesn't act as if there's a choice. The chronic homeless living on the streets die on average 30 years earlier than the rest of us, from diabetes, heart disease, substance abuse, etc., he says. This is life-and-death stuff. The center even plans to have 12 beds for "respite care" for homeless patients released from treatment at Parkland hospital with nowhere else to go to recover. He knows they'll be dealing with several hundred people daily with serious mental health problems, but the center will have space for mental health agencies, Veterans Affairs and other agencies to provide referrals to treatment.
"We're going to save a lot of lives," Faenza says. "They're going to live longer and have a lot better lives."
And then the big push will come, to offer "permanent supported housing" for people living on the streets.
Faenza tells us all this, and not once do we utter the very Dallas Observer-like words "yeah, right." Partly that's because we see how Faenza's face lights up when he describes the center's plans, and partly because he makes a convincing case that the time is right for the city to pull together to create something extraordinary. The business and government people supporting the center understand that our current policy for dealing with the chronic homeless—doing little or sending the cops to roust them—is inefficient. Passing out tickets to people who can't pay fines wastes cops' time. Sending homeless off to jail for trespass or drunkenness wastes bed space in an overcrowded jail—to the tune of something like 75,000 "bed days" a year. Shuffling sick people in and out of Parkland's emergency room wastes resources. Leaving the homeless in place brings down the neighborhood, as our letter-writer, who is moving downtown, notes. Common sense, the need for efficiency and a realistic sense of compassion are joining to bring about a change in the city's culture, so Faenza is optimistic.
And this week, so are we. Faenza is just that good. Eighteen months from now, maybe we'll be wielding the usual hatchet, saying "Well, that didn't work very well, now did it? What were they thinking?" Here's hoping we won't.