Dallas' The Bridge Homeless Center's Progressive Approach May Actually Make a Difference

With a no-hassles approach to panhandlers, Dallas' new shelter hopes to kill homelessness with kindness

The southern edge of downtown Dallas has grown quiet and dank before tonight’s storm, and there’s not a homeless person in sight. Most have sought cover in shelters, under bridges or in the construction sites that dot this side of town. But that doesn’t stop Mike Faenza, on this blustery April night, from tracking down anyone left to the elements. The wiry-haired 57-year-old is the president and CEO of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which on May 20 is scheduled to open one of the most progressive homeless centers in the country. Although The Bridge is the city’s answer to homelessness, it is every bit Faenza’s baby. But all his planning and politicking will mean nothing if he can’t convince Dallas’ homeless population to choose his shelter over homelessness.

Combing the streets, he walks past the city’s Day Resource Center on South Ervay Street, a health care and counseling clinic that began to double as a night shelter after other local charities ran out of space. Tonight, a handful of people are curled up on mats on the center’s floor, squeezed in tightly. Faenza lowers his head as he walks by, noting that the facility was not built to be a shelter. But he doesn’t stop. He’s looking for those who remain on the outside.

A few moments later, he sees a man ambling on the other side of the street. He’s young, with a baggy overcoat and a pair of antenna headphones strapped over his ears. Faenza crosses toward him saying, “Excuse me, sir. I’d like to talk to you for a moment.” The man speeds up.

From its inception, The Bridge was envisioned as a campus where the homeless, after receiving social services, would be primed for re-entry into a new life.
Courtesy of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance
From its inception, The Bridge was envisioned as a campus where the homeless, after receiving social services, would be primed for re-entry into a new life.
Mike Faenza likes to tell his staff that the more times a person has been in jail, arrested or beaten up, the more welcome he will be at The Bridge.
MARK GRAHAM
Mike Faenza likes to tell his staff that the more times a person has been in jail, arrested or beaten up, the more welcome he will be at The Bridge.

“He’s scared,” Faenza says. “People make a big deal about homeless people bothering us, but here I am bothering him.”

Faenza doesn’t pursue and keeps walking toward downtown’s core. There’s another man in the distance with his shirt off. He’s stretching his arms in the air, holding a white T-shirt in one hand. He sits down on a flight of concrete steps, breathing hard and clenching and unclenching his fists. After a few moments, he lights a cigarette.

“Hi. Can I bum a smoke?” asks Faenza, searching for a way to relate.

Sorry, it’s his last one, he says. He puts his shirt on; he was lifting weights.

Faenza asks him if he has somewhere to stay tonight—a place to wait out the storm. The man whose name is Gary points to the end of the block, saying he's got a box spring over there. It's in a hollowed-out building where a few of the man's companions are sleeping, wrapped up like mummies in blankets. Faenza prods further, asking the man if he'd rather sleep in a shelter. It's the same burning question that brings Faenza outdoors on many nights since he became head of the homeless alliance a year and a half ago: Why do some homeless people prefer the streets to sanctuaries?

Gary says all the shelters he's tried have turned him away. But Faenza knows the answer is more complicated than that.

Some folks bristle at the religious undertones in the city's charities. Some hate being ushered out at 6 a.m. to work. Some want privacy, are jittery, paranoid. Some want their bottle next to them. Whatever the reason, Faenza hopes to overcome it with the city's soon-to-open homeless assistance center. The Bridge will be a sleep-in campus that will target the shelter-resistant chronically homeless with the goal of turning them into functioning people with apartments and jobs.

This will be no small task. By federal definition, the chronically homeless are those unaccompanied adults who have a disabling condition (such as substance abuse disorder or a serious mental illness) and have been continuously homeless for a year or more, or have had at least four episodes of homelessness within the past three years. Many of these 1,000 or so individuals in Dallas have AIDS, severe depression or schizophrenia. They drink, they smoke crack, they defecate in public. They are ornery and mean, silent and withdrawn. Unlike the city's 5,000 temporarily homeless, the hard-core haven't made it off the streets, in no small part because other shelters won't take them. Yet as Faenza likes to tell his staff, the more times a person has been in jail, been arrested or beaten up, the more welcome he will be at the center.

"We want this place to be very slow to reject anybody," Faenza says. "You don't have to be likable to deserve services. You can be aggravating and annoying and still deserve services....They are not going to act grateful. But you can't lecture. You can't coerce. You can't shame people."

Faenza has no trouble making heartfelt arguments defending the rights of the homeless but feels slightly out of place engaging the corporate types that his job demands. A tireless homeless advocate for more than 35 years, he plans to move into an apartment adjacent to The Bridge, and he'll spend several nights in the shelter. He believes the homeless are just like everyone else. His non-judgmental attitude toward homelessness—he treats it as a disease from which all can recover—is almost revolutionary by Dallas standards.

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