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

But so is The Bridge. Its philosophy is a simple one: Treat the homeless like consumers. It's the same philosophy Faenza cultivated in 1988 as the chief of Dallas' Mental Health Association. It's the same philosophy he presented to The Bridge's management team, explaining that the center's success hinged on treating the homeless like customers on a cruise ship, with each getting to choose a treatment plan from a menu of guest services. And a concierge would be at their disposal to direct them in those choices.

But Faenza's ideas aren't widely accepted in Dallas social services circles. The Bridge represents a significant departure from the tough-love shelters throughout the city, where if a homeless person doesn't get a job or get into treatment within a matter of days, he's expected to pay his way or leave. That's the bottom line, several advocates say; otherwise, you're enabling homelessness.

At the Salvation Army, a homeless person is welcome to stay for three nights, no questions asked. But after that, he must meet with a case manager, determine a treatment plan, find a job and pay $7 a night to continue sleeping and eating there. "If we simply allowed access around the clock with no questions asked, then people might say, 'I am happy not working. I like staying here watching TV. They feed me. I have a place to get a shower,'" says Pat Patey, Dallas' Salvation Army spokesman. "We believe people can do better than that."

Dallas homeless czar Mike Rawlings insists that The Bridge is part of a larger plan that won't just manage the problem of homelessness in the city, but will end it.
MARK GRAHAM
Dallas homeless czar Mike Rawlings insists that The Bridge is part of a larger plan that won't just manage the problem of homelessness in the city, but will end it.
Raising the ire of the business community, former homeless czar Tom Dunning led a task force that decided that the best place to locate Dallas' new homeless center was downtown.
Raising the ire of the business community, former homeless czar Tom Dunning led a task force that decided that the best place to locate Dallas' new homeless center was downtown.

Faenza insists that the culture at The Bridge is only the first step in revolutionizing the way Dallas deals with homelessness. Next comes 1,200 units of permanent supported housing—apartments linked to social services—and then a legislative agenda to secure more state money for the homeless. What's at stake for Faenza—and what he's come to see as the pinnacle of his career—is an end to homelessness as we know it. "It seemed like a gargantuan task [taking the job]," he says. "But there was the possibility that I could do more good than I had ever done."

It's the same gamble for Dallas. But for city leaders, it wasn't always about guest services. And for some in the business community, it still isn't.

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Talk about ending homelessness in Dallas surfaced five years ago when transients had run out of places to go. Since 1990 the homeless population has doubled to 6,000 and spread outside of the downtown core to the Katy Trail, Turtle Creek and White Rock Lake. The number of shelters, on the other hand, remained the same. People set up camps under bridges and behind shopping centers, but the bulk stayed downtown, washing up in the library and sleeping in tents outside of the Day Resource Center. At the same time, developers sought to re-energize downtown with apartments and condominiums and complained that the homeless were scaring off tenants. Heeding the call of President George W. Bush, then-Mayor Laura Miller convened a task force in 2003 to end homelessness in 10 years, and she appointed Tom Dunning, her opponent in her first mayoral election, as the homeless czar.

Dunning's main order of business was to develop plans for a sleep-in facility to replace the dilapidated Day Resource Center. "It was a fire trap," he says. "The commodes overflowed. It showed a lack of caring for those who cannot speak for themselves." The task force's inquiry revealed a portrait of intractable homelessness in Dallas. Hundreds of homeless were locked up in the county jail. And the prisons weren't much better, releasing 25 people to the streets each month. While the overall homeless population had doubled, the chronically homeless had increased six-fold, from 200 to around 1,200. There was a shortage of shelter space and affordable housing. And previous attempts at solving the problem had backfired. One program, which gives homeless people keys to their own apartments, ended in chaos. "In six months, many of the apartments had been trashed, the furniture had been sold, and the copper had been ripped out," Dunning says. "What we found from talking about chronic homelessness is that once a person has been on the streets for many years, it's hard to transition them into single-room occupancy or an apartment without proper counseling."

The task force settled on a campus setting for the new center where people could eat, sleep and have access to services. The idea—a kind of shopping mall of social services—was gaining national popularity, and centers had sprung up in Miami and San Diego. The Dallas facility would have a courtyard with plenty of natural light. "We did not want it to be an enclosed environment," Dunning says. "Many chronically homeless people have a fear of being in an enclosed environment." The task force also envisioned that the homeless, by availing themselves of the services offered at the center, would be primed for re-entry into regular life.

Next came the controversial task of finding a location for the center. The task force examined six sites and finally decided on the southern end of downtown at the intersection of St. Paul and Corsicana streets. If Dallas was going to make a dent in the problem, the facility had to be placed where the largest concentration of homeless existed, says Dunning. "It was best to be downtown."

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