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 the decision elicited ire from the business community; dozens of downtown enterprises, including Urban Market and Ace Parking, organized to fight the project. Calling themselves the Heart of Dallas Partnership, they opposed the 2005 city bond election, which, if successful, would earmark $23.8 million to fund construction of a new center. "It seemed to me that we were investing all this money and trying to revitalize downtown and that it would be a good idea to get that thing out of downtown," recalls Jerry Hamilton, a local developer who spearheaded the Partnership. "It is a downer when the place starts to resemble Skid Row with all kinds of vagrants and derelict people just kind of hanging out and loitering and panhandling and committing anti-social acts and urinating in doorways."

But the bond election passed handily. The initiative had the support of Miller, but Dunning credits the victory to the generosity of the voters. "Even those people not physically supporting the homeless are supportive of the city trying to help them," he says.

Also in 2005, Mike Rawlings, a former Pizza Hut executive, replaced Dunning as the city's homeless czar. The following year, the Dallas City Council selected Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, a coalition of local homeless agencies, to plan and later manage the new homeless center. Metro Dallas' board in turn chose Faenza to head The Bridge.

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.

"There were two things specific to Mike [Faenza]," Rawlings says. "One, he'd been in Dallas before, working with the county jail, so people in the mental health programs know Mike. Two, his whole life has been around mental health."

It had been 13 years since Faenza left Dallas for Washington, D.C., to lead a national mental health advocacy organization, but local groups still remember his unyielding advocacy. As the former president of the Dallas Mental Health Association, Faenza once packed the Dallas County Commissioners Court with protesters to get commissioners to fund a mental health program in the jail. He got his way. "In Dallas, Mike was very well-known," says Dr. Joel Feiner, director of the Dallas VA Medical Center's Comprehensive Homeless Center. "He wasn't bashful. And in some ways, some of us miss those days. There was an urgency to our efforts."

When Faenza returned to Dallas, he hadn't lost any of his zeal. It fell upon him to find funding for the mentally ill homeless, but few mental health organizations, including those with whom he previously had worked, wanted to allocate money to the homeless, especially if it meant less funding for other programs. So Faenza went to the Texas Legislature in 2007 after learning of a bill that would authorize $85 million statewide to fund psychiatric crisis intervention. Working with a lobbyist, he inserted a rider to the bill that would have diverted Dallas County's share of the fund to The Bridge. The legislation passed but without the rider. Still Faenza's tactics left some hard feelings within the local mental health community. "People said, 'This is a low-down trick,'" Faenza says. "But it established that I would be a tenacious advocate. Nobody doubts that."

Faenza next doubled the operating budget for The Bridge so that it would have case managers on site. At first, Rawlings balked, says Faenza, but he then came around and helped Faenza secure additional funding from the city. Of The Bridge's $6.4 million budget, the city kicked in $3.2 million, and the county gave another million, conditioned on seeing a reduction in the jail's homeless detainees. Faenza must raise the balance of the budget from private donors.

Despite his vigorous funding pursuits, Faenza has done his best to preserve the unlikely coalition of social services, business and government entities, whose interests, diverse as they are, have enabled The Bridge to come into being. The county's need to reduce its jail population, the city's need to curb the growth of its most destitute group and the business community's need to get panhandlers off the streets created a perfect storm to address the issue. "The stars are aligned," Faenza says. "It's a golden moment where people want to do something."

"This is a major step for the city of Dallas," Rawlings adds. "At 2014 we need to be at zero. That's what people don't get. We're not here to manage the problem. We are here to end it."

————

Before homelessness in Dallas can end, The Bridge has to open, and the center's ribbon-cutting ceremony has been delayed more than once. Construction glitches, as well as Faenza's perpetual state of urgency, have heightened the level of tension surrounding the project.

"He is like the Energizer bunny," says Feiner, who is also a former colleague of Faenza's. "He is very focused. And I think he sets a standard of work that probably not everyone can reach. People may find him exasperating because of this single-mindedness, but no one can ever say he has hidden agendas."

Late to a management meeting in March, Faenza needs a cigarette, tearing the filter off before he smokes. He loads his coffee with four packs of saccharin, and then he drives helter-skelter to a facility in Coppell where his management team is planning to give him an update on The Bridge.

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