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

When he arrives at the meeting, his eight administrators, two of whom were formerly homeless, are seated in a large conference room. They're eating tuna sandwiches, and one of them nudges a sack lunch toward him. He ignores it, too busy to eat. "A lot of stuff is challenging to get done," he says, now seated at the table. "A lot of us are new. I hope that folks feel candid about saying, 'This is what I need.'"

He is met with silence.

Then one person thanks the rest of the group for their work on the center. It's not the frank discussion Faenza had hoped for. He tries again. "There must be an area where it's hard for you or you have confusion or need some help?"

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.

Finally, another person speaks up. "I have some questions about the signage at the center."

"We can get bids on that," Faenza answers. "Things have to get done fast."

The Bridge's manager, Jay Dunn, has some questions about staffing. At the center, a barber shop and cosmetology room will take care of the grooming needs of the homeless, that is, if he can find the people to work there. "If we don't find people...in the next week and a half or two weeks, we won't be ready for opening."

"I cut my own hair," Faenza jokes. "I could do it."

The meeting wraps up. While returning downtown, Faenza talks about hiring a staff that understands the "guest services" philosophy of The Bridge. If they buy into it, he might avoid the crippling turnover that plagues those who work with the homeless. He gave his management team a list of difficult scenarios that could transpire at The Bridge when dealing with the chronically homeless: The police deliver an angry person...A consumer spits in the face of a staff member... A staff person is ridiculed by a consumer, dozens of people laugh, and the staffer bursts into tears.

"We have to promote a culture that the staff will respect," Faenza says. "It's not easy to work day after day after day with people who never thank you—who seem the opposite of thankful. But that can't drive the staff's behavior on the surface. It could be too much for them to take. None of this is easy."

For Faenza, it's never been easy. Seemingly too shy to become an advocate, he hated speaking in front of his class at school and spent much of his childhood in the small Indiana town where he was raised trying to blend in. "Because I had some of these struggles, I became more aware of people outside of myself. I thought of how other people were feeling: people who were poor, people who didn't have nice clothes, people who weren't white. It came to a time in my late adolescence that I decided to help people who were down and out."

He describes the early part of his career as a "one-man social service agency," mobilizing efforts to fight unsafe housing in the East Chicago projects. When he saw people in the same neighborhood suffering from poor nutrition, he wrote letters to a food stamp agency and was admonished by the board president of his nonprofit for stirring up trouble. He's riled many people over the years, he says. "I don't try to compromise what is right for political expedience."

"He is a street fighter and a scrapper, and he will stand up for the poor, the homeless and the discriminated-against," adds Charles Ray, former president of the National Council of Community Behavioral Health Care, and a friend of Faenza's. Ray describes Faenza as being so driven by the big picture that he sometimes gets in his own way. For example, Faenza once missed giving the keynote lecture for one of Ray's national conferences because he was late. "He is so possessed with ideas that there are times when you want to say, 'Mike, I am going to give you an aide. Just like a general. I want to give you an aide de camp that takes care of the details.'"

With The Bridge's opening just a few weeks away, Faenza works late into the night and chain-smokes when not in meetings. The center's ribbon-cutting will provide some stress relief, but it will also put another problem into play—this one with the business community.

Over the past year, Downtown Dallas, a business advocacy group promoting downtown, has worked to make downtown a more disagreeable place for the homeless. While the group has long supported The Bridge and will provide security personnel for the facility, it also views the new center as a means to get the homeless off the streets and panhandlers out of the faces of downtown residents, workers and visitors. Last year, Downtown Dallas lobbied the city council to pass an ordinance that prohibits panhandling after sunset, if within 25 feet of an ATM or bank, a pay phone, a self-service car wash or a fuel pump, a DART stop, or an outdoor cafe. It's also illegal to ask someone for money who is putting coins into a parking meter. "It flies in the face of making downtown a live, work and play place," explains John Crawford, the organization's president. Offending vagrants are typically jailed and then released, only to be incarcerated again later. But now, Crawford says, with The Bridge opening, "We'll have a place to take them."

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