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

Not so fast, says Faenza. As part of the "guest services" culture at the center, it's essential that nobody be forced into the facility, nor be given a take-it-or-leave-it choice between jail and The Bridge. If The Bridge is equated with punishment or consequences, it won't help. "There must be some kind of misunderstanding," Faenza says, noting that he's had several conversations with the police, the county, and with Downtown Dallas regarding his hopes for treatment of the homeless. "People see homelessness as someone unpleasant asking them for money. Blaming people and bullying people doesn't work on any level, not for me."

With the opening of The Bridge, Downtown Dallas expects the city to expand the panhandling ordinance to outlaw the practice altogether. Crawford says he has a "gentleman's guarantee" with the city that it will do so.

When asked about any change in protocol, the Dallas Police Department says its officers won't behave any differently. "When [The Bridge] does open, it is not going to change anything," says DPD spokesman Sergeant Gil Cerda.

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.

Although Faenza sees the futility in breaking ties with Downtown Dallas, he is against expanding the panhandling ordinance or the forced placement of the homeless in The Bridge. It's better, he says, to work together. "I've tried to say what is right, to the point where people trust me. Would I want to talk to John Crawford and say, 'This is terrible, this doesn't work. This is bad news?' It's not appropriate for me to say this to John Crawford. We have the same goal. He's not a black-hearted guy. We both have strong values. And we want our partnership to have movement."

If the partnership can move forward, Faenza, Rawlings and The Bridge may be on the cusp of creating "a national prototype" for homeless shelters, says Ray. "If it can work in Dallas, it can work in a lot of other places."

————

It's a Thursday afternoon, five weeks before the center is scheduled to open. Faenza places a hard hat on his head and strides toward the back entrance of The Bridge. Just three blocks away from the Dallas Farmers Market, the center towers over its neighboring buildings. The Bridge has the feel of a university; five brick buildings encircle a courtyard. The most prominent one has a clock tower and a rotunda that will operate as a cafeteria; meals will be provided by the Stewpot, one of Dallas' oldest soup kitchens. Faenza crosses through the quad area, where construction workers are laying rebar, and he reaches the center's main entrance, a grassy area flanked by two concrete columns. Soon, a sign reading "The Bridge" will hang between them.

Faenza points to the entryway, and with the pride of an inventor sharing his life's work, he describes the moment that a homeless person will enter The Bridge. "They'll be on the street," he says, "and they'll take a look inside and say, 'It looks really nice in there.' Then they'll walk through the gate." Once inside, the homeless person will walk through a metal detector or will be carefully wanded; Faenza hopes to avoid any jarring physical contact, lest jittery guests be scared away. Illegal drugs will be turned over to the police, alcohol flushed down the center's toilets and knives kept in storage for retrieval once the homeless person leaves.

After the security screening, the individual will meet with a concierge of sorts, who will ask for identifying information. "Someone can come in and say, 'I want to have a meal' or 'I'd like a place to sleep' or 'I don't want to mess with paperwork,'" Faenza says. "With people who don't want to give information or are skeptical of getting involved, the key is to not discourage them. The idea is to bring people in who have a hard time being anywhere else."

Depending on what the person asks for, the concierge will direct him to the cafeteria or the main services center in the clock tower building. If the person is intoxicated or mentally ill, the concierge will make contact with a mental health worker who later will meet with the person and gauge whether he's willing to enter treatment. "It takes extra time, but it's taking people where they are and not making them fit some mold," Faenza explains. "They would not be here if they didn't need something."

A construction worker interrupts Faenza and asks him to move toward a white brick building with gaping doorways like a massive, multi-car garage. "I don't want you to get hit by rebar," the worker says. Faenza backs onto the steps of the facility, explaining that this is the pavilion, a shelter that will hold up to 300 people. As the largest sleeping area on campus, the pavilion is meant to attract the hard-core homeless—especially those reluctant to enter a shelter. It will be a "low-demand" environment: A homeless person doesn't have to pay to get in, commit to treatment or take part in a religious ceremony. With garage doors to let in the breeze or keep out the rain, the pavilion is meant to mimic sleeping outdoors—another draw for the shelter-resistant. But Faenza also plans a degree of privacy in the pavilion: Each person will sleep on a cot surrounded by a small partition, and the men will be separated from the women. There will be TVs here, says Faenza, surveying the room. "A lot of people watch TV when they go home to relax. The idea is to make them feel comfortable and safe enough to get them involved in services. It's a 180 from the 'you gotta earn your way by doing things right' mentality."

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