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

That's the mentality at the Union Gospel Mission, a free shelter serving men at its Irving location and women and children at its Dallas location. Men are welcome to stay there as long as they like but are bused to day labor centers at 5:30 in the morning and are expected to check back in at 6:30 at night. If a person isn't enrolled in a Christian program, he won't be guaranteed a bed if the center is crowded. Like the Salvation Army, those who are intoxicated are not welcome. "We try to walk a pretty tight line in terms of making sure that the person will not be disruptive," says William Thompson, the Mission's executive director. "If a guy had a drink, we would ask ourselves if the situation is manageable.If it isn't, we would ask that person not to come in." Thompson says he'll take a wait-and-see approach as to the efficacy of The Bridge. "I think it's going to take a concerted effort on everyone's part to monitor what goes on there." Thompson is most concerned about homeless drifters, those who aren't committed to getting their lives back on track, but who obviously need help. If The Bridge feeds and houses them without expectations, he says, it may reinforce their lack of commitment. Thompson doesn't buy the notion of the homeless consumer, saying they may never opt in to social services if given the choice. "I feel for those people," he says. "They may not have the ability to make the decision one way or another. It will be difficult."

Faenza's contention, of course, is that these are the people with the greatest needs, and The Bridge will welcome them with open arms.

Turning to face the courtyard, he glances at the first few trees that already have been planted. "Isn't this beautiful? Being in this business 35 years and seeing this? This is amazing to me. This will be the only place homeless people will go that is open 24 hours. It's not like you gotta stand through this long line. It's not like early in the morning, you gotta leave," he says. "But anyone can leave at any time. The idea is to get people involved. We'll help people with transportation. We'll have DART bus passes. They'll be able to see a doctor for a health screening. They'll have a meeting for medication with a psychiatrist. Or they might sit at a table and make friends with someone."

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.
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.

Faenza crosses the courtyard, heading toward the main services center called the "Welcome Building," which resembles a student center at a university. There's recessed lighting to simulate natural sunlight, benches, tables and a large, concrete reception desk where another concierge will direct the homeless toward appointments or classes. "Here," he says, pointing to the wall behind the desk, "we'll have a list of services." At the center, nine different agencies, including the City of Dallas, will provide the homeless with counseling, medical care, legal services, veterans' resources and employment assistance. The most important thing, Faenza says, is that the organizations operate as a single, seamless entity. "We need to avoid making it feel institutional," he says. "The theme is, 'How can we help you recover from homelessness?'"

The Welcome Building also hosts the barber shop, a library and classrooms. There's a woman's room with a "Secret Garden" patio and a playground, though children will be referred to other shelters since The Bridge will focus on adults. There's a free laundry room where volunteers will help, but the homeless will ultimately be expected to launder their own clothes. "Part of the thing is nurturing; the other part is responsibility," Faenza says. "At baseline you need to be able to take care of your own clothes." The same philosophy goes for the kennel in an adjacent building, where the homeless will be able to keep their dogs.

Faenza walks upstairs to an airy floor that looks like a call center. Dozens of cubicles sit side-by-side. When they are completed, each will hold a cot, reserved for a homeless person who started at the pavilion and then committed himself to a serious counseling plan. There are 62 of these so-called "transitional" cubicles. When a homeless person reaches the next level of independence by finding employment, they will move into a dorm room, which they will share with a roommate. There are 24 of these rooms, the final step before moving into permanent housing, and an additional 14 rooms for homeless who are convalescing after a hospital stay.

Before Faenza ends the tour, he looks around and smiles. "It's really beautiful here with all the light."

But none of this will matter, not the lighting or the Welcome Building or the cruise ship mentality if the homeless choose to stay on the streets.


Back downtown with storm clouds gathering, Faenza accompanies Gary to the shell of a building where his box spring is set up.

Of the several shelters that have turned him away tonight, Gary claims that one cost too much, another barred people under 50, a third closed to lodgers at 8 p.m. and a fourth was full. So he has tried to sleep inside. He then trails off into a jumble of complaints against the Day Resource Center, the mayor, the police and the contractor who hired him for a day and didn't pay him. "I'm classified as one of those chronically homeless people," he explains. He's 39 and an ex-convict. "I've been out here for 10 years."

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