Homeward Banned

City Hall says its new shelter has solved our homeless problem. But not for those who have been banished from it.

By any chance, were you ever one of those people from a church or synagogue or mosque or some other outfit that used to come downtown in a van and feed the homeless? I say, "used to," because, as you know, feeding the homeless is all taken care of now.

You're no longer needed. In fact you're not really wanted anymore downtown handing out hot dogs.

May I ask you a favor? Please don't sell the van. Not yet. I think you may be needed again. More than you know.

A gap in the fence: on one side heaven, the other side hell.
Eva Watson
A gap in the fence: on one side heaven, the other side hell.

Last week I made a gut-churning discovery. Our bold new plan for dealing with the homeless downtown has a gap in it. In fact, it's actually a gap in a fence between a city street and a freeway. On the other side of that gap are human beings who have no place on Earth.

I mean this literally. These are people who have been ruled out of existence. Slumped against a fence on a freeway embankment, sucking in truck fumes in the searing, 100-plus-degree weather, sick, crazy, drug-addicted, without care or medication, without access even to food or water, these are human beings who have been banished from life itself.

They aren't allowed to be.

If we were going to be totally honest about what's going on here, someone would show up with city vans, haul these people out into a rural area and shoot them.

The irony is that the gap in the freeway fence where I found them is just down the street from the front entrance to "The Bridge," our bright, shiny, new $21 million shelter and service center for the homeless. These wretched souls behaved so badly inside The Bridge that they have been banished from it for a period of weeks or months.

So what? Doesn't The Bridge have to defend itself against troublemakers? OK, but think about it. The Bridge is supposed to be the city's Grand Hotel, Welcome Center and HQ for troublemakers.

Therefore all of the services for troublemakers, the meds, all of that food you used to distribute, even water, all of it is inside The Bridge. If you lock everything up inside the fort and then tell certain people they can't enter the fort, guess what? They pretty much need to go somewhere and rot. And that's exactly what's happening on the other side of that gap.

Everybody involved means well. That's how it always is with the homeless issue. Everybody means well. Everybody's gripe is legitimate. The problem is that you take two legitimate gripes, four good intentions and an emergency, drop them all in a paper bag and shake it up, and a skull falls out.

The Bridge is doing exactly what it set out to do—serving a population that includes some seriously messed up people. In the process, The Bridge has suffered some messes of its own. Surprise, surprise. It's not like they're holding the debutante ball in there.

The situation I found, the gap in the fence, is a result of pressure to clean up those messes. A major element in the impetus to build The Bridge was a desire by downtown business owners to get the hard-core homeless off the streets of downtown. Security at The Bridge has been farmed out to the Dallas Improvement District, a business group.

According to the homeless people I spoke with, it's Dallas Improvement's security people who have been calling city police and asking them to banish unruly customers through the use of criminal trespass warnings.

I found Simon, 49, slumped against the fence one afternoon when the mercury was at 102. Half naked with scabs all over his face and arms, sunburned a ghastly purple on his chest and shoulders, Simon told me who had banned him from The Bridge:

"Security," he snarled. "Some fat bitch with a stripe on her shoulder. She thinks she's somebody. She's dumb as dirt. She's got about the mentality of a 14-year-old."

See. We're not talking about highly sympathetic characters here. But that's the point.

Look, The Bridge, which opened only two months ago, is a resounding success, as far as I can tell. Operated on a deliberately non-judgmental basis, it welcomes with open arms the most homeless of the homeless, the people nobody else wants around. At all.

They are showing up in numbers two to three times the shelter's anticipated population. Kathy Ellis, 54, told me that the difference between her life on the street before The Bridge opened and life now is "really like heaven and hell." She occupies one of the small rooms upstairs, where homeless people are getting their lives together in order to rejoin the mainstream.

She gives The Bridge all the credit for her progress. She was sober, bright-eyed and very nice when I spoke with her.

Michael Faenza, CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which operates the shelter, told me that of the 750 people crowding into The Bridge every night, 100 are living in units upstairs. All of those living upstairs must be "clean and sober" in order to stay.

But Faenza, whose ideas about the homeless have become The Bridge's central philosophy, also has made it clear from the very outset that The Bridge seeks, desires, recruits and hopes to find people on the streets of downtown who are not clean, not sober, not sane and not nice, as a matter of fact.

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