A Place of Their Own
"No one ever plans to sleep out in the gutter/Sometimes that's just the most comfortable place." --Bright Eyes, "Road to Joy"
Sporty is a natural leader, the kind of person others follow instinctively. He's a who-where-when-what-why-how guy, an answer man. A few twists and turns aside, he could be someone's boss. In fact, he is the boss out here, in a way.
That's merely another problem for him, and he has enough of those. He doesn't want to be the boss. Not to Uncle Willie, Eight Ball, Carlos or Arnold or any of the others who live here under a bridge just off Industrial Boulevard. Sporty doesn't have the answers. Just more questions. Just like everyone else.
"It's kinda hard for me, because everybody looks up to me," Sporty says. He's sitting on a dirty blue Rubbermaid cooler, surrounded by empty 40s. His skin is ashy, and his clothes have seen better days. Cleaner ones, anyway. "How am I supposed to know what to do? I don't know. I'm not no psychologist. I have my own problems. How can I fix yours? I can't even fix mine."
Sporty won't blame his problems on anyone else. He's the one who went to jail for two years (he won't say why), losing everything he had in the process. He's the one who moved here from Gary, Indiana, without a job or a place to live. He got here alone, but he knows he can't leave that way.
"It's not that a person don't wanna do anything with his life out here, man," Sporty says, rubbing his hand over the gray stubble on his face, staring off in the distance at the panoramic view of the downtown skyline. "But being homeless like this, sometimes you get stuck, you know, and get complacent. And it's hard to come out that rut, man, you know? And once you get out of there, you can [go] from there, but..." He pauses and considers his words. "You need that first step, man, and once you get that first step, you go from there."
He's not talking about a bed in a shelter. He doesn't want to hear about the new homeless assistance center the city is planning to build near downtown. The one for which the city needs between $9 million and $18 million for land acquisition, design and construction and, so far, has $3 million to spend. The one that won't open until December 2007 at the earliest.
To Sporty, a shelter is like going back to prison, and two years in the joint was enough. Having someone tell him when to go to sleep, when to get up, when to go to the bathroom--screw that noise. He'd rather be out here, where at least he can be a man. Sleep when he's tired, wake up when he's not, take a piss without permission. "You got more peace of mind," he says.
But Sporty is tired of hustling for enough change to buy a beer to make the day go by quicker. Tired of wondering what, if anything, he's going to eat that day. Tired of losing friends, like Hubcap, who was shot to death a few weeks ago behind a convenience store. Tired of wondering if he's going to be next.
Most of the people around this camp figure that's the only way they'll ever get off the street, going from sleeping bag to body bag. The city hasn't done much to dissuade them of the opinion, outlawing their lifestyle without providing them an alternative. They all want that first step out of here, but no one is showing them where to put their feet.
They have no reason to believe Tom Dunning can help them do it. He looks like every other gray-haired, gray-suited big shot they've seen, with empty promises about helping the homeless and an emptier wallet when it comes time to pay the bill. But Sporty and everyone else under the bridge might be surprised to learn that Dunning, the city's homeless czar since September, agrees with them. Another homeless shelter isn't the answer. Or, at least, it's not the only answer.
Dunning knows that while a shelter will get people off the streets, it won't keep them off. His task force has studied other cities, looking for anything that works, and it keeps coming back to one thing, a form of supportive housing called single-room occupancies, or SROs.
SROs are pretty much exactly what their name implies. They're more or less what you'd expect in a hotel room. Nothing fancy--a bed and (usually) a bathroom, maybe a kitchenette. Instead of a concierge, you get a social worker. Rent is 30 percent of the tenant's income, and public housing agencies cover the difference.
"This is why it's easy to look programmatically at taking a hotel and turning that into an SRO," says Cindy Honey, executive director of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance (MDHA). "But it cannot have a separate bedroom, because if it does, then it's considered an apartment." That distinction turns it into another form of housing, subject to different U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulation and other shades of red tape.
"With SROs, you can help this person, hopefully, get back on their feet," Dunning says. "They take their medication on a regular basis. The social workers try to help them get into a detox program or an AA program. They try to help them get back into a permanent job. This is what's working."
He has the evidence to back him up: Philadelphia, Miami, London and New York have all employed SROs to great effect in their battles with chronic homelessness. Sporty is ready for one of those, after hearing a basic outline of the idea.
"That's a big step, right there alone," he says. "Just having someplace to go home, get away from everybody. Hey, I can go home, close the door, bam!"
He's so excited about the prospect, I don't have the heart to tell him Dunning proposed the exact same thing to the city 15 years ago and nothing happened.
Maybe that's being too cynical. Maybe Sporty should be excited. Maybe people in Dallas are ready to accept the concept of SROs now. Dunning believes they are, and everyone seems to be saying the right things. But is that just talk, another example of "the great Dallas contradiction," as Central Dallas Ministries' Larry James calls it, how Dallas can be "such a churched-up, faithed-up place verbally and have so little moral action?" One thing is certain: The city had better be ready. No one has another 15 years to wait for a better solution. No one has $18 million to waste on a homeless center doomed to mediocrity by lack of planning. It already costs in excess of $50 million a year to manage 6,000 homeless on the streets. What's it going to cost in another 15 years?
It all comes down to this very simple idea, which happens to be the backbone of the SRO program: How do you stop someone from being homeless? You give them a home. Not a bed in a shelter. A home.
"If you have SROs as part of a master plan, you fundamentally turn people who are on the sidewalks into neighbors that have a place to be," James says. James has a stake in all this, both as a minister and an entrepreneur. His nonprofit Central Dallas Ministries wants to be in the business of building SROs. His conscience wants to see people in them. "There are people on the street, in large numbers, whose lives would be changed dramatically if there was a place for them to sleep every night that they could call their own."
Sporty could be one of those neighbors. If he were given the chance, he'd probably be a good one, too.
"Everybody's not a bad person, man," Sporty says. "Believe that. Believe that, man. Some things happen in a person's life, man, sometimes you come up, sometimes you don't. A lot of these guys really don't want nothing, but then they do, but then they scared to reach out and get it. I mean, I guess you get complacent, and then they give up. My girl's like that. She'll give up in a minute. Baby, you can't do that. I'm not gonna let her give up, because I'm not gonna give up. So it's gonna click. One way or another, man. I'm coming up out of this rat race, man. Believe that."
Tom Dunning was stunned when he saw the hand he had been dealt when Mayor Laura Miller appointed him to the new homeless czar post on September 1. No new net shelter beds, very little in the way of transitional or supportive housing and more than twice as many homeless people as there had been in 1990. He had no idea that he had failed 15 years ago, or rather, that the city had failed him. He thought it had been taken care of. He thought he'd helped take care of it.
Back then, Dunning was asked by then-Mayor Annette Strauss to lead a 64-member committee for the Community Council of Dallas dedicated to coming up with a solution to the homeless situation. Hadn't they studied it from every angle, until the answer was obvious? What had happened in 15 years?
"What we did recommend 15 years ago was for the city to add 100 beds--100 SRO beds--every year, and I want to say until we reached 600 or 700," Dunning says. "And the only one that's been added [Prince-of-Wales, on Live Oak Street] was added about 12 years ago. That has 61 beds. So this is where we are. I mean, I think that's why you see so many more people on the streets."
All told, Dallas has 125 SROs. That's at least 1,000 or so fewer than what is needed, according to the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance's 2004 inventory of the city's homeless population and housing options. The city is, in fact, short on all housing fronts, but SROs are key, because that's where the homeless community can start swimming instead of treading water.
"SROs are found to be one of the most effective means to provide longer-term housing," MDHA's Honey says. "It's worked in several other cities, especially in New York--Pathways to Housing. They work very much on a housing-first model, which is that when a person is ready to go into housing, there is housing available for them. It's the philosophy that a person in--how can I put this quickly?--it's better to house a person first, then provide the supportive services for them to stay in housing than to require the supportive services for them to get to a certain point of recovery and then go into housing, because they can't reach recovery while they're still living out in the streets. I think philosophically, we're getting very close to that point of view."
But in practice, Honey adds, Dallas is still very far away from that ideal. It could have been much closer, had Dunning's committee been given more support. Dunning isn't sure why the city added only about 10 percent of the number his committee recommended, but he has a few ideas. In 1990 the number of homeless was small enough to ignore. No one had to go out of his or her way to help. No one, for example, had to approach the religious community to get involved.
"I think that it's not been a priority," Dunning says. "I'm not aware of any elected leadership who has gone to the large churches, synagogues and mosques and said, 'Hey, would you take on a responsibility? Would you build another shelter? Would you sponsor an SRO?' And that's what we do plan to do. We plan to go to these organizations and say, 'Look, if you band together and come up with a way to build a 90-person SRO...'" He pauses for a moment. He's getting ahead of himself.
"Experience says that if you just build an SRO and put people in there, it ain't gonna work," he continues. "You have to have the social services. Now there's two problems out there: You can build an SRO anywhere, but when you add the social services, then you have to get a special permit from the city. And if you build a shelter, then it has to go before Planning and Zoning. This was a rule the council came up with in 1992, which makes it very hard. Nobody wants a shelter in their district."
There it is, the same not-in-my-back-yard song that everyone knows by heart by now. Thing is, though, it's too late. While everyone was singing it for the past 15 years, the homeless community quietly moved into everyone's back yard. That's the biggest difference Dunning noticed when he became involved with the homeless issue again. In 1990 most of the homeless were squatting in abandoned buildings downtown, camped out near the old TU Electric generator (where the American Airlines Center now sits), scattered among a few other encampments in the downtown area. Now, they're everywhere.
"I mean, it's rampant," Dunning says. "You go along Central Expressway, Walnut Hill, Meadow Road, Royal Lane, Forest Lane--you'll see the homeless. The homeless are in the creeks, at White Rock Creek, Skillman. They're in and around White Rock Lake. They're in many shopping centers in North Dallas. Up and down Harry Hines, you see people walking up and down Harry Hines. All along the Trinity River. Then, of course, downtown. You go into the Cedars area and South Dallas, there's hundreds of homeless walking down there. And, finally, we haven't even gotten to Oak Cliff, and, of course, there's homeless throughout there."
In other words, everything he and his committee predicted in 1990 has been brought to fruition. What was once a worst-case scenario on paper has sprung to life, pushing wheelchairs and baby strollers loaded down with their meager belongings through every neighborhood. That's why, when Dunning came back onboard, he brought his old plan with him. After all, what's worse: a homeless person living in your alley or next door?
The city didn't really ask him to do this; his responsibility was to find a place for the new homeless assistance center, period, and he's doing that: His task force (a 14-member team that includes state District Judge John Creuzot, developer Bennett Miller, Dr. Susan Spalding from Parkland hospital and Trinity Industries Executive Vice President John Adams) has already recommended a site near the Farmers Market and presented the city council with funding options. Dunning quickly realized, though, that if he gave the city only what it asked for, he'd be back in another 15 years, staring down the barrel of the same problem. He also realized that if he wanted to include SROs in his plan, he'd better get the bandwagon warmed up well in advance.
"We've already contacted at least two companies who believe that they can build [SROs]," Dunning says. "There's a lot of government dollars out there. There are major tax credits that you get through the state of Texas."
Larry James agrees. "Many people on the street are eligible for veteran's benefits," he says. "A lot of people on the street, with a place to live, they can work. My contention is an SRO is not a bad business deal, nor should it be. If we can make an SRO work in the market, let's do it. Let it be market-driven."
But Dunning, as much as he believes in the humane and fiscal reasons for building SROs, knows that won't be enough. So he's also talking low-demand shelters (ones with fewer rules) and outdoor pavilions (for those who aren't ready to come inside) and whatever else he thinks might work. If Dunning has learned anything in his second tour of duty, it's that there is no simple answer to the question "What do we do with the homeless?" He likens it to a jigsaw puzzle with 6,000 pieces, each unique in its own way. Some are easy to fit in, others less so.
The homeless assistance center will help them with the pieces on the edge. The rest? It's going to take some work.
Larry James was on his way to an appointment downtown when he noticed a group of guys walking ahead of him. There were five of them, bundled up against the cold, obviously homeless. He walked a little closer so he could hear what they were talking about. He was in a hurry, but he had time for this.
As he walked along behind them, the men discussed what they were going to do for the next few hours. It sounded like a chat he might have with a few of his buddies after a workout, the kind of thing people take for granted when they actually have somewhere to go and something to do. He was struck by the normalcy of conversation and the men who were having it. They weren't drunk. They weren't mentally ill. And he was struck by something else: These guys could get out of here, if someone were willing to help them do it.
"Had I had a little more time," James says, "I would've gotten in the middle of the group and I would've said, 'Can I ask you guys, if I had an apartment building down here and I had rooms that you could rent, and if we provided you the assistance you need to access what [social services] might be available to you, would you be interested?' I know I would've had a really sane, civil, interesting conversation with those guys, because I've done that before with people on the street."
That's exactly what I'm having with Kareem right now, outside the downtown branch of the Dallas Public Library. Like the guys James eavesdropped on, he's not drunk or, as far as I can tell, mentally ill. His clothes are clean, and he's well-groomed, save for a bit of stubble on his cheeks. If I hadn't been told he was homeless, I never would have guessed.
But like most of the others, Kareem is bitter and alienated. Kareem won't give up his last name (he signs "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar" on a photo release form; he may have lost his identity, but not his sense of humor) and he won't give any other details about himself, other than to say he moved to Dallas in 1980 "just for the fun."
"I don't have a story," he says firmly. "This is not about me."
Kareem knows what this is about. He's familiar with all the angles and all the players related to the homeless issue. He's at all the city council meetings, and he's been to most of Dunning's task force meetings, too. He reads the newspaper and scans the Internet for information from a computer station at the library. That's where he'd be right now if I hadn't asked him to step outside. In all of this research, Kareem never sees himself, what the city plans to do for people like him.
"Not all those people are nuts or abusing drugs or all that stuff," Kareem says. "Some people can go to work. If you look at those [MDHA] surveys, you'll see that most people who filled them out--or the ones that I've seen--say that they lost a job. Didn't say that they were abusing drugs or anything else. They were just people who lost jobs, and you ask them what do they want that they're not getting, you'll see that most of it is employment and housing. There's a perception out there that homeless people are the scum of the earth. That's not necessarily true. Or, that's the small percentage they get to see...People go through their lives every day and don't cause a problem. They're not factored into the equation."
Unlike most of the people out here, Kareem is aware of all the previous plans to alleviate the homeless problem, including the report from Dunning's commission in 1990. The knowledge frustrates him. He's also read all the reports that state the homeless population is responsible for downtown's lack of a pulse. This frustrates him more. He wonders if someone decided not to spend $250,000 at Neiman Marcus because a homeless person asked for a quarter.
"Don't tell me that it's causing some great catastrophic impact on the city, and you're giving it lip service," Kareem says. "You can't have it both ways. Hell, if you don't want homeless people downtown, get the ones who are employable employed. Where is the Chamber of Commerce in all of this? Aren't they the ones that are supposed to be into commerce and economic development? I would think that if you gave a guy a job in the suburbs, hell, he wouldn't be downtown impeding Neiman Marcus' business or whomever the heck else. Just apply some logic to this."
That's what Miami did. The greater Miami area is roughly the same size as Dallas, and so is its homeless population. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the two cities approached the needs of their homeless communities in much the same way. That changed in 1993, when Miami adopted the Miami-Dade County Community Homeless Plan--a wide-ranging approach involving the city and county, existing service providers and, most important, the business sector--and formed the Miami-Dade Homelessness Trust to facilitate it.
Twelve years later, Miami's plan is recognized as a national model by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Homelessness Trust has added 769 emergency beds, 1,483 transitional beds and 1,444 permanent beds. The city's pair of homeless assistance centers (one on the outskirts of the downtown district, another 30 miles away at the former Homestead Air Force Base) serve almost 5,000 people every year. It enjoys an 80 percent success rate in getting its clients into jobs and housing. A census taken in December 2003 found only 941 homeless people in Miami and 250 in downtown. Partly because of all this, the downtown area is in the midst of a construction boom. The business community, which has contributed more than $50 million to the effort in the past decade, is getting a return on its investment.
Bernard L. Weinstein and Terry L. Clower, two Ph.D.s who work for the University of North Texas' Center for Economic Development and Research, noted all of this when they put together a report for the Central Citizens Association, Improving Services to Dallas' Homeless: A Key to Downtown Revitalization, last April. From their study of Miami's approach, Weinstein and Clower found that Kareem is right: "Involvement by the business community is imperative," they wrote. Dunning and his task force have already taken this into account.
"The city council does not have money at this point identified, socked away or from a zoning program that we could use for SROs," Councilwoman Lois Finkelman, a member of the task force, says. "There is a real need for the private sector to get involved in the establishment of SROs, and to do so in a timely fashion. That's got to be part of the solution, because there isn't any way that the public sector, the city or the county or the state, is going to be able to provide the kind of SRO housing numbers that we need."
The key phrase there is "timely fashion," because the tab is already staggering. Near the end of their report, Weinstein and Clower deliver the bad news: "Total spending on homeless programs by all of Dallas' service providers--public, nonprofits and faith-based--likely exceeds $50 million per year. That is equivalent to about $10,000 per year for each of Dallas' homeless persons." It gets worse. If Dallas were to implement something similar to the Miami-Dade County Community Homeless Plan, the figure rises to $11,500 per person, per year. Given what Dunning is talking about proposing, it probably will.
"The goal would be over this 10-year period that we could add maybe 1,000 SROs, which would substantially reduce the number of the chronic homeless," Dunning says. "And if we have a low-demand shelter and a place where people can go to get job training, a place where the feeders can bring food, a place that they can feel safe to go whether they sleep outside [under a pavilion] or they sleep inside, that they'd at least have a place to go and that would get them into the counseling services. A place where people can go and see a doctor, can get counseling, can maybe see somebody from the Texas Employment Commission, a place where they can wash their clothes, take a shower, use restroom facilities."
It sounds expensive, and it will be. But the Miami model actually saves money in the long run, because the current rate to keep a homeless person on the street doesn't incorporate the expenses incurred by the city while the person is there. This includes lower property values in the southern half of downtown, where more of the homeless people are, but, as MDHA's Honey says, it's much larger than that.
"There is the cost to community hospitals, the cost of services to them," she says. "The cost in jails, the police officers, the ambulances. There is a lot of costs of city services that are going into providing services to somebody that, if they were in housing, they wouldn't have the problem to begin with. If they were in housing where they were safe, where they knew where they were going to sleep every night, they knew where their food was coming from, et cetera, and they were in the same place day after day so that they could keep their appointments with their doctors, keep on their medication--they're going to have a much more stable population."
And, the thinking goes, a much more stable downtown comes along with it. It's all part of the same quilt, as James says.
"[Councilwoman] Veletta Lill taught me something that I thought was really smart," he begins. "There again, most things that are smart are obvious. She said the difference between Dallas and New York is there's nobody on the streets in Dallas except the homeless. You know, in New York City, everybody's on the streets, so they blend. It's sort of a chicken-or-egg thing: 'When're you gonna get people back on the streets in Dallas? When're you gonna get rid of the homeless?' Well, maybe when you get the homeless off the sidewalks into living domiciles and help them to be more productive, quote-unquote 'normal' folk, and then you can bring in economic development at the upper end and the middle section and the lower end, then you begin to develop a community live on the streets." He stops and smiles.
"Of course, Dallas is so weird. I mean, we put our downtown underground. Go figure."
Hal Samples began taking photographs of homeless people almost two years ago. It started as a hobby, something to keep him occupied and sober, but it eventually became bigger than that, turning into the Hero to Zero project (see "What's Wrong With This Picture?," Dallas Observer, January 14, 2004), aimed at increasing awareness and funding for the homeless community. But taking photos wasn't enough for Samples. As he spent more time in the camps and alleyways where they stayed he knew he had to do more. He came up with ambitious plans and shoved them in front of every important set of eyes he could manage.
One of those plans is an SRO. As someone who's been on the streets himself, Samples knows what's needed to make one work. He has a vision. He just doesn't have any funding--not only for an SRO, but for himself. He's been on the verge of eviction from his South Side on Lamar loft for the better part of a year. Every photograph he sells funds the project, leaving him with nothing but a sick bulldog named Cash and a pile of bills.
Samples does, however, have a new workout plan, one that's trimmed more than 30 pounds off his frame.
"I have all these big developers come here and sit on that couch," he says, pointing with his cigarette. "They say they want to help, and after they're gone, I go, 'Yeeeeah!'" He shoots his arms out and clenches them back to his chest, squeezing every muscle in his upper body. "Then a few days later, they say they can't, and I go, 'Nooooooo!'" He repeats the move. When he pulls up his shirt, it's clear he's been doing this a lot lately.
Still, he keeps at it. Every time Samples wants to give up, he'll run into a homeless person he's taken a photo of. Almost every one of them carries that photo around, and when they show him they still have it, he knows he can't stop. But it's a hard life, getting close to people on the street. "I counted it up the other day," Samples says. "Of all the people I've taken a picture of, 63 of them have died."
Even if Samples knew every homeless person in Dallas, that's an eye-opening death rate. Forget $50 million, the damage done to property values in downtown and the burden on city services. The real cost of the city not heeding the advice of Dunning and his committee all those years ago is in those 63 people. People like Bill Banks.
After being on the street for four years, Banks was a fraction of his former self, a 300-pound hulk reduced to little more than a husk by the crash diet that came free of charge with his wrecked life. He'd lost much more than weight by then: his family and friends, his job, home, the van he lived in after that, part of his sanity and most of his dignity. The little he had left wasn't much help; his eyes were bad and his feet were worse, and those were merely the parts of his broken body that bothered him most. It didn't help that he spent his nights sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Day Resource Center at Cadiz and Ervay streets in downtown, along with dozens of others. That's where he was on October 28.
The day before, Banks had filled out paperwork to see if he could qualify for housing, as part of an ad hoc program the Resource Center's James Waghorne had set up. He had failed his assessment before and waited for months to get a second chance. Maybe he would make the grade this time and, as soon as there was an opening, he would have an apartment, his first home since his ill-advised move to Dallas from Oklahoma. He felt good about his chances, because it all seemed to be coming together for him. He had some money coming to him from the Veterans' Administration--not much, around three grand or so, but it would be plenty. He could get cleaned up and find a job. He could get some of his old life back. Maybe some of his weight, too.
Yes, he was getting out this time. He wasn't exactly sure when it was going to happen, but knowing that it would was enough for him. If he could spend years living on the street, he could handle a few more weeks. Months, too, if it came to that. He was going to get out. That's all that mattered. He just had to wait.
The wait was shorter than he expected. That night, a runaway truck crashed into the throng in front of the Day Resource Center. The truck hit three men: David Decker, Edward "Rick" Strickland and Banks. Decker died at the scene; Banks the next day at Baylor University Medical Center. Banks was 51 years old.
Here comes the punch line to the cruel joke: While Banks was at Baylor, Waghorne mentioned to the people who'd gathered there to pray for him--including his estranged family and Samples, who'd been looking after him for much of the last year--that Banks had passed his assessment. He had qualified for housing.
"It was like a scene from a movie," Samples says. "But even if it was a movie, people wouldn't believe it."
Under the current rules of the game, it couldn't have happened any other way. Even if there had been one, a bed in a shelter wouldn't have saved Banks. He wouldn't have been hit by that truck, but he would have ended up back on the street eventually, once he couldn't stand living in the shelter any longer and grew tired of the crowds and the rules and the limited possibilities of his life there. He still would have died. It merely would have been a slower and, in the long run, more painful death.
"I would challenge anybody to live like that for a month," MDHA's Honey says. "A lot of these people may have been successful businessmen in the past. They may have a college education. Something happened. Maybe it was a divorce they could not handle. Maybe it was the loss of a job. Maybe it was a physical impairment. Maybe it's mental illness coming on in middle adulthood or early adulthood. Things might have been going very well for these people. They ease into the homeless situation.
"I always think: What is that first night like when someone finally has to say they're sleeping on the street?" she continues. "When they've given up on the shelters, the friends have kicked them out, they have no family to go to--what must it be like that first night, when you really don't know what to do but you just cower down in an alley and put a trash bag over you to try to keep the rain off of you. And then, eventually, you start getting used to that. I don't think anybody just woke up one day and said, 'I'm not going to work anymore.' It's a journey into homelessness, and it's a difficult exit."
Even though most of the initial report Tom Dunning's homeless task force presented to the city discussed the need and the advantages of SROs, the idea has yet to become a front-burner topic at City Hall. You could say the members of the city council are wary of even broaching the subject, as one source claims, based on conversations she's had with council members about building SROs in their districts.
"If you want to freak them out, just go down there in a session, step up to a mike on Wednesday when there's time for open comment and start asking about SROs in Dallas," she says. "It's like rats running out of a burning building. They're afraid that this tool, if you will, this strategy will scare off any potential investors."
You could also say the current focus on the strong-mayor initiative has precluded such a discussion even taking place. But the truth is, most people simply don't understand what SROs are. "I think the problem is jargon, social-work jargon," Honey says. "What does transitional housing mean? What does permanent supportive housing mean? I mean, I think people understand what emergency shelter is, so they understand what the homeless assistance center means."
Even members of Dunning's task force weren't clear on the concept when they first convened in September, but they're all behind it now. That doesn't mean they expect everyone to get it right away. It's going to take time.
"It has to catch on with everybody else," says the Reverend Sheron Patterson, senior pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church and a member of the task force. "And because the homeless situation is so complex, it takes a lot of education to understand the need for SROs. The average person looking at the homeless situation might not understand that as readily, but after you've gone through weeks and weeks and weeks of training, then you understand. So I think Dallas is going to have to grow into the SRO movement."
Dunning believes it can. For one thing, the numbers are too large to ignore this time. For another, he has solid success stories to back him up, which weren't easy to come by in 1990. Philadelphia has virtually eliminated the homeless population in its downtown area by using SROs. New York has shown it can work in even the most drastic cases. San Diego, Seattle, Boston, London--it's working everywhere. It can work here. But to do that, he's going to need--apart from millions of dollars--an army of dedicated social workers and the support of the city, and not just its government, but its residents, too. Dunning is already getting more of that than he did before.
"People come up to me now and say, 'I really feel for what you are doing. My brother was on the streets for a whole year before I finally was able to convince him to come in,'" Dunning says. "Another guy said, 'My best friend from college and medical school ended up on the streets, and I couldn't get him to come in.' People come up to me all the time with stories about family."
But story time is over, and Dunning knows it. It's time for action.
"What do we have to lose?" Larry James asks. "Might as well give it a shot. The fact is, it doesn't smell like urine in downtown because people pee on the street. It smells like urine because nobody cares to clean up anything. Nobody's down there. Nobody cares. No one cares. I could go on forever talking about that, but all we do is talk. What we need is a combination of philanthropic heart and entrepreneurial spirit. I think that a well-funded SRO development strategy with a solid business plan that included security, the presence of more than adequate services, that would be...talk about a breath of fresh air. It'd work." He laughs, both because it's obvious and because it's not. "Shoot, it'd work."
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