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Homeward Banned

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

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.

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.

Some of The Bridge's nightly inhabitants do not show up of their own accord. Some of them get picked up by the cops and dropped off.

"We are used sometimes in lieu of the jail, which we want to be," Faenza told me. "We're used in lieu of the psychiatric hospitals, which we want to be, because we do not want people going to jail or to psychiatric hospitals when they don't have to.

"We don't want people to be coerced anywhere if at all possible, because being coerced, being handcuffed, is a great predictor of a lack of success with people. People already feel humiliated, knocked down, kicked around."

Not everybody agrees with Faenza's approach. On June 18, Path Partners of Los Angeles, which had been providing social workers at The Bridge, pulled out. Joel John Roberts, CEO of Path, sent a letter to Faenza complaining about chaotic conditions and terminating Path's agreement.

A flurry of bad publicity followed. On July 18, The Dallas Morning News published a story about trouble at The Bridge under the headline, "Homeless Shelter Bridge a 'victim of its own success.'" There were some bad stories on TV also.

Since then, according to members of the city's Crisis Intervention Team, the use of criminal trespass warnings to banish people from the center has increased. The Crisis Intervention Team is composed of city employees who talk suicides down from bridges and handle similar situations. They deal with the homeless often.

Their problem with the use of criminal trespass warnings at The Bridge is that the technique offers no appeal: Once a person has been warned, it is a criminal offense for that person to enter the premises for a set period of time, for as long as three months in some cases. If they do enter they are subject to arrest for a misdemeanor and may be carted off to jail.

The team members told me of incidents in which they brought people to The Bridge to keep appointments with social workers, receive needed medication or other services and were told the person could not enter.

"It puts us in a position where we cannot provide anything for this person," Ron Cowart, a team supervisor, told me.

John F. Crawford, president and CEO of the business group for whom the security guards work, told me his organization had come to an agreement with the police department at the end of June. He said since then about 21 people have been barred from entering The Bridge with criminal trespass warnings—the same number Faenza had given me.

"It takes a while," Crawford said. "Somebody has to really be bad to get banned from The Bridge. In all types of situations like this, you're going to have some bad apples in the barrel, and if certain things occur there has got to be a process to handle that."

Crawford and Faenza insist there are mental health clinics and other facilities around the city where a person banned from The Bridge could still receive help.

But Cowart and his team tell another story. It takes a lot of effort, they say, to get crazy people focused on The Bridge in the first place. If you ban them, often they are too crazy or too sick to do more than stagger 10 yards down the street to the gap in the freeway fence, wander out onto the embankment and slump to the ground on cardboard pallets.

That's where I found them by accident one day. I spoke with several who had been told they were banned—who believed they were banned—but may not have received tickets. I didn't find any lawyers out there, advising them of their rights. I think if you tell these guys they're banned, they believe you.

Listen, I started out by saying that everybody has good intentions here. At least they have what they believe are good intentions. But there's one intention in all this that will always be bad. I would even say evil.

The intention to make downtown sterile is evil. The filth and misery, fear and chaos that the banished people live with on the other side of the fence are part of our condition too. Pushing the banned ones through the gap in the fence so that the rest of us can't see them is not a cure for anything. It's murder.

 

That's why I say don't sell that van. City Hall tells us the homeless problem is all cleaned up now. They want to scrub away the dirt and the hurt. But it's all still there.

Hey, I know why you brought that food downtown in the first place. Because you believed there were people downtown who would die if you didn't feed them. Guess what. There still are. And there may be more soon.

Keep those tires aired up.


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