Last Thursday afternoon, 58-year-old Patrick Ward waited outside Austin Street Center, an emergency homeless shelter for men ages 45 and up and women 18 and up. He walked past the other men crowded under the shade of a tree on the corner of Hickory St., spilling around the corner along Jeffries St.
“What’s up, preacher?” Ward said to Michael Avalon Eubanks, another man who stays at the shelter.
“God is good, brother,” Eubanks replied. Ward sat down next to Eubanks, a large man with a backpack and a cane resting against one of his legs sprawled out on the sidewalk. Ward had his shirt off like he did most days because of the heat. He splashed water over his head to cool down.
“He was laughin', smiling; he was his normal self,” Eubanks says. “We went in (to the shelter), he got a shower, got in a bed, took a nap 'til dinner time. That was his routine. After dinner time, he’d crack a Bible open. He didn't crack it open this time.”
When Ward lay down to rest that evening, he never woke up. His breath became short. Robert Monroe, the security director for the shelter, performed CPR. An ambulance arrived and by the time he reached Baylor Medical Center, Ward died.
The following day, the men once again gather under the shade of the tree on the corner of Hickory and Jeffries. The line of men on the west side of the building and the line of women on the east is a regular sight around midday. Many of them have been there since morning to ensure they get a bed for the night.
Intake for women is 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. for men; the 400 cots inside are available on a first-come first-served basis. There are some beds designated for those who are employed and can’t get to the shelter early enough to get a spot in line and there are also several programs that give certain eligible men and women permanent beds for a period of time.
Some men take their shirts off, covering their heads instead. Many believe Ward’s death was a result of the shelter’s intake policy, which forces the men to wait outside often for hours in the heat. On this day, it's a little over 90 degrees, though the pavement makes it hotter.
The men and women can knock on the door of the shelter to ask for water, but then they risk losing their spot in line. Though on the hottest days staff may distribute water, that most often does not happen, the men say. A man in a long brown coat, who speaks little English, goes between the men under the tree and the shelter door in the middle of the block, bringing water back and forth as someone holds his spot in line.
"The only reason we have water is because of him," Eubanks says.
“If you're observant, you'll see rocks on the street,” says Marion Warren, 51, standing with a towel on his head to block the sun. “(Some men) will come out at 3 o’clock in the morning, mark a spot and then be gone all day. So it makes it very difficult for people who are trying to get in.”
Warren has been homeless for four months. He was recently discharged from prison after 30 years inside, he says.
“They say you can stay here for a period of six months and they'll help you find housing, but I haven’t even seen my case manager,” Warren says. “Last night I slept outdoors because when you come here, you have to be here at a certain time and even when you get here at a certain time people are territorial. I explained that to the administration here that it actually becomes detrimental sometimes because you gotta fight for a bed. I’ve literally went through that door and had somebody shove me.”
Like most social services, Austin Street struggles with resources. They only have seven case managers to serve the more than 2,700 people who came through the shelter last year alone. They are set up as an emergency shelter and don’t have the staff to be open 24 hours, says executive director Daniel Roby.
“If someone is homeless for the first time in Dallas, Austin Street is probably the only place they can go and have a decent shot of getting a bed,” Roby says. “The reason for that is because when shelters do allow people in during the day, they have access to that same bed the following evening and if you're homeless for the first time, there’s a waiting list. So with us, it’s both a benefit and a drawback because you have people waiting outside, but if you're homeless for the first time you have a chance to get a bed.”
But Ward’s death, whether it was related to standing outside in the heat for hours or not, has many homeless people angry. The side of the street that the women line up has many more trees and shade, and the men wonder why they cannot stand there too. Roby says its because they’ve gotten complaints from nearby businesses about the sight of the homeless.
“There’s a lot of unfairness here,” Eubanks says. “If they let the women stand on the left, they should let the men stand on the left too. It’s hot out here. People take medication. I have high blood pressure. I can’t be in the heat like this.”
The elements can be particularly dangerous for older men, many of whom have serious chronic health conditions. Their “health age” is often 10 to 20 years beyond their chronological age, Roby says.
"There's no question that we need to do more," says Roby. "But I will say that the person who had trouble breathing the other night was in the shelter, and we do provide ice water as people come in. Unfortunately issues similar to this are bound to happen when you're serving older individuals who have had a life on the streets for sometimes decades."
Many of these men choose Austin Street over other shelters in town because of the fact it only allows men of a certain age in.
Homeless man and advocate James Dunn usually stays here because of that fact. “The guys here are good guys. It’s calmer. There are less fights,” Dunn says.
Dunn has been asking Roby to do something about the outside situation for a long time, saying he's warned Roby on multiple occasions that many of the men and women were being negatively affected by the heat. Not only is it a safety hazard, he says, but the fact they need to secure a spot in line prevents many from searching for work or otherwise attempting to improve their situations during the daytime hours.
“We have an inclement weather policy that says when the temperature gets above a certain degree, that no matter what else is happening, everything stops and we let everyone in,” Roby says. “For extreme heat, a temperature that’s 95 degrees or higher, or a heat index of 105 degrees or higher, or prediction of temperature over 100 degrees within two hours of check in — those are the things that determine whether or not we open the shelter and we just eat that cost."
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He said that the shelter has similar plans for extreme cold, for rain or snow.
Austin Street has had funding for some time now to build an awning to provide shade on the east side of the building, where the women line up. However, they’ve been having some trouble getting the project going, Roby says.
"We currently have a grant to be able to provide a shaded area for people as they come in line, but we’ve had some problems getting our proposals approved because of our site plan," Roby says. "We’ve been wanting to do that for a while and we have the money to do that, but we’re having trouble moving it along. I wanted to have it up before the summer.
"Basically we need the city to tell us what to do to get that going. I haven't reached out to the mayor or anything like that and usually when you're talking about this stuff, it’s a developer for this many condos. That’s not the situation that we’re in, where it’s sort of life or death.”