Someplace Like Home

Hilda Fernandez looks north from her perch on the 27th floor of the county government center. From here, it is easy to see the massive efforts to revitalize downtown coming together.

Off to the right, the brand-new American Airlines arena gleams beneath the morning sun--a jump shot away from the old arena, which sits idle because nobody knows what to do with it. A few blocks away, a yellow building houses the Network Access Point of the Americas, an Internet storage hub, which is part of a new day dawning for trade relations with the city's Latin American partners. To the south, red construction cranes toil like gigantic arms as they piece together a $260 million performing arts center and opera house.

Smack in the middle of all that sits an unsightly obstacle: Camillus House, a soup kitchen and homeless shelter owned and operated by a local Catholic charity. The dank, crumbling building is a magnet for lost souls. On any day, drunks, drug addicts and mentally ill people surround the place. They piss on curbs, pass out beneath awnings and litter the sidewalks with the soiled rags and torn pieces of cardboard they use for shelter.

Their pathetic presence is a constant reminder of human frailty and is the antithesis of the destination reputation the city is trying to build. "What can I tell you?" Fernandez says. "They obviously don't want Camillus downtown."

"They" is the downtown business establishment, which wants to herd the homeless out of downtown and out of sight, but the city is Miami, not Dallas. Fernandez, director of something called the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, stands in the middle of a recurring battle with neighborhood residents and their elected representatives, who scream "not in my back yard" at suggestions they make room for Camillus House and its messy clients.

While Miami has forged a remarkable alliance among business owners, government officials and nonprofits to put a dent in its homeless population, "NIMBYism" continues to be a problem, Fernandez says. "We're not that aligned a community," she adds. "I wish we were."

Miami's efforts in seeking a comprehensive solution to its homeless problem, however, put those of most other major cities to shame. The city is recognized nationwide as a model provider of homeless services, and Dallas is about to hear a lot more about it.

On November 1, Dallas Mayor Laura Miller will host a summit on homelessness at City Hall, and a specific agenda shadows the event: the creation of a new homeless "campus" to be located in the Cedars neighborhood, just south of downtown. Details about where the campus would be built, who would pay for it and how it would operate have yet to emerge, but the general idea is to lure the homeless and the people who support them, namely faith-based shelter operators and street feeders, off downtown streets and into the new facility.

The concept is largely a reaction to complaints from downtown business leaders who argue that the city will never have a vibrant core if it continues to be a place where people can't walk for more than a block without being asked to spare a buck, tripping over sandwich wrappings or having their cars broken into by homeless junkies looking to finance their next fix.

But the campus option is also the product of a loose coalition of people, led by local real estate developer and longtime civic activist Bennett Miller, which believes that Dallas should avoid a police-oriented strategy that simply gives homeless people the bum's rush. Instead, they argue, there is a better way.

The road map begins in Miami.

"Somewhere there's got to be some understanding of how we deal with homeless people and how we can still promote the economic development that you really want," says Bennett Miller, who has been distributing a video of the Miami homeless "model" to Dallas city officials and downtown business owners. "If I were starting, I would have a system that's closer to Miami than it is to Dallas."

The suggestion that riot-prone Miami--the nation's poorest big city, where nearly 30 percent of its citizens live in poverty--could be a model for a city as affluent as Big D may seem laughable. But Miami has become the destination for officials from dozens of municipalities seeking an innovative approach to homelessness.

Last month, the Dallas Observer traveled there to get an up-close look at the program and the people who run it. What we found was a system, however flawed, that has made significant strides in reducing the homeless population. It also benefits from something conspicuously lacking in Dallas: rich, private-sector donors who aren't asking for enormous favors in return, men and women of vision who managed to get local governments, businesses and nonprofits to work together on something big and very expensive.