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A Place of Their Own

Page 3 of 8

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?

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain

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