A Place of Their Own

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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.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain

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