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A Place of Their Own

Page 7 of 8

Still, he keeps at it. Every time Samples wants to give up, he'll run into a homeless person he's taken a photo of. Almost every one of them carries that photo around, and when they show him they still have it, he knows he can't stop. But it's a hard life, getting close to people on the street. "I counted it up the other day," Samples says. "Of all the people I've taken a picture of, 63 of them have died."

Even if Samples knew every homeless person in Dallas, that's an eye-opening death rate. Forget $50 million, the damage done to property values in downtown and the burden on city services. The real cost of the city not heeding the advice of Dunning and his committee all those years ago is in those 63 people. People like Bill Banks.

After being on the street for four years, Banks was a fraction of his former self, a 300-pound hulk reduced to little more than a husk by the crash diet that came free of charge with his wrecked life. He'd lost much more than weight by then: his family and friends, his job, home, the van he lived in after that, part of his sanity and most of his dignity. The little he had left wasn't much help; his eyes were bad and his feet were worse, and those were merely the parts of his broken body that bothered him most. It didn't help that he spent his nights sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Day Resource Center at Cadiz and Ervay streets in downtown, along with dozens of others. That's where he was on October 28.

The day before, Banks had filled out paperwork to see if he could qualify for housing, as part of an ad hoc program the Resource Center's James Waghorne had set up. He had failed his assessment before and waited for months to get a second chance. Maybe he would make the grade this time and, as soon as there was an opening, he would have an apartment, his first home since his ill-advised move to Dallas from Oklahoma. He felt good about his chances, because it all seemed to be coming together for him. He had some money coming to him from the Veterans' Administration--not much, around three grand or so, but it would be plenty. He could get cleaned up and find a job. He could get some of his old life back. Maybe some of his weight, too.

Yes, he was getting out this time. He wasn't exactly sure when it was going to happen, but knowing that it would was enough for him. If he could spend years living on the street, he could handle a few more weeks. Months, too, if it came to that. He was going to get out. That's all that mattered. He just had to wait.

The wait was shorter than he expected. That night, a runaway truck crashed into the throng in front of the Day Resource Center. The truck hit three men: David Decker, Edward "Rick" Strickland and Banks. Decker died at the scene; Banks the next day at Baylor University Medical Center. Banks was 51 years old.

Here comes the punch line to the cruel joke: While Banks was at Baylor, Waghorne mentioned to the people who'd gathered there to pray for him--including his estranged family and Samples, who'd been looking after him for much of the last year--that Banks had passed his assessment. He had qualified for housing.

"It was like a scene from a movie," Samples says. "But even if it was a movie, people wouldn't believe it."

Under the current rules of the game, it couldn't have happened any other way. Even if there had been one, a bed in a shelter wouldn't have saved Banks. He wouldn't have been hit by that truck, but he would have ended up back on the street eventually, once he couldn't stand living in the shelter any longer and grew tired of the crowds and the rules and the limited possibilities of his life there. He still would have died. It merely would have been a slower and, in the long run, more painful death.

"I would challenge anybody to live like that for a month," MDHA's Honey says. "A lot of these people may have been successful businessmen in the past. They may have a college education. Something happened. Maybe it was a divorce they could not handle. Maybe it was the loss of a job. Maybe it was a physical impairment. Maybe it's mental illness coming on in middle adulthood or early adulthood. Things might have been going very well for these people. They ease into the homeless situation.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain

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