The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance's Mike Faenza and John Castle have been pretty regular faces at City Hall over the past few months, but this afternoon, the city council's Quality of Life Committee turned the tables and took their show straight to The Bridge.
They wrapped their visit with a 10-minute tour through the facility's busy courtyard, registration desk and the bunks on the third floor. First, though, the committee spent 90 minutes in a dark meeting room as the daily shuffle of homeless to and from The Bridge played out along the sidewalk outside.
The committee broke open their boxed lunches as Faenza, Castle and The Bridge's managing director, Jay Dunn, briefed them on where the facility's headed, and how the council can help them get there. Castle, who Medrano introduced as a "breath of fresh air" in the homeless discussion since he took over as MDHA board chairman, said The Bridge's two biggest worries these days are finding enough housing for folks ready to move on, and lining up the funding they need to keep the place running. The Bridge has had to raise "anywhere from $3 o $4 million in a given year," he said. "The funding gap grows, in part because we can't count on the state funding." As their start-up grants run out, and "donor fatigue" sets in, he said it'll also be tougher to find new donors. Faenza added that Castle's been hosting cocktail hours in potential donors' homes to help scare up some new donations.
"Do we go after a special bond package just for this facility?" Carolyn Davis wondered aloud. "How would they respond?"
Jerry Allen said The Bridge should work on spreading the word about the work they do and how people can help. "The more you educate the citizens, the more they start to get the picture," Allen said. "The city of Dallas has the biggest heart you ever seen. But it's educatin' 'em."
Davis also asked Faenza about his long-term vision for The Bridge, and while he said it's tough to get too ambitious in lean times like these, he'd like to move into homelessness prevention, to "cut off the pipeline to chronic homelessness," he said. "Homelessness is about affordable housing." Dallas County's public mental health system should be another high priority, he said, given the thousands of people it's just begun serving in the last 18 months.
Faenza reiterated his support for the Dallas Housing Authority's efforts to line up permanent supportive housing vouchers for The Bridge's residents. Just this morning, he said, a DHA board member told Faenza they're hoping to set aside 400 of their 1,600 housing vouchers next year for them. "It's rare that housing agencies step forward and commit themselves to formerly homeless people," Faenza said.
Davis wondered if there were enough African-American staff members to serve as role models for the facility's 65 percent black population; the majority of The Bridge's shift supervisors and staff are black, Dunn told her. Allen wondered why just 9 percent of the facility's population is Hispanic, and Medrano speculated the answer is about differing cultural tendencies. "We're real strong with the extended family," she said, telling the story of her Uncle Pete, who she guesses now might have ended up homeless if he hadn't spent a decade living with her family while she was growing up. "We have a lot of pride. A lot of pride."
Dunn also addressed the common rumor that cities across the country are handing their homeless a bus ticket and sending them to Dallas. By their count, he said, 82 percent of the people at The Bridge were living in Dallas County before they lost their homes. Seven percent are from elsewhere in Texas, while another seven percent, he said, are from out of state.
DPD Assistant Chief Vince Golbeck spoke up from his seat along the wall once the conversation turned to homeless folks who still stay away from The Bridge -- whether out pride or for any other reason. It's a population, he said, that's "substantially decreased... It's getting harder for the Crisis Intervention teams to even find the situational encampments," Golbeck said. The downtown camps under the overpasses are gone, he said, and the encampments that are left are smaller and farther into the woods.
Faenza agreed: the "unsheltered homeless" population, he said, is "dramatically less than five years ago."
Dave Neumann, who'd been quiet till then, asked how they could be so sure their count's accurate. "We do it the same way every year," Castle told him. "We're probably not getting everybody, but we do it with consistency." Neumann followed up to ask where the "empirical data" was showing that they'd been successful housing people. How could the city's overall homeless population be flat, he wondered, if they've placed hundreds of people into housing already. The answer, Castle told him was this lousy economy. "We put 800 people in housing," Castle said, "but 800 people became homeless."
Things took a turn for the wacky as the meeting wrapped, and Medrano asked for a "wish list" from The Bridge's leadership. There's more the council can do to help than just allocate city funds, she said. They each have mailing lists, she suggested, to get the word out about upcoming events. Like next month's "Help the Homeless Walkathon," Faenza suggested.
Sure, Davis said, and why stop there? "Is there any way we can take a group picture as a council," she wondered, "for a calendar?"
In the pregnant pause that followed, Faenza spoke up first: "Like a swim--" He stopped himself quickly.
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"Where you goin' with that?" Allen laughed.
"'Season's Greetings from the Dallas City Council,'" Davis suggested.
"I can see Carolyn with a bathing cap and a flower on the side," Allen said.
Davis was serious: "We need to think of something that'll have an impact."