Dallas' Homeless Turn To The Bridge for Food, Shelter and a New Start

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A silver bracelet dangles from her wrist as she clasps her cell phone in her left hand. She wears sparkling gold sandals, which reveal freshly painted maroon toenails. Her black sleeveless blouse and pressed blue jeans look recently laundered.

Denise Way looks nothing like the stereotypical homeless person—soiled, weathered, beaten down by life—and this early June afternoon, she has an appointment. It's her weekly meeting with Kevelyn Oaks, her care manager at The Bridge, the innovative homeless assistance center on the southeastern edge of downtown Dallas.

Aside from her appearance, there's something else that sets Way apart from the vast majority of The Bridge's homeless, who its staff refer to as "guests." She doesn't have a mental illness, drug addiction or criminal record.

She could be your friend, neighbor or aunt. But for the grace of God and the recession, she could be you.

Yet Way has found herself among the thousands who have flocked to The Bridge since it opened in May 2008. The $17.4 million facility is the key component in achieving Dallas' 10-year plan to eradicate homelessness by 2014. It's often referred to as a one-stop service area for the homeless, providing not only food and shelter, but also access to care managers like Oaks, onsite health care facilities, legal aid and job assistance as it seeks to move its guests from street chaos to shelter care to independent living.

In an era replete with the frustrated bond-package promises of the Trinity River Corridor Project—the contentious high-speed toll road is massively over budget, citizens have seen little of its parks and amenities, and its signature Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge won't have access ramps when completed, making it the Bridge to Nowhere—Dallas' homeless shelter is a city-subsidized success story.

From its troubled beginning, The Bridge faced fierce opposition from a business community opposed to its downtown location, criticism from other social service agencies at odds with its nonjudgmental philosophy toward its "guests" and nagging doubts about its ability to safely manage the crowds of homeless who at times seemed to overrun the facility. Yet in its first year of operation, The Bridge placed more than 400 people into housing and assisted nearly 800 with finding jobs.

"We wouldn't be around if we didn't hit it out of the park," says Mike Faenza, chief executive officer and president of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which operates The Bridge. "There was just too much pressure."

Council member Angela Hunt, who represents most of downtown, views the city's 18-year commitment to provide up to $3.5 million annually toward The Bridge's operating budget as tax dollars well spent. Its 2009 budget is projected at $7 million, with $1 million contributed by Dallas County and private donations solicited to cover the remaining gap. Historically, says Hunt, money has been spent on the homeless indirectly through their involvement in the jail, court and health care systems. Better to spend the money wisely, efficiently—where it can do the most good.

"What the assistance center does—and what it accomplished in its first year—is trying to use our funds in a smarter way so it's not an endless cycle and a black hole," she says. "We're actually changing people's lives so they're out of this homeless cycle."

Way's descent into homelessness began in January 2005, she says, three months shy of her 20-year anniversary at the Dallas office of Fulbright & Jaworski when the law firm fired her because she wasn't keeping up with her duties. Fulbright & Jaworski refused to comment, only confirming the dates of her employment, but Way admits that she may have pushed herself too quickly to return from taking a two-month leave of absence after she was diagnosed with diabetes in March 2004.

Landing a job as an accounting manager earning more than $60,000 a year at one of the largest law firms in the country was as easy as answering a newspaper ad, she says, but finding similar success nearly two decades later proved much more difficult. Divorced with no children and 51 years old, Way rigorously searched for jobs throughout the city, but she found no takers. Her entire 401(k) savings eventually dried up, and she became homeless for the first time last year, seeking shelter at the Austin Street Centre near Fair Park.

Way's parents died in the 1970s, so she reached out to her two sisters in Connecticut and Georgia for help, but both left her to fend for herself. She had no idea her relationships with them were so poor. "I thought it was cool until I really needed them."

Way's sister in Georgia has a daughter in Dallas, but her sister discouraged their relationship. "She doesn't want me to be involved with her daughter because she thinks I may pull her down."

A cousin in Washington, D.C., who pays Way's cell phone bill, stepped up and offered to pay for a room at the InTown Suites. And when Way found work in September 2008 at a car auction in Oak Cliff, her life appeared to be back on track.

Way's car, however, was repossessed in November, so she could no longer drive to work, and the rent at the InTown Suites became too much of a burden on her cousin. With her resources exhausted, Way became a guest at The Bridge in January.

Nearly all of the 60 guests that Oaks sees each week are battling mental illnesses or drug abuse—sometimes both—and several have criminal records that make it difficult for them to find jobs. Oaks documents the progress of each guest, encouraging them to take prescribed medications, attend counseling sessions and stay sober. But there's only one issue to discuss with Way: employment.

Way's never had this much trouble getting a job, she says, citing the down economy, being overqualified for some positions and losing out to younger applicants as reasons for her lack of success. "I will sweep the floor; I just want a job."

After months of handing out résumés, receiving assistance from an onsite representative of the Texas Workforce Commission and interviewing for three jobs that were awarded to others, Way finally found a way to earn a paycheck. The Stewpot, a partner agency which provides meals at The Bridge, threw her yet another lifeline when it recruited and hired Way as a dishwasher at The Second Chance Café, the dining hall at The Bridge.

"With you coming from a legal administrative assistant background, it's going to be a change," Oaks warns her.

"I know it's going to be a change," Way replies with a smile. "But I need the money."

There's a party at the Old Red Courthouse near Dealey Plaza this late May morning. About 80 politicos, service providers and homeless advocates have gathered for a breakfast celebrating The Bridge's first year of operation.

Mike Rawlings, the city's homeless czar, stands behind the lectern and graciously thanks the citizens of Dallas, but he doesn't sugarcoat things too much, recalling that while the 2005 bond vote for The Bridge wasn't as contentious as the recent referendum on the convention center hotel, the homeless center had its own unique set of challenges. Rawlings remembers the day The Bridge first opened and hundreds of homeless people packed head to toe into its courtyard. He credits other area shelters for working together to relieve the overcrowding and says, "We're starting to act like a real team here."

Among the long list of organizations and people from whom he's had to ask favors is DowntownDallas, which is sponsoring the breakfast and whose president and CEO, John Crawford, is in attendance. Crawford describes the Bridge as "a good neighbor," which is high praise considering part of his organization's focus is the safety of the Central Business District. He had lobbied hard in favor of the city council's decision in 2007 to strengthen the city's panhandling ordinance, an anathema to homeless rights advocates such as Faenza who did not want The Bridge to be seen as punishment for panhandling or an alternative to jail.

Mayor Tom Leppert tells the crowd it would have been easy for DowntownDallas to stay away from the homeless issue, but instead they "engaged" The Bridge. Leppert also gives credit to his predecessor, albeit not by name, for leading the city's efforts to end homelessness: Since implementing its 10-year plan in 2004, Dallas has seen a drop in "chronic homelessness" from 1,181 to 601.

"We have made incredible success, not just over the last year, but really over the last five years on the issue of homelessness," Leppert says.

In response to a call of action from President George W. Bush, former Mayor Laura Miller in September 2003 announced plans to develop a 10-year strategic plan aimed at ending chronic homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines the chronically homeless as an unaccompanied adult who has a disabling condition (such as a substance abuse disorder or a serious mental illness) and has been continuously homeless for a year or more, or has had at least four episodes of homelessness within the past three years.

Miller created a task force on homelessness, and in September 2004 named Tom Dunning, a prominent businessman and her opponent in the February 2002 mayoral runoff, as the city's first homeless czar. The touchstone of Miller's plan was an ambitious 24-7 homeless assistance center to replace the Day Resource Center, a health care and counseling clinic on South Ervay Street, which was never intended to be a homeless shelter.

Her city council colleagues got on board and quickly decided to place a $23.8 million bond issue on the November 2005 ballot, which would pay for the construction costs and funding for staff and permanent housing. This was an unusual maneuver; most bond issues are part of much larger bond packages, and are rarely voted on separately.

"We decided that a solution couldn't wait," Miller says.

But the city and Miller faced opposition from a group of downtown business owners calling themselves The Heart of Dallas Partnership, which spent more than $160,000 on a campaign to defeat the project. The political action committee, led by Larry Hamilton, a prominent downtown developer, opposed the downtown location of the center.

"I was afraid of it downtown," Hamilton says, citing concerns about its potential to damage revitalization efforts.

More than 100,000 Dallasites cast their ballot in the election, and The Bridge passed easily with 59 percent approval. Miller says she doesn't blame Hamilton for his opposition because he had so much financially invested in downtown, but she became convinced the shelter had to be located there. "With so many other service providers in the downtown area and the courthouses, City Hall, county services and the bus station, that's where they're going to be whether you build a facility there or not."

With funding squared away and a site chosen at the corner of St. Paul and Corsicana streets near the Farmers Market, the next challenge was to convince The Stewpot—a ministry of First Presbyterian Church—to move its meal service into The Bridge. The Stewpot had been serving hot lunches on weekdays from its downtown location, but Miller realized that for The Bridge to be a success, it would have to feed the homeless three meals a day, seven days a week. But she says the Reverend Dr. Bruce Buchanan, executive director at The Stewpot, was skeptical. "He had a long enough history with the city to know that things that have been promised in the past didn't materialize."

With coaxing from Mike Rawlings, who Miller had named homeless czar in September 2005 after Dunning resigned, Buchanan agreed to move his operation into The Bridge.

The Bridge opened on May 20, 2008—approximately one year after Miller left office. While the structure itself turned out as planned, the facility's philosophy of opening its doors to anyone in need backfired. The first few months of operation were marred by chaos, as The Bridge was serving twice as many people as it was built to accommodate.

A June, 18, 2008, story in The Dallas Morning News cited "drug-dealing, fights, thefts and lax security" at The Bridge, leading to the implementation of a 10 p.m. curfew.

"This is a hellhole," Louis Jones, a homeless man staying at The Bridge, told the paper. "There are pedophiles, criminals. They don't screen anybody. I'm afraid I might catch TB."

As the sun beats down on the courtyard on a late afternoon in May, homeless folks seek a respite from the heat, gathering near two coolers of water placed in front of The Bridge's emergency shelter known as the pavilion. It looks like a mammoth four-car garage and serves as a rest area during the day. Tables are set up, and two gigantic fans cool off those just staring into space or taking an afternoon nap on top of their belongings. At night, blue mats replace the tables and guests are segregated into sleeping areas by gender.

Today Jimmy Blair passes out the Styrofoam cups to avoid the possible spreading of swine flu. His orange shirt signals his position in the guest services department at The Bridge. With three years of sobriety under his belt after battling a 10-year drug and alcohol addiction, and more than two years as an employee at Homeward Bound—a treatment program for the indigent—he can relate to the guests.

Blair often shares with them how much he appreciates the things that most people take for granted. "This may sound funny, but I look forward to getting bills and seeing my name on them," he says.

Construction on the facility officially wraps up today and earlier, Jay Dunn strolls through the courtyard adjacent to the pavilion, making certain the final touches have been completed. Dunn, managing director for Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, explains that pressure mounted for The Bridge to open before it was 100 percent completed because of the demand, which turned out to be much greater than expected.

In addition to the 225 mats in the pavilion and 100 transitional beds inside The Bridge, 300 to 400 people were sleeping outside in the courtyard, which no one had anticipated. On average, anywhere between 700 and 900 people were cramming into The Bridge daily.

It became a volatile situation, Dunn admits, with an abundance of 911 calls, although there were no major incidents. Eventually, partnerships were developed with area shelters such as the Salvation Army, Dallas Life Foundation, Austin Street Centre, Union Gospel Mission and the Bunk House to ensure that no one was sleeping outdoors.

Complicating the overcrowding issue was The Bridge's departure from the typical tough-love attitude of other local shelters toward the homeless. The Bridge was different: To entice a shelter-resistant population to come indoors, there were few rules. And The Bridge's guest services philosophy, which, in order to reach out to the homeless, didn't blame or bully them, made it seem, at times, that bad behavior had no consequences. Dunn says these differences contributed to the perception that there weren't any rules at all. "That created a lot of stress because our guests weren't recognizing that, while they were minimal, we did have guidelines, and our partners were confused about that as well, because things were so simplified."

Two new rules were introduced—one involved only allowing food in designated areas because of health code issues; the other sought to curb overcrowding. Beginning in November, The Bridge began a daily evacuation of the facility around 5 p.m. The only people allowed to re-enter are those who register in advance for a mat or a transitional bed.

Controlling the constant stream of homeless going in and out of the facility is the Downtown Safety Patrol, a private security company created in 2004 by DowntownDallas to patrol the Central Business District. To enter, the homeless now line up at the only public entrance to The Bridge, where they are searched by the patrol officers who seize anything illegal or unsafe.

Dunn is candid about the potential security problems: "We're under no illusion that it's 100 percent foolproof."

Another line forms inside for people who are checking in luggage, bags or other items for storage. The courtyard includes trees, grass and seven rest areas with green metal tables and chairs. Every few feet, there are yellow "butt cans" where smokers—and there are lots of them—can drop their cigarette butts.

A thin man with long brown hair and a beard dumps over one of the cans. And then searches another. Anything left beyond the filter will do. Although the clattering of overturned cans might create a disturbance on a downtown street, here at The Bridge nobody reacts—not the old man reading a book or the young one listening to music.

Possessions are scattered about the courtyard unattended. "It's like they want to exhale," Dunn says of the relaxed atmosphere. And this is the place they finally feel comfortable enough to take a breath.

After passing through security, the guests are encouraged to visit the Welcome Building, which provides an intake room for staff to conduct initial interviews and issue identification. This is also where they can watch television, play checkers or simply get relief from the heat in the air-conditioned day room.

Showers, laundry facilities, bathrooms, a phone bank and even a salon are inside the building, although Dunn stresses it's been difficult to get a licensed professional to volunteer on a regular basis at the salon. Guests can also visit the library, which features a computer lab, and a lounge for families with a secluded outside playground. The Bridge only accepts families or children on an emergency basis until another placement can be found for them.

Because the Welcome Building is so heavily used, it's evacuated for cleaning three times daily at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The Bridge's main building, known as the Services Building, is a heavily windowed, architecturally stellar facility that has won numerous design awards. Its first floor provides direct access to Parkland Health & Hospital System. Guests receive tuberculosis screenings and acute care from an internist, and those with more serious medical needs are shuttled to and from Parkland Hospital. Mental health services are available, and guests can take advantage of legal aid, veteran's assistance and a computer lab.

The second and third floors house the 74 men's and 26 women's transitional beds—only a small cubicle really, with a bed and place to store clothing and personal items, but finally, a space of their own.

Gary King, a 44-year-old man who first became homeless in 1996, says he thought the transitional housing was a joke because there were rules. "It's like caging a wild animal—nobody wants that."

He was kicked out of the transitional housing and sent back to the pavilion after a "miscommunication" that he refuses to discuss, but he says he hopes to earn his way back through his part-time job mopping floors and putting down the mats at the pavilion.

Aside from the housing incident, King, a recovering cocaine addict, says his experience at The Bridge has been positive; he credits the staff for keeping drugs out of the facility. Of course, that doesn't stop him from complaining about the food.

"I'm not too crazy about the meals here because I'm a big eater—only three meals a day," he says.

The Bridge staff actually considers King one of their better-behaved guests—this despite his recent drug addiction, criminal history and struggles with sex addiction. "The first thing that hits me [when I get money] is, find a female," clarifying that "female" means prostitute.

Keeping King and others like him off the streets and on a path to subsidized housing serves another goal: It's helping reduce crime. In The Bridge's first year of operation, downtown crime dropped 18 percent and violent crime fell by a whopping 40 percent.

Dallas Police Deputy Chief Vince Golbeck, who oversees downtown and is a MDHA board member, explains that a lot of the crime downtown—especially violent crimes—are homeless on homeless.

"The Bridge gives the police another avenue to place these individuals and gives them a choice," he says, "whereas before we'd have to take them to jail."

As a downtown beat officer with the Dallas Police Department for 14 years, Stace Hayward measures his progress by how much he uses his can of pepper spray. There was a time when he would replace his can every three weeks, but now he's been carrying the same one for four years.

"It's almost boring now," he says while driving down Commerce Street during his usual 4:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. shift on a Thursday in early June.

The night, in fact, proves to be fairly dull. Hayward responds to a call about a laptop computer stolen at the Greyhound Bus Station, directs traffic for a high school graduation at the Dallas Convention Center Arena, stops by a parking lot where a group of people are upset because their cars have been booted and helps other officers at the scene of a drunk-driving accident.

Hayward pulls into a popular homeless hangout—the River Liquor store on Cadiz Street, just south of Interstate 30. He rolls down his window and calls out the name of Bobby Fields, a gray-haired homeless man with a cracked hip, who slowly makes his way to the car using a walker. Hayward warns him not to panhandle and insists he go to The Bridge if he needs a meal.

"If you just talk to them like you would any other human being, you'll get a long way, but you come in real Robocop-ish, you ain't gettin' nowhere," Hayward explains.

If tonight is any indication, The Bridge is doing its job: The only concentration of homeless is found outside the front gates of The Bridge, waiting for the chance to get a mat at the pavilion when openings are handed out at 5 a.m.

Hayward has referred several homeless to the Farmers Market, where local growers are willing to hire them as "lumpers"—meaning they load and unload crates of produce. Hayward says he's surprised The Bridge hasn't created problems for the market. "I thought it would be the Oklahoma land rush over here with a lot of theft and whatnot."

Another surprise for Haywood is the ability of the Downtown Safety Patrol to maintain order inside The Bridge. "At first I thought, 'Oh, rent-a-cops. They're not going to be worth a damn. But they're very proactive and on top of things."

DowntownDallas' Crawford says he now uses The Bridge as a marketing tool to attract new businesses to the area. "We think that it's had a very positive impact on the ability to sell downtown, because we're in a unique position that something has been done to help the homeless, and the other cities aren't as advanced."

After leading the movement against locating The Bridge downtown, developer Larry Hamilton just opened his boutique hotel, called aloft, only three-quarters of a mile from the shelter.

"I go down there and I see all kinds of people getting the services that are in there, and I think, that's a good thing," he says. "So I'm all for it. I've changed my mind."

Hamilton's new beef with the city council is their reluctance to approve low-income housing projects so the homeless can transition from The Bridge into their own apartments. Even though the council approved 700 units in January to be built for those previously homeless before 2014, only 50 units are currently slated to be part of a low-income project on North Akard Street.

Neighborhood opposition often quashes efforts to develop subsidized housing. Hamilton, for example, sought to redevelop the Plaza Hotel just south of Interstate 30 downtown as a low-income apartment project, but the Cedars Neighborhood Association asked him to adjust the number of apartments dedicated for lease to the homeless from 100 to 50, then 25 and finally zero, until the project simply didn't make sense anymore.

"It's rather disappointing," he says. "We've got to be doing something about this problem."

Andre Robinson looks more like a person to be feared than someone afraid. He's a tall, imposing man who wears large headphones around his neck, baggy shorts and a T-shirt with "Brooklyn" in stylized lettering across the front. "I don't like being around strange people," he says in a raspy voice. "I worry about what they might do."

He says he lives in constant fear he's about to get shot, which stems from a 2001 incident when he actually was shot.

Robinson had been smoking and dealing crack and marijuana for more than 20 years, ever since he dropped out of Carter High School in South Dallas. Although he never kept a residence of his own, he says he never considered himself homeless since he was taken in by women he could manipulate for the drugs he possessed.

"We could go out and have some drinks, smoke some weed and have a good time," he says. "Before you know it, I'm living in their houses and driving their cars while they go to work. I learned to survive like that."

While staying at a woman's house in Oak Cliff, Robinson remembers hearing a gunshot, falling to the floor in the back bedroom and then turning around to see "a little kid." It was 14-year-old boy, he says, high on drugs.

"I was begging for my life," he recalls. "I threw my drugs and wallet on the bed."

Robinson had his own gun, but he never had a chance to use it before the boy shot him in the head and fled. The boy was caught and convicted of aggravated assault, Robinson says, and he spent two years in the state's juvenile corrections system.

The bullet had lodged between Robinson's left eye and ear, fracturing his skull and damaging his hearing, speech and eyesight. To make matters worse, a firearms charge for the weapon on his bed sent him to prison for three years.

After his release, he fell back into his old ways and eventually returned to prison in January 2008 for a parole violation. Another 90 days behind bars passed, and he attempted to stay clean, getting a job as a cashier at the American Airlines Center. But when his register came up short one night, he was out on the streets.

"I was begging and praying for somebody to please help me," he says. "I didn't want to live that life no more. I would have rather been dead."

His parole officer suggested that he go to The Bridge, and in August 2008 after another drug relapse, Robinson took his advice. "They're actually helping people at The Bridge. They're helping people move forward with their lives," he says. "As far as helping you get back on your feet, reestablishing yourself as an individual and getting your life together, The Bridge is all of that."

Robinson, 47, has been sober since then and is currently one of approximately 75 previously homeless residents at the Village Oaks Apartments in South Dallas. "Fuck that gunshot wound and my drug addiction—that's behind me now," he says while staring at the keys to his apartment in his hand. "I'm grounded and rooted."

Charles Gulley, the city's homeless housing manager, says Village Oaks is a model that he hopes to replicate throughout the city. Its three onsite case managers work closely with the care managers at The Bridge to ensure a smooth transition. Gulley, who has fought obesity his entire adult life, says he knows how important case managers are to each resident, counseling them through whatever "demons they are battling."

Gulley says The Bridge has had a greater impact than he imagined, but funding stands in the way of getting more subsidized housing for those homeless trying to transition out of The Bridge. "Once you build up the hope, man you better be there to address it because you're dealing with somebody's life."

Funding for Village Oaks residents is picked up by the federal government, but Mayor Leppert and others successfully lobbied the state Legislature to provide for $20 million over two years for state homeless programs, and Leppert plans to include $50 million for the homeless in the city's 2010 bond program. Dallas also received more than $7 million from the federal government in stimulus funds, the bulk of which will go toward rent for the homeless or those on the verge of becoming homeless.

Because of the harsh economy, Dunn says The Bridge has seen an increase in the number of homeless without disabilities—people like Denise Way, who has been living in transitional housing in The Bridge's Services Building since April. But now, thanks to her job earning $10 an hour as a dishwasher with the Second Chance Café at The Bridge, she has saved enough money to rent an East Dallas apartment and regain her independence. And the best part, she says, is she was approved for the lease without financial assistance from her sisters or her cousin or even the government. "I am so glad," she says, beaming. "I got it on my own."

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