Dallas' The Bridge Homeless Center's Progressive Approach May Actually Make a Difference

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After the security screening, the individual will meet with a concierge of sorts, who will ask for identifying information. "Someone can come in and say, 'I want to have a meal' or 'I'd like a place to sleep' or 'I don't want to mess with paperwork,'" Faenza says. "With people who don't want to give information or are skeptical of getting involved, the key is to not discourage them. The idea is to bring people in who have a hard time being anywhere else."

Depending on what the person asks for, the concierge will direct him to the cafeteria or the main services center in the clock tower building. If the person is intoxicated or mentally ill, the concierge will make contact with a mental health worker who later will meet with the person and gauge whether he's willing to enter treatment. "It takes extra time, but it's taking people where they are and not making them fit some mold," Faenza explains. "They would not be here if they didn't need something."

A construction worker interrupts Faenza and asks him to move toward a white brick building with gaping doorways like a massive, multi-car garage. "I don't want you to get hit by rebar," the worker says. Faenza backs onto the steps of the facility, explaining that this is the pavilion, a shelter that will hold up to 300 people. As the largest sleeping area on campus, the pavilion is meant to attract the hard-core homeless—especially those reluctant to enter a shelter. It will be a "low-demand" environment: A homeless person doesn't have to pay to get in, commit to treatment or take part in a religious ceremony. With garage doors to let in the breeze or keep out the rain, the pavilion is meant to mimic sleeping outdoors—another draw for the shelter-resistant. But Faenza also plans a degree of privacy in the pavilion: Each person will sleep on a cot surrounded by a small partition, and the men will be separated from the women. There will be TVs here, says Faenza, surveying the room. "A lot of people watch TV when they go home to relax. The idea is to make them feel comfortable and safe enough to get them involved in services. It's a 180 from the 'you gotta earn your way by doing things right' mentality."

That's the mentality at the Union Gospel Mission, a free shelter serving men at its Irving location and women and children at its Dallas location. Men are welcome to stay there as long as they like but are bused to day labor centers at 5:30 in the morning and are expected to check back in at 6:30 at night. If a person isn't enrolled in a Christian program, he won't be guaranteed a bed if the center is crowded. Like the Salvation Army, those who are intoxicated are not welcome. "We try to walk a pretty tight line in terms of making sure that the person will not be disruptive," says William Thompson, the Mission's executive director. "If a guy had a drink, we would ask ourselves if the situation is manageable.If it isn't, we would ask that person not to come in." Thompson says he'll take a wait-and-see approach as to the efficacy of The Bridge. "I think it's going to take a concerted effort on everyone's part to monitor what goes on there." Thompson is most concerned about homeless drifters, those who aren't committed to getting their lives back on track, but who obviously need help. If The Bridge feeds and houses them without expectations, he says, it may reinforce their lack of commitment. Thompson doesn't buy the notion of the homeless consumer, saying they may never opt in to social services if given the choice. "I feel for those people," he says. "They may not have the ability to make the decision one way or another. It will be difficult."

Faenza's contention, of course, is that these are the people with the greatest needs, and The Bridge will welcome them with open arms.

Turning to face the courtyard, he glances at the first few trees that already have been planted. "Isn't this beautiful? Being in this business 35 years and seeing this? This is amazing to me. This will be the only place homeless people will go that is open 24 hours. It's not like you gotta stand through this long line. It's not like early in the morning, you gotta leave," he says. "But anyone can leave at any time. The idea is to get people involved. We'll help people with transportation. We'll have DART bus passes. They'll be able to see a doctor for a health screening. They'll have a meeting for medication with a psychiatrist. Or they might sit at a table and make friends with someone."

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Naomi Zeveloff