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

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Faenza crosses the courtyard, heading toward the main services center called the "Welcome Building," which resembles a student center at a university. There's recessed lighting to simulate natural sunlight, benches, tables and a large, concrete reception desk where another concierge will direct the homeless toward appointments or classes. "Here," he says, pointing to the wall behind the desk, "we'll have a list of services." At the center, nine different agencies, including the City of Dallas, will provide the homeless with counseling, medical care, legal services, veterans' resources and employment assistance. The most important thing, Faenza says, is that the organizations operate as a single, seamless entity. "We need to avoid making it feel institutional," he says. "The theme is, 'How can we help you recover from homelessness?'"

The Welcome Building also hosts the barber shop, a library and classrooms. There's a woman's room with a "Secret Garden" patio and a playground, though children will be referred to other shelters since The Bridge will focus on adults. There's a free laundry room where volunteers will help, but the homeless will ultimately be expected to launder their own clothes. "Part of the thing is nurturing; the other part is responsibility," Faenza says. "At baseline you need to be able to take care of your own clothes." The same philosophy goes for the kennel in an adjacent building, where the homeless will be able to keep their dogs.

Faenza walks upstairs to an airy floor that looks like a call center. Dozens of cubicles sit side-by-side. When they are completed, each will hold a cot, reserved for a homeless person who started at the pavilion and then committed himself to a serious counseling plan. There are 62 of these so-called "transitional" cubicles. When a homeless person reaches the next level of independence by finding employment, they will move into a dorm room, which they will share with a roommate. There are 24 of these rooms, the final step before moving into permanent housing, and an additional 14 rooms for homeless who are convalescing after a hospital stay.

Before Faenza ends the tour, he looks around and smiles. "It's really beautiful here with all the light."

But none of this will matter, not the lighting or the Welcome Building or the cruise ship mentality if the homeless choose to stay on the streets.


Back downtown with storm clouds gathering, Faenza accompanies Gary to the shell of a building where his box spring is set up.

Of the several shelters that have turned him away tonight, Gary claims that one cost too much, another barred people under 50, a third closed to lodgers at 8 p.m. and a fourth was full. So he has tried to sleep inside. He then trails off into a jumble of complaints against the Day Resource Center, the mayor, the police and the contractor who hired him for a day and didn't pay him. "I'm classified as one of those chronically homeless people," he explains. He's 39 and an ex-convict. "I've been out here for 10 years."

Faenza asks if he'd be willing to go to The Bridge when it opens.

"I'm going to see what kinds of services they have. I'll try to take advantage of it. But..." Gary clasps his hands together, sounding a bit paranoid. "It's like—they're holding the funds back."

Faenza re-focuses Gary's attention on tonight. "At the Life center, could they take you in?" He's referring to the Dallas Life Foundation, a shelter behind the convention center. "Could you get in, if you had the money?"

"I'd really like something to eat." He says he's only had a slice of ham today.

"If you had the money to go wherever you'd like, where would you eat?"

"McDonald's. I'd get me some burgers and fries."

"You want food, but in terms of sleeping, are you OK?" Faenza presses.

"I've got blankets," he says.

Gary hunches through a hole in a chain-link fence, entering to retrieve his army jacket. He'll be right back, he says. Faenza waits on the street, wary of the "No Trespassing" signs that mark the structure. When Gary returns, Faenza asks him one last time whether he'll try out The Bridge when it opens.

"I'll be glad to," Gary says. "A person like me can take advantage of that situation. And I don't mind working."

"I'll see you over there," Faenza says, handing Gary a $20 bill for food. "I'll be over there a lot."

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Naomi Zeveloff