Things all went wrong for Renee so recently she can still count the days: 32. That's how long it's been since she lost her job, her car was repossessed and her house was foreclosed on. "Everything just fell apart so quickly," she says.
She's in her mid-40s with bright green eyes. Yesterday she was wearing a teal tank T-shirt and a delicate silver cross around her neck, sitting at the table in the outdoor pavilion at The Bridge, the homeless shelter and outreach center near the downtown Farmers Market. "All of a sudden, there I am, putting things in boxes outside my house." To make things worse, she said, all this happened less than a week after her 24-year-old daughter, an Army sergeant, was deployed to Afghanistan.
"I miss her so much," she added softly, looking teary.
I met Renee during what was billed as a good-news event: Dallas County officials invited media to The Bridge Wednesday afternoon to look at their newest acquisition: four high-powered cooling fans in the outdoor pavilion, soon to be followed by two more. The Port-A-Cooler fans were sponsored by TXU, which donated $2,500; AT&T, which gave another $2,500; Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, which gave $3,000, and the Meadows Foundation, which gave the final $8,000. Representatives from all these groups gathered in a small dining room with white tablecloths just off The Bridge's main courtyard.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was there too. Administrators at The Bridge credited Jenkins with recommending the project and helping to secure the corporate funding. He looked freshly starched in a blue blazer and a flag pin. His tiny blond daughter huddled under his arm as he stood in front of the audience, gazing intently at her pink sequined shoes while he spoke.
"I know with separation of church and state, I'm not supposed to get up here and talk about this," the judge said. He talked about getting into a car accident in 1993. "I was dead for a time," he said, sounding cheerful. After his recovery, he said, "I read my Bible and thought about ways to honor God." He concluded that the best way was to "help those in need, and help the homeless."
Commissioner Elba Garcia, in a white suit and matching heels, agreed. "It's amazing how close we've all been to homelessness," she said.
After representatives from AT&T and TXU also spoke about their companies' passion for helping the less fortunate, Pastor Marcus Bellamy of the Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship stood up to bless the project. Then Jay Dunn, The Bridge's managing director, asked two shelter residents, Renee and Reginald, to get up and say a few words.
"We can't thank you enough," said Reginald, a tall, heavyset man in his mid-30s, with glasses and gold fronts on his teeth. "We come to you at a humble time."
With that, the assembled masses trooped outside to look at the fans. The yard of The Bridge was crowded as always, with groups clustered on benches under the trees and inside the pavilion, sitting at long cafeteria-style lunch tables. It was too hot to move, almost too hot to speak. Everyone looked up a little skeptically at the group walking out from the dining room, this sudden parade of men in suits and women in very high heels.
The corporate sponsors and guests stood in front of one of the large fans and, together, cut a red ribbon and posed for photos. An older man paging through his Bible and scribbling in a notebook looked up, frowned a little, and moved seats when the press conference started to spill over into his reading space. Nearby, a bald man in a ragged white T-shirt played chess with a guy in a cowboy hat and an orange bandanna. Through all the ribbon-cutting commotion, they didn't glance up from their game. Even with the fans, the air in the pavilion was hot and still.
"I'm gonna make sure I'm not on the T.V.," said another guy, in a gray baseball cap. He smiled politely and walked away from the large camera being set up near him. A Bridge worker quietly asked the guy with the camera not to take pictures of the guests without their permission.
Renee took a seat at one of the tables. She's still reeling from how fast her whole life fell apart, she said, and though she's grateful for The Bridge, it isn't perfect. "It's scary," she said. "There's a lot of evil here. Men try to get together with you. People have mental problems. There's fighting." But, she said, she's working her way through the shelter's emergency program; when she graduates, she'll be able to move upstairs and sleep in one of the dorm-style living spaces. For now, she sleeps on the floor of the pavilion, where the tables are rearranged at night to separate the men from the women. In the mornings, she gets up by 5:30 and leaves, to sit at a park or apply for jobs downtown.
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"I try not to come back here till it's necessary," she said.
Behind her, a line started to form for ice cream and juice. Shelter residents ate chocolate cones and red, white and blue Popsicles, and the press conference attendees talked to each other.
Renee's been writing profiles of other people staying at The Bridge, she said. "It's amazing who ends up here," she said. "Ex-military guys, General Motors employees -- people who you'd never in a million years think would be homeless." Nearby, a young guy with brown sandals and dirty feet rubbed at the stubble on his face and wiped sweat from his forehead, hunched so far over that his back formed a C shape. The press conference started to dribble away, and Bridge residents drifted back towards their tables.
"It is what it is," Renee said, looking around her. "But I'm going to get out of here and get my life back."