James Dunn comes hurtling out of the shade of the tree-laced AT&T Plaza downtown, holding a cell phone that just ran out of batteries and a folder full of looseleaf paper. The 59-year-old has been fielding calls from hundreds of homeless across the city and taking down notes for how to make substantive changes to their situations.
It's a good thing he has the energy of a younger man — he’s taken on the task of mobilizing his fellow homeless to take action for themselves.
Dunn recently started the Dignity Homeless Action Network, a community of homeless and “concerned citizens” who are fighting for action to be taken on such issues as housing, abuse in local shelters and other concerns of downtown homeless people. So far, the group is made up of 401 downtown homeless, Dunn says. More than 200 showed up at one city council meeting a few weeks ago, and another hundred or so showed up at a meeting with Dallas homeless commission members at the public library on Monday.
Dunn is working toward getting his group nonprofit status and he hopes to one day have an office and “a couple of vans” for transporting homeless who otherwise couldn't afford to view apartment complexes that take Section 8 housing vouchers. He has ideas for churches to “adopt” local homeless and help guide them toward getting housing, keeping that housing and acquiring employment. He also is a proponent for giving landlords tax abatements in exchange for taking housing vouchers as a way to curb the problem of landlords refusing to accept Section 8 voucher holders.
Dunn’s ideas are big, but his conviction in the idea of bringing the homeless together to advocate for themselves is probably the most novel of them all.
“I didn't see any homeless people out here doing anything,” Dunn says, describing the reaction of homeless Tent City dwellers to the shut-down by the city as “docile.” “If you can set an example and say we as homeless people are trying to get these problems solved ourselves, then I think we’ll get a lot of assistance. But as long as homeless people are accepting the status quo, they're gonna get the status quo. And we aren't getting anywhere with that.”
Dunn became homeless in 2013, after the deed of his house got signed over to a family member and he was kicked out, he said. His problems had begun long before that though. When his mother fell ill to terminal colon cancer in 2008, grief consumed Dunn. He left his job as an English teacher at AW Brown-Fellowship Leadership Academy and committed to drinking full-time “to block the day out,” he says. Though he's clean now, he's had multiple DWIs as a result of his alcohol abuse. No treatment for peripheral neuropathy in his feet eventually led to his being in a wheelchair.
When Dunn lost his house, he started living in a hotel, where he says all of his clothes and belongings were stolen. He then moved to the Salvation Army, then Austin Street Center and finally Union Gospel Mission. He eventually ended up under a bridge.
The injustices he experienced at the shelters stoked the fire that would eventually lead to his founding the Dignity Homeless Action Network, he says. The constant lack of respect, the fact that his physical ailments were often disregarded fueled his frustrations about the carelessness shown toward the homeless. He has had pneumonia four times since becoming homeless due to conditions in some shelters, he says.
The closure of various tent encampments throughout the city was a final straw for Dunn.
“I thought about that, and the fact these people have nowhere else to go and they're doing that,” Dunn says. “And I wanted to jump up and down and say, these are human beings, damn it. They have nowhere else to go. They have enough chaos in their lives. Many of them have drug, alcohol, mental problems, physical problems and we aren't addressing those things. So I said we can't stand this anymore."
For Dunn, like most, there was a life before homelessness and he remembers it. Dunn had been one of only eight African American students to be given a full ride to University of Texas at Austin in 1974, he said. He worked off and on throughout that time and eventually earned degrees in English and sociology from UT Arlington in 1984. He worked as an English teacher for Skyline High School and later at AW Brown-Fellowship Leadership Academy.
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Now, Dunn is only part of the homeless "problem.”
"That’s when I came up with the name Dignity Homeless Action Network. Dignity is very important because when you don't have your own place to stay, the way you're treated …” he pauses, shaking his head. “Let me put it this way: When I was at the Salvation Army, after we got out in the morning at 5 a.m., I'm sitting there reading a John Grisham novel and a Parkland police officer says, ‘You can’t be there.’ And there’s nobody else around but me and I'm in a wheelchair. He says I just can’t be there. I have had that happen numbers of times. Just my presence is a problem. … When I went to CVS to get prescriptions filled, one of the security people came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ My God, I can’t even be a customer at CVS and be homeless.”
He aims to change that, though, and already has inspired unprecedented involvement by the homeless community. He hopes to rally his homeless network at every city council meeting.
“We have really wonderful leadership, now all we have to do is get our heads together and start acting,” Dunn says. “Sometimes I can’t sleep at night thinking how some of these people who have been homeless 10, 15, 20 years, are gonna get to turn a key and say, ‘There’s no one in here but me and you know what’s for dinner? I know what’s for dinner because I’m making it.’ That’s gonna be a wonderful feeling for them.”