Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance's Mike Faenza Offers His Take On the Cliff Manor Controversy

With the clock ticking on the Cliff Manor Task Force's 6 p.m. deadline yesterday, Patrick "Buzz" Williams and I had a chance to sit down with Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance director Mike Faenza, who wanted to offers his perspective on the fight over Cliff Manor that seems to be getting more intense by the day.

He sat down with a thick folder of papers he'd just been showing around City Hall and shuffled through them often as we spoke, searching for numbers to illustrate his points. Over the decades he's spent working on homelessness, he said, he's become less about politics and all about numbers-driven problem-solving -- the reasoning behind all the documentation and stats-gathering at The Bridge -- and the reason he said he was blind-sided by the neighborhood's reaction to MDHA's plans to move into Cliff Manor. "Maybe naively for us, this seemed like the biggest no-brainer in the world," he said.

Of the 1,100 units of housing MDHA has found for homeless folks in the last decade, "most of these programs were opened without a peep," he said, including an MDHA operation for women at Pebbles Apartments at Greenville Avenue and Park Lane that opened earlier this year.

In fact, 2010 was supposed to be a banner year for MDHA, Faenza said, with a goal to find 600 units of housing for formerly homeless people, between Pebbles, Cliff Manor and a series of "project based vouchers" that'll subsidize rent at apartment buildings around the city. (125 of those units have already been awarded, Faenza said, and the council members whose districts they're in have already discussed the plans with neighbors.)

It's clear there's a monster gap separating Faenza from Cliff Manor neighbors upset about MDHA's plans. "One of the assumptions is that chronically homeless people don't have the right to live wherever there's an opportunity," he said. "It's not right, and it's not legal." If DHA placements aren't spread evenly around the city, well, Faenza said, it's because rent isn't cheap enough in every neighborhood. MDHA is going to place people in apartments wherever they can, not turn down opportunities to find someone a new home because of a neighborhood quota.

"DHA and MDHA agree with the mayor that we need to spread these units around the community," Faenza said. "But it's not like it's this negative thing that we need to parcel out."

Specifically at Cliff Manor, he said concerns over a new population moving in are overblown, given the fact that it's already been a DHA operation for so long. "This doesn't increase the number of public housing units, it doesn't increase the number of poor people" living at Cliff Manor, he said. MDHA's plans constitute "no fundamental change in the use of Cliff Manor from how it's been used for 30 years," he said.

As at Pebbles Apartments, Faenza said, the treatment options at Cliff Manor were always going to be off-site, with one live-in LifeNet supervisor -- though it takes 40-50 people living in a building to cover that cost with their public mental health care credits, Faenza said. The 17 people already moved into Cliff Manor, he said, wouldn't be enough to cover the cost of full-time supervision. "The only thing that's changed is that we've lost 50 units," he says. "It never was a plan to do some sneak attack."

Faenza says MDHA will be careful in the future to "bring neighbors into the process ... but not ask, 'Is it OK if we do this?'"

Late last night, Faenza also sent along the following statement from MDHA, in response to the neighbors task force's response to MDHA's response to their demands Wednesday night. Here it is in full:

One challenge for MDHA in August of 2010 is caring for hundreds upon hundreds of homeless people each day who are well equipped to live successfully in supportive housing with none available. They wait in long lines to get food and medical care and end each day in crowded homeless shelters.

Another challenge is being able to respond effectively to some neighbors in North Oak Cliff who find it counter-intuitive that formerly homeless people can recover and be positive neighbors.

To move forward with what we believe is "doing the right thing" and adhere to what to us seems very clear in terms of the rights of the disabled and simultaneously anger good people who believe differently is not easy.

It is easy for advocates to be perceived as cavalier or self righteous if they do their job with integrity. The reality is that there are countless neighborhood associations; there is but one homeless alliance. And we need to speak for the homeless first.

In the case of the task force request last night to delay move ins for six months, we just could not agree to this. Speaking just for me I still feel conflicted about sacrificing half of the supportive housing units in Cliff Manor to create "good will." It was not an entirely rational move but one meant to help us move on with some civility around the long and sad affair of Cliff Manor and the homeless.

I believe the majority of people on the task force who represent North Oak Cliff are sincere and talented people. But most don't likely have the experience of seeing people who have lost almost everything recover. I have seen this over and over but that is what I do for a living and what I have experienced in my life.

It is clear that the Task Force members don't trust MDHA or homeless service providers to "do the right thing" in terms of their neighborhoods. Trying to keep one's integrity as an advocate and at the same time respond well to a community that has concerns (if we believe they are founded or not) is a balance we are struggling to find.

Working with the task force can still be important even though they walked out of the second meeting after issuing an ultimatum. The three points that their statement believes were neglected are not problematic.

That said, it is not the case that we need neighbors to provide oversight to do our jobs. We do need their creativity and ideas to help Cliff Manor be as terrific as it can be.

Perhaps the new starting point is to convey to the new formerly homeless neighbors that they are welcome and they are wanted. There is no reason to expect anything but success for people who have worked hard to regain their self respect and often their very lives.

The people at the center of this controversy and the ones that I wish we could focus on are the formerly homeless neighbors who are now living at Cliff Manor and the reduced numbers that will follow.

Being portrayed as needing neighborhood leaders to judge their numbers and scrutinize their problems and programs is not what they deserve.

Speaking for MDHA -- its time to either help and support what is left of the opportunity for formerly homeless people at Cliff Manor or stop this drain of time and energy that takes us nowhere.

Task Force colleagues, please decide that formerly homeless people and the agencies that serve them have legitimacy in this public housing facility that has operated in North Oak Cliff for decades.

Michael M. Faenza, MSSW
President and CEO

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