Someplace Like Home

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Despite her criticisms, Garcia believes the overall model is working. "Before, there was nobody. It was just, 'Jail them. Put them on barges. Take them to the Everglades.' I heard it all," Garcia says. "Now, I have someone to say 'over my dead body' to."

Like Fernandez, Chapman says he gets a lot of calls from city officials around the country who want to know how the model works. Few of them comprehend how massive and long-term the project is. As an example, he says he was recently invited to speak at a mayor's conference on homelessness in Baltimore. The mayor didn't bother to show up.

"That told me they were never going to do anything in Baltimore," Chapman says. "People want to help the homeless, but nobody wants to get organized to help the homeless."

Usually, Chapman gives callers as many details as he can about how the Miami model was built and what it takes to operate it. "That usually scares them away," he says. "It's simple, but it takes a commitment that's very, very strong."

Could the Miami model work in Dallas?

Fernandez's experiences so far offer some clues. With the HACs now at 100 percent capacity, Miami has resigned itself to helping those it can help. The bad news is, the people most often left out on the streets are the "chronics"--the mentally ill and addicted homeless people whose severe health problems make them resistant to services and expensive to treat.

In most cities, including Dallas and Miami, the chronically homeless, usually adult men, represent 20 percent of the homeless population and consume the vast majority of homeless resources. In Dallas today, they are the primary reason why the downtown business establishment is barking at City Hall to take action.

Dallas City Councilman John Loza, whose district includes downtown and the Cedars neighborhood, talks about getting hit up by panhandlers virtually every time he visits a friend in a certain downtown building. "I'm not going to try to get around the fact that there are a lot of people concerned about downtown, and that one of their main concerns is that there are a lot of homeless people downtown," he says.

In recent months, Loza has been looking for a place in the Cedars to build a new homeless "campus" that, in theory, would become a single location for homeless services similar to the Miami HAC system. Loza says he hopes to get funding for the new campus placed in the city's elusive bond package, an important beginning to what he says must be a long-term public-private venture. "Everybody is certainly interested in the concept," Loza says.

For now, Loza says there is no timeline for the project, and the plan itself is still in a very early stage. Whether Loza has any political support remains to be seen. Mayor Miller says she is interested in the campus but not ready to commit to anything until after her November 1 summit on homelessness. Still, Miller agrees that the city must find a new approach.

"Right now, [the campus] is just something to talk about," she says. "The solution that has been used in the past--'Oh, we're having an event downtown, let's just shoo 'em out from under the bridge for a couple of days'--is not going to work."

Miller is still reeling from her failed attempt to introduce a new, stricter panhandling ordinance. Some Dallas residents, including homeless advocate Clora Hogan, viewed the ordinance as a shortsighted attempt to run off the homeless. It was accompanied by a similarly unsuccessful attempt to crack down on the street feeders, whose outreach to the downtown homeless population has been an ongoing source of problems (see "Bum's Rush," September 30, 1999).

"They want to stop the street feeding. They don't want any panhandling. So in other words, if you're a bad boy and committed a sin and became an alcoholic, then you should go away and die," Hogan says.

For now, Hogan says she is encouraged by what appears to be a new attitude emerging from City Hall. But if the city loses its focus, she may pursue an avenue with which the city of Miami is all too familiar: a federal lawsuit. This summer, representatives of the Washington-based National Coalition for the Homeless arrived in Dallas to train Hogan and other homeless advocates how to document instances of police harassment. Despite the failed city ordinance, Hogan claims Dallas police are still "sweeping" the homeless from their downtown haunts and destroying their belongings. "I'm afraid we're making Lew Sterrett our next homeless shelter," Hogan says, referring to the county jail.

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Rose Farley
Contact: Rose Farley

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