The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Changes at the Bridge June 30, 2008

Monday, June 30, 2008

Here is the link for a Dallas Morning News article of Saturday, 6/28/08.  The article states that Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which runs the Bridge, has terminated its contract with PATH Partners, the contractor hired to offer social services at the facility.

Since it opened May 20, the Bridge has been sleeping 700 to 800 per night; it was designed to sleep 300. According to Mike Faenza, president and CEO of MDHA, “We have a tidal wave, and we want to succeed. The numbers of people, and their needs, and the risk, were so high. I felt like we could not have that second layer in between MDHA and these people, because we had to move very fast. Managing a contract was too cumbersome given what the situation was.”

Some people may see this as a setback for the Bridge, and I’m surely no expert on the inner workings thereof.  But I do want to offer some observations from my limited time spent there volunteering in the feeding program, run by the Stewpot, most Friday nights since the center opened.

~~As I entered the Bridge campus last Friday night, my friend, J., walked up to tell me happily that he i employed full-time within the Bridge now, and he was clear-headed as I’ve seen him in months.

~~My friend, Chris, was very sunburned Friday night from having worked all day.  When I asked if he’d wear sunscreen if I brought it, he said yes, but he seemed proud that he had gotten his bright red coloring from being employed.

~~Many residents were wearing blue badges saying “Resident.”  I learned from the Stewpot employees that the 100 beds for individuals enrolled in the Work-Live Housing (seeking employment) and/or Interim Housing (needing supportive services) have been/are being filled.  People have to meet qualifications and have goals for themselves to be in these programs.

~~As I handed a woman, D., her plate in the food line, her arm was weak;  she told me she’d had a stroke that week.  She’d just been released from Baylor, where she had been getting the medical care she needed.

~~A man in the food line a couple of weeks ago was so well-dressed he could have been an executive.  When I complimented him, he was pleased to tell me he was on his way to work.

~~After the Pavilion cots are filled (300), others wishing shelter from the streets are allowed to sleep in the courtyard of the Bridge campus.  This is currently, as stated above, an additional 400 to 500 people.  As I was leaving the campus around 7:45 PM Friday, these individuals were retrieving from storage nice, thick, single-size black mats, which prevent them from having to sleep directly on the concrete or grass.

~~Most importantly, when you talk to homeless individuals themselves, they are positive about what is going on there and feel good about the services and opportunities for growth that are being provided (and this is not always the case, believe me!)

The most important thing from my perspective is that things seem to be changing for the better among the homeless, both in individual lives and from an overall perspective.  I attribute this to many things, but mostly to the fact that the Bridge has lived up to its promise to have a welcoming, non-threatening approach to our homeless neighbors.  There was a fear (and I was one that expressed it) that many among the homeless population would not choose the shelter over homelessness.  If the Bridge’s and the city’s approach had been the traditional one of booting people back onto the street at dawn, then arresting them for being there, and/or of making them ‘clean up’ before they were given services, we would still be experiencing the stagnation and disastrous effects of those policies that we’ve seen in the past.

Here’s a quote from an article in the Dallas Observer of May 8, 2008:

“By federal definition, the chronically homeless are those unaccompanied adults who have a disabling condition (such as substance abuse disorder or a serious mental illness) and have been continuously homeless for a year or more, or have had at least four episodes of homelessness within the past three years… as [Mike] Faenza likes to tell his staff, the more times a person has been in jail, been arrested or beaten up, the more welcome he will be at the center. 

“We want this place to be very slow to reject anybody,” Faenza says. “You don’t have to be likable to deserve services. You can be aggravating and annoying and still deserve services….They are not going to act grateful. But you can’t lecture. You can’t coerce. You can’t shame people.””


From my perspective, this approach seems to be working.  One thing I can say for certain, MDHA made an excellent choice in contracting with the Stewpot, the experts in providing homeless services here in Dallas, for running the feeding program.  With an expectation of feeding around 700 people per meal, and with the reality often approaching 900, the dining hall is running swimmingly.



Street Voices: Sherry Parker, Poet June 27, 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008                                                                                                                                

Tonight at the Bridge while helping out with dinner, I was handed a privilege I never expected.  Poet Sherry Parker (see post on this blog April 4) put her poetry journal in my hands as she came through the food line, let me bring it home, and told me I could publish anything I wish from it.

The book she loaned me is a beautiful, red leather-bound journal given to her by Reagan, who has worked with Our Calling Ministries at the Day Resource Center for years and who befriended Sherry and discovered her talent. So, once again, the honor of putting Sherry’s words on this blog…


Between Blisters and Falling Stars                                                                                               

by Sherry Parker


Between blisters — and falling stars —

     I will outlast the rain:

Another calling

     from somewhere far —

I’m not playing,

     yet, again…


Sunrises do come —

     Promises disclosed…

A brand new day —

    All is silent.

A beautiful picture



The blister will heal;

     The rain will end.

The sun will rise again.


Still, there will be silence.


[copyright Sherry Parker, 2008]


The Pheasant June 23, 2008

Filed under: homelessness,hunger,inspiration,peace,Taoism — Karen Shafer @ 8:31 pm


       ‘The pheasant in the marshes has to take ten steps in order to get one beakful of food, one hundred steps for one drink of water.  Yet it doesn’t want to be kept in a cage.  Though it would be fed like a king, it would not be happy.’

                                                                                          ~~Chuang Tsu, Inner Chapters


Chuang Tsu was to Lao Tsu (author of the Tao Te Ching) as Saint Paul was to Jesus and Plato was to Socrates.  He developed the doctrines of Taoism with rigorous logic from Lao Tsu’s more poetic writings.  The seven “Inner Chapters” of his teaching represent the part of his work that scholars definitely attribute to him.


‘F’ Is For ‘Family’ June 18, 2008

Filed under: healing,homelessness,hunger,inspiration,middle-class housing crisis — Karen Shafer @ 8:52 pm


Current Journal                                                                                                                                  Wednesday, June 18, 2008


‘F’ Is Also for ‘Finding Oneself Fascinating’

One of the things I find a little grating is how we modern-day writers tend to find ourselves fascinating. Our tendency toward navel-gazing and over-sharing can be too much.  That said, I’ll proceed to do just those things, so forgive me.  This is an essay I recently wrote about my family, and I hope it makes a point that relates to the homeless, which, after all, is meant to be the focus of this blog!  KS


‘F’ Is For ‘Family’


When I look back on my childhood, I admit that there were some challenges.  My parents’ marriage was tumultuous, it ended in bitterness and rancor — some of it public — and, in my teens, I had a stepmother who, though supportive in many ways, essentially went to war with me, which almost did me in (and I don’t think the battle did much for her peace of mind either.)


Yet my life growing up I remember mostly as wonderful;  more and more, I see how good it was.  We were not rich, but my parents were interesting and hardworking people.  I doubt my dad would want to claim this moniker, but, in his way, he was a feminist.  When I was four, he built me a race car of my own.  It was gasoline powered (wonder what the price of gas was in the early fifties?), and he even dredged out a race track behind his Texaco service station where I, wearing my mandatory helmet, routinely drove my little car round and round, pedal to the medal, with a family of boys who were professional race car drivers.  I had my picture in the local paper, and, although my aunties predicted doom over such an activity, to me it was fabulous.  My only frustration was that my car’s engine had a governor on it so it couldn’t go reeeeeaaaly fast.


When I was six, Dad got me a pony, and, as a family, we traveled around Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia to horse shows.  Mother sewed the elaborate costumes required for showing;  Dad and I trained and showed horses together over the next eighteen years.  Horses were my world, and the absorption with them kept me ‘off the street,’ so to speak, for a very long time.


Mother was a career woman, a pianist, who had a radio show with her brother called “The Romantic Young Baritone.”  Staying home wasn’t her gig, so she became the accompanist for a ballet studio and sometimes took me with her, plopping me into dance classes for eleven years (sort of against my will, but I can keep good rhythm as a result) and dragging me to every symphony concert and ballet that came to Knoxville.  My Life in a Tutu was probably a good counterbalance to my Life in Boots, Jodhpurs and a Racing Helmet.


So, despite the strain in my parents’ marriage, I remember our house always being full of people for Bridge and Canasta parties, which ended with everyone around the piano singing show tunes while my mother played.  I love those memories.  I had a gajillion cousins that lived close by, some rich and prosperous, some poor as church mice, but we all got together every Sunday after church at my grandparents’ house for a big Sunday lunch cooked by Grannny Maude, my mother’s mother, who I was crazy about.  


Granny was a strong country woman who was a ground breaker in her way.  Her sixth child, my Uncle Jack, born at home like all the others, received a brain injury from a difficult birth which left him with tremendous and evident mental and physical disabilities, including cerebral palsy.  In those days, the only acceptable answer was to ‘put him in an institution.’  But she refused.  And I can only begin to appreciate what a battle that must have been in the 1940’s.  Instead, she kept him with her until she died in the 1970’s and, scandalously, always took him in public, which was unheard of at that time.  There was no such thing as Politically Correct in those days, so she and Jackie were regularly publicly ridiculed.  “Isn’t that awful?  She shouldn’t have him out in public…people like that shouldn’t be seen…” etc.  But Granny didn’t care, or, if she did, she didn’t waver.  He was her child, and she wasn’t about to put him aside somewhere out of sight.  Before she died, she extracted strict promises from my aunts and cousins to have Jackie live with them, which they did.  What a gutsy broad she was.


I see homeless people downtown who have grown up very poor, like some of my cousins.  They’ve lived very rough lives, and so did many of my cousins — the ones I played hide and seek with on Sunday afternoons in my Granny’s orchard.  There are people living on the street downtown who are maybe not as severely disabled as my Uncle Jack, but nearly so.


I am always asking myself:  what makes the difference?  It’s a complex sociological formula, I’m sure, involving geographical location, the decade, people staying in one place rather than migrating, and a myriad of other factors.  Yet somehow the ingredient that rises to the surface in my mind is this one:  family.  


I have cousins that ended up multimillionaires and cousins that lived in mobile homes the size of a camper and were always in trouble with the law, usually for public drunkenness.  But these cousins helped each other, even adopting each other’s children, and that camping trailer was staked down on my Granny’s farm in the country outside Knoxville long after she died.  Nobody ever ended up on the street for long.  There was always a relative somewhere in the Tennessee hills that would take you in and, in the space of fifteen minutes, come up with a meal that would feed the five thousand.


When you see the pain in the lives of people who are homeless, it challenges some pretty basic assumptions about your own life, at least for me.  One of them is worthiness.  I think deep down inside of us we have to believe that somehow we deserve what we have in order to have some peace of mind about the relative splendor in which we live.  And when you see good people who’ve had really hard lives living on the street, where do you go with that?  God’s will?  Karmic justice?  Or can we, as many would like to, lay it all at the feet of personal responsibility?


For me, it’s a mystery and involves a far bigger picture than we are able to view from right here where we are.  I’m not willing to make too many assumptions about other people’s lives, whether they deserve what they got, whether or not any of us is ‘worthy.’  I’m just purely and simply grateful for what I’ve been given, which is a very great deal.  And the greatest of the gifts I’ve received is family, past and present.




Used, But Never Filled June 16, 2008

Filed under: healing,inspiration,Leadership,peace,Taoism — Karen Shafer @ 3:39 pm



The Tao is an empty vessel; it is used, but never filled.

Oh, unfathomable source of ten thousand things!

Blunt the sharpness,

Untangle the knot,

Soften the glare,

Merge with dust.

Oh, hidden deep but ever present!

I do not know from whence it comes.

It is the forefather of the emperors.


~~Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching


Dedicated to Tim Russert, who did great things.


Puppies From Heaven June 10, 2008

Filed under: healing,homeless people's pets,homelessness,hunger,inspiration — Karen Shafer @ 7:19 pm

Journal Archives

February, 2007


Poochie and Quiet Storm

I was sitting behind a table in the parking lot of the Day Resource Center.  The table was filled with giveaway clothing, and homeless people were filing by, picking out the two items they were allowed.  A woman, very quiet, stood in front of me, looking at items, tentatively holding them up to see if they’d fit.  She moved to another part of the table and then reappeared.  “Do you need some help?” I asked her.  She didn’t answer and kept her eyes down. 

I noticed how thin she was, how her skin was tan and weathered, signs she had been on the street for a while.  She had long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, but strands of it had escaped and blew outward in the cold wind, creating a kind of halo around her head in the floodlights of the parking lot.  It was hard to guess her age, but I’d say maybe mid-thirties.  

Thinking she didn’t hear me, I leaned forward and repeated, “Do you need help finding your size?”  Still, she didn’t look up, but kept her face a mask, then slipped away, silent as a wraith, to the other end of the table where the women’s clothing was concentrated.

A voice to my left told me, “She doesn’t talk.  Not ever.”  I looked up to see a young man with wonderful looking dreadlocks and an incandescent smile standing at my elbow.  He was waiting for the line to move forward so he could pick out his clothing items.  “Really?” I said, “Do you know why?”  “No.  I call her Quiet Storm.  There are three of them out here, three women, who never talk.”  I looked at the woman, and, as I often do, chilled to think of her vulnerability living on the street.

I remembered seeing this young man before, recalled his upbeat attitude and outgoing personality.  “I’m Karen, by the way,” I said, and stuck out my hand to shake his.  “I’m Poochie,” he said, “I’ve seen you here before.”


The Sky Is Falling, or Rather, Things are Falling Out of It

“Where’d you get the name ‘Poochie’?”  I asked him, as the clothing line was stalled while those ‘shopping’ searched through the piles.  He motioned across the parking lot toward the chain link fence that separates the Day Resource Center property from the sidewalk beyond.  I peered into the gloom.  Some of the children of the volunteers were stooped over a backpack which lay open on the ground, huddled over… I couldn’t see what.  “See in my backpack?  My dog!”

Then I made out a small shape among the children’s outstretched hands — they were gently petting… a small dog.  “Where did you get him?” I asked, “He’s cute, and it looks like he’s made friends here already.”  Poochie’s answer was a little, no, let’s say a lot surprising.  “He fell into the top of my tent,” he said.

“What?” I said, clearly not getting it.  He explained,  “Somebody threw him off the bridge, and he landed on my tent, which was just underneath.”  “You have got to be kidding,” I was staring at him, stupefied.  “Where were you staying, in the I-45 bridge camp?”  “That’s right.”  “And somebody actually threw that little dog off the bridge, and it landed on your tent?”  “Yep.”  “Wow,” was all I could think of, then “Wow” again.  

I had stood in the homeless encampment under that bridge a number of times.  It was a very high bridge, several stories.   “Was he injured?”  I asked, incredulous.  “Nope.  I was sleeping one night, and I heard him hit the tent. Another guy in the camp saw him fall.  He was fine, a little shaken up.”  I shook my head.  “Now why would anyone do a thing like that?  And what kind of person?”  But I knew this was a fairly futile question, and a rhetorical one, because sometimes we human beings treat not only dogs but each other with that kind of callousness and cruelty.  “I don’t know,” Poochie answered, “but that’s how I got my name.”  “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Poochie. That’s quite a story,” I said, as his turn came to move up in the line and choose his clothing items.  “I know you and your little dog will take good care of each other.”



Accessorize, Accessorize, Accessorize June 8, 2008

Filed under: Random Post — Karen Shafer @ 7:22 pm

June 8, 2008


“Maybe the best any of us can do is not quit,

        play the hand we’ve been given,

                and accessorize the outfit we’ve got.”


                                                   ~~Carrie Bradshaw, Sex and the City


Unity, Harmony and Constructive Dissent June 5, 2008

Thursday, June 4, 2008

Unity, Harmony and Constructive Dissent

It’s strange where one’s challenges come from in caring about people in Dallas who are homeless.  In the past, they’ve usually come from seeing the terrible vulnerability of people living on the street, or from fighting city hall, or in the pain of hearing homeless people negatively stereotyped.  There’s a joke in our family.  According to my daughters, ‘If you want to stay on Mom’s good side, don’t criticize us, her grand kids, or the homeless.’  Indeed, a new potential friendship of mine recently took an abrupt detour into the ditch when the man called the homeless ‘people who don’t want to work and just try to get everything free.’

Still, over the last few years I’ve come to understand that the need of some people to pigeonhole and denigrate the homeless — that need is in itself a kind of poverty.  And, if I really watch my own thoughts, I too am guilty of stereotyping — I may be ‘judging the judgers,’ but it’s judgment nonetheless!

Also, over time, I’m learning to come to terms with the tremendous challenges that many homeless individuals have lived with much of or all of their lives:  generational poverty of a crippling variety;  long-term abuse;  incomplete education;  the wounds of war;  physical, emotional or mental disabilities without the benefit of the remitting medical care many of us take for granted.

Though it’s early days yet, it seems to me thus far that the new direction for the homeless in Dallas signaled by the opening of the Bridge is so much more positive than anything I could have envisioned at this stage that I find myself continually catching my breath in relief, after years of anguish.  We have a state-of-the-art facility about which the homeless themselves, or at least the ones I’ve talked to, can scarcely find anything to criticize.  Not only is it a one-stop shop for services, it is welcoming and non-threatening refuge, giving people a safe place to be, 24 hours a day, without being harassed — something they have never, in this city’s history, had before.

What most often blindsides me these days, then, is when there are significant differences between those of us who play on the same team — those in the homeless advocacy community.  I was talking to a friend about it this week, a pastor who has run a street ministry for several years, and we agreed — those differences can be excruciating.  I ask myself why.  Is it because the homeless take such a drubbing in society already, and, when you find people who share your sympathy with them, it feels like such an oasis?  One thing for sure, it’s a lot more fun to do what we do — whatever that is — in the company of and with the support of others of like mind and similar spirit.

So it particularly troubles me when people who love the homeless take potshots at other people who love the homeless, using ammo that’s seriously flawed.  When such criticism becomes necessary, at least it should be based in fact and taken first to those whom it concerns.  There’s enough work to do on the problems of homelessness without squandering our energy and resources by criticizing each other falsely and unfairly.

For example, I overheard someone in the homeless advocacy community this week make audacious and untrue accusations about the funding for a recent and important initiative, accusing a service provider of ‘taking a cut’ off public funds, when in fact, the opposite is true — the provider is underwriting part of the money for the initiative.   I happened to know the numbers on this issue — and to be certain of the integrity of the provider — and, when I politely presented the facts to the accuser, the numbers that person was scattering about carelessly and presenting as fact suddenly added up very differently.

Why do we do this, attack ‘our own’?  Is it because we are passionate about a cause and fear more injustice will be perpetrated?  Or maybe we see our role in the situation changing, and it frightens us.

Whatever the motive, the issues surrounding homelessness are extremely complex, as complex as the individuals who comprise the homeless population.  Just as there is not one profile of a person who is homeless — or of a person who lives in north Dallas, or of an urban dweller, or of a south Dallas resident — neither is there one group, one role, one answer, one approach, which can alone solve all of the problems associated with homelessness.

If we are going to team up with our homeless neighbors to facilitate a process by which they can rebuild their lives, we will need all of the resources at our disposal — and then some.  What we don’t need is infighting, backbiting, labeling, accusing or to be flagrantly flinging about false information.

It’s not that we have to be unified or that we must speak with one voice.  In diversity is strength, and vigilant, constructive criticism is always and absolutely essential.  

We need not unity, but harmony.

True, there are minor glitches as the Bridge undertakes its new role and settles in to its enormous responsibilities, but what is being done there is light years ahead of what we’ve previously done as a city.  It appears as if Dallas may be emerging as a national model for ‘doing it right’ for our homeless citizens.  Isn’t that exciting and what we all want?  What an awe-inspiring change from being the Sixth Meanest City in America!  

To me, it seems that Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance and the Stewpot have taken on the daunting task of running the Bridge, providing a refuge for all who need it, and feeding all who come to eat — and are meeting the immense demands of that task extremely well.  I hope all of us who have worked with the homeless in various capacities in the past can embrace not only the beauty in the diverse faces we see in the food lines at the Bridge, but also embrace the richness of the myriad approaches brought by everyone who loves those faces and longs to see them free of the tyranny of street life.



Article today in the Dallas Morning News:

Also see LA’s Homeless Blog, “When the Community Aligns”,



The Dalai Lama: Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech June 3, 2008

Filed under: Buddhism,healing,inspiration,Leadership,peace,Vocation — Karen Shafer @ 8:33 pm


Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech

~~by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama


As a Buddhist monk, my concern extends to all members of the human family and, indeed, to all sentient beings who suffer. I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their happiness or satisfaction. Yet true happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood. We need to cultivate a universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share. Although I have found my own Buddhist religion helpful in generating love and compassion, even for those we consider our enemies, I am convinced that everyone can develop a good heart and a sense of universal responsibility with or without religion.

With the ever growing impact of science on our lives, religion and spirituality have a greater role to play reminding us of our humanity. There is no contradiction between the two. Each gives us valuable insights into the other. Both science and the teachings of the Buddha tell us of the fundamental unity of all things. This understanding is crucial if we are to take positive and decisive action on the pressing global concern with the environment.

I believe all religions pursue the same goals, that of cultivating human goodness and bringing happiness to all human beings. Though the means might appear different the ends are the same.

As we enter the final decade of this century I am optimistic that the ancient values that have sustained mankind are today reaffirming themselves to prepare us for a kinder, happier twenty-first century.

I pray for all of us, oppressor and friend, that together we succeed in building a better world through human understanding and love, and that in doing so we may reduce the pain and suffering of all sentient beings.

(University Aula, Oslo, 10 December 1989)