The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Desiree July 27, 2008

Friday, July 25, 2008

 

I have long since learned that I can’t save people, or so I tell myself.  So I go to the Bridge to help serve dinner on Friday nights to listen to the people there who are homeless and catch up on their news, to express my love for them and, most of all, to strive to understand them, the situations around them, and the solutions to their dilemmas.  Inherent in the process is a perplexing conundrum:  the more I learn, the less I seem to know.

 

I also go to be part of a community made up of  homeless friends and strangers, and of like-minded friends of the homeless who are doing what I do… a community that is more changeable than most, more transient than most, but one that now has a central and generally safe place, the Bridge, to manifest itself.

 

Tonight, good news continued to pour in through the door of the dining hall there, the Second Chance Cafe, run by the Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church:  this couple and that individual were moving into apartments;  a significant number of new, blue-badged Residents came through, and, when asked how it was going, the news was all positive;  C., a friend who is pregnant and has been on the street for years, has moved in with her sister and is reuniting with her family at Christmas;  G. and his partner are moving in with his brother in Missouri;  Tony is starting work and school;  a young woman who had begun her G.E.D. a long time ago at Martin Luther King Center, then let it lag, completed it this week.  (It is not a stretch to guess that having an address at the Bridge, a place to shower and stow her belongings, to eat regular meals, to sleep in safety — that being able to devote her energy to studying rather than to raw survival — had reenergized an educational process that had previously stalled out.)  One sad observation:  an increasing number of people that I see there look as if they just walked straight out of the suburbs.

 

There were at least four birthdays tonight:  one girl turned nineteen, another, twenty-one.  A man named Pops played piano beautifully during dinner, while another man sang.  At one point, a diner walked up to the glass partition of the cafeteria line and, spreading his arms out to the sides in a gesture of magnanimity, said to the row of volunteers facing him who were filling plates with food, “When we see your faces there… it just truly, truly blesses us!”  The love flowed from this man, the love that I see in most people’s eyes but which is hard for some of them to express.  There was visible emotion in the faces of the volunteers after his declaration.

 

As people entered the dining hall, ate dinner and exited by the hundreds, there came through the line a friend of mine, a woman I haven’t seen since a rainy night in May, 2007.  I am fond of this woman — let’s call her Desiree — have asked about her often since that time, and know she’s had some good times and some really bad ones in the interim.  Tonight when I saw her she was much thinner, and she was a slim woman to begin with.

 

The last time I saw her happened to coincide with an evening when then-mayoral candidate (now mayor) Tom Leppert and his son, Ryan, visited the Day Resource Center and helped feed dinner to hundreds of people in the pouring rain.  Desiree had entered the Day Resource Center parking lot that evening bruised and battered.  When she came through the food line, I took her around behind the table where Mr. Leppert was dishing up and handing out plates of hot casserole, and I said to him, “This is Desiree.  She’s been beaten up twice today.”  “Desiree,” he said, “Stand right here beside me and talk to me.”  (That was the moment he got my vote.)  And she did, conversing with him for a long time.

 

Desiree’s the sort of person who is so intelligent, well-spoken and personable that you feel she should be running a company somewhere.  She’s someone you want to choose to be the representative of something — a person who knows how to sum things up and speak about them clearly.  And she’s someone from whom you can get the straight scoop.  I was so glad to see her tonight, hugged her tight, and asked if she could catch me up on herself after the meal.

 

After dinner, when I had left the dining room and was sitting talking with some friends and other volunteers at a table on the Bridge campus, she found me there.  She had changed clothes and put on makeup — looked beautiful — and was going out to meet a friend.

 

She questioned me about knee surgery I’d had, wanting to know how it was healing.  “And what about you?” I asked.  She said to me point blank, “I am exactly the same as when you saw me before, no different.”  This meant to me that she felt she’d made no progress, was battling her old demons, was still up and down and struggling.  “I lived with my family for a while.  Then it didn’t work out.  Now I’m… you know, back out here… just the same.”  She shrugged.  We continued talking.  “Have you thought about the possibility of becoming a resident here?” I asked  “I’m hoping to get in as a resident soon.  I’m on the list and am going to as many of the [educational] meetings they want me to attend as I can.  Might as well.  I’ve got nothing but time.”  “Please don’t give up on yourself, Desiree,” I told her,  “You have what it takes.  I hope you believe that.”  I certainly believe it.  She is one of the people I’ve always known would make it because of her capabilities.  

 

But after she left, after I stayed and talked to people for a while, then began the drive home, the thought came to me — accompanied by a fear that gripped my stomach — what if she didn’t make it?  It’s a crazy thing.  Sometimes the people you think wouldn’t have the slimmest chance of getting their lives together — just do it.  And sometimes those whose success you believe you could take to the bank — struggle much harder.  Before tonight, I had never thought of her as one of the latter, or thought that her success and recovery were not a given.  With some people you can let it go.  With others, it’s a bigger challenge, who knows why?  She’s one of those.  

 

I am hoping and praying that Desiree gets into the Bridge Residents’ program.  And I am hoping that she will soon be one of the miracles walking through the door of the dining hall there at the Bridge, the Second Chance Cafe, telling us her good news. 

 

KS

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Mayor Tom Leppert Volunteers at the Bridge July 22, 2008

 

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Last Friday evening, July 18, 2008, Mayor Tom Leppert joined a group of volunteers and Stewpot staff to serve dinner to over 700 homeless people at the Bridge, Dallas’ new homeless assistance center.  Typical of the mayor, he was ‘hands on’ with his service, working behind the line filling plates, then moving out into the dining room to work in other positions.

Standing in front of the cafeteria-style serving line, Mr. Leppert handed plates of food to homeless individuals coming through the line, greeting and shaking hands with each personally.  One of my daughters, who was working near him, was touched by his manner with these often-overlooked Dallas citizens, saying, “He looked each person in the eyes, giving them his full attention.  He is such an humble man, so kind and caring.”  Having spent two evenings with Mr. Leppert and the homeless in the past, beginning with a visit he made to the Day Resource Center during the mayoral election, I definitely agree.

After working at the front of the serving line for some time, the mayor moved out into the dining room.  There he went from table to table among homeless citizens, patting them on the back and talking to them for as long as they wished.  He asked them how they were doing and listened to their struggles, their concerns and their successes.  

Several times during the evening, I said to one or the other of my homeless friends, “Come on over here and meet the mayor.”  A number of them said, “I know him already!” and one, Chris, said, “Oh, I’ve met him before.  He’s with us!”  I wonder how many prominent public officials would have the homeless population of their city speak of them in this way.  I said to him during the evening:  “Pretty impressive.  A public official who shows up both before AND after the election!”

I have to praise the mayor for his kindness and caring of this often-maligned and very vulnerable population.  Although many homeless people vote, there is not tremendous political capital in meeting with them in this manner.  My experience of Tom Leppert is that he genuinely wants to be the mayor for every one in Dallas.  He could easily show up for a photo-op (no press were present at this event), he could stay behind the glass counter, he could come and go quickly and say he’d made ‘a stop.’  He doesn’t.  For the third time since I’ve known him, he’s come out among the homeless, touched them, talked to them at length one to one, spent time with them as though he did not have pressing time concerns.  (After he left us at 7:45 PM, he donned a business suit and went on to another event.)

 

Special thanks to Stewpot staff Edward St. John (Director of Operations), Reggie Crawford (Dining Room Coordinator), Brenda Roberts (Food Services Director), Jean Jones (Volunteer Coordinator) and Bruce Buchanan (Executive Director) for graciously hosting the mayor and his staff.  As it always is at the Bridge when I’ve been there, dinner service served by the Stewpot staff and volunteers was virtually flawless:  very efficient, immaculately clean, delicious and nutritious.

And very special thanks to Renee and Paula in the mayor’s office at city hall for making this visit happen.  It was a real treat for all concerned.

KS

Wednesday, July 23, 3008                                                                                                                     ADDITIONAL NOTE:

I received this in an email today from Edward St. John, Director of Operations for Meal Services at the Bridge through the Stewpot, and I want to share it with readers:

“The Dallas Police provided a lot of support that Friday night without any fanfare or pressure on me or my staff…  They deserve a ‘stroke’ for being a positive influence without negating the good stuff that the Downtown Dallas Safety Patrol earns every minute of every day at the Bridge.  The Dallas Police Department presence ‘guaranteed’ a quiet evening, but for the most part, the Meal Service and DDSP have built that environment day by day, meal by meal, since May 20th.  We are proud of that….”

I couldn’t agree more.  Thank you, Edward, for calling attention to the DPD’s important role that evening.

KS

This article linked to:

http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2008/jul/24/dallas-mayor-tom-leppert-regular-visitor-bridge/

http://dallasprogress.blogspot.com/2008/07/mayor-leppert-and-homeless-under-radar.html

http://cityhallblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2008/07/dallas-city-hall-monitor-july-9.html

http://outside.in/places/bridge-homeless-shelter-dallas

 

Successes at the Bridge July 15, 2008

Friday, 7/11/08

 

I was walking around the dining room tonight, serving water during the last part of dinner at the Bridge.  When I sat down by J., a woman I know who has been on the street for many years, to ask her how things were going, I guess I was unconsciously expecting her to say, ‘Oh, fine, fine,’ because that’s what she always says.  J. is a perennially upbeat individual who never asks for anything except vitamins.  She is someone who would be designated as ‘chronically homeless,’ although I hate that label.  And she did say, “Oh, fine, fine.”  I was also expecting the ‘rest of the story’ to be the same as usual — that she was still struggling, still on the street.  But I asked anyway:  “Are you getting to sleep inside here at the Bridge sometimes?”  Was she choosing to stay inside the gates of the Bridge campus at night, I wondered?

 

“I’m a resident!” she informed me proudly, which meant she had qualified for one of the 100 private sleeping cubicles inside the Bridge.  I was delighted to hear this.  “You are?  Congratulations!  What do you have to do to qualify to stay there?” I asked.  “Take my medication regularly, and participate in all their programs, everything they have through MHMR (Mental Health and Mental Retardation.)”  She was happy with how things are going, and we talked for a while longer.  Then she confided to me, “What I do is just avoid everybody I knew before [meaning people that could get her into trouble.]  I stay in my room and read my book.  The room is really nice.  I’m moving into an apartment this month!  Pray for me that I’ll keep doing well.”  “Believe me, I will,” I promised her.  I thought to myself that the Bridge is doing exactly what it was designed to do.  Getting people off the street, getting them stabilized, then moving them into permanent supportive housing.

 

J. and I exchanged hugs, and I moved on around the dining room with my water pitcher.  After a while I stopped to talk with a friendly man I’d never met.  “So how’s it going?”  “Fine.  I start a new job on Monday as a courier.”  “Terrific, did you get the job through the placement program here?”  “Yes,” he said, “I’m a resident, and I’ve gone through all the programs here.  I’ve qualified for an apartment, and I move in this week.”  Two for two!!!  I couldn’t believe it.  I hadn’t started the night looking for success stories, but they were finding me.  

 

I sat down with him, learned his name is Tony.  He had become homeless after a divorce.  His elderly parents are in assisted living and couldn’t take him in when things fell apart.  But now he was quite pleased that he would be in a position to help them since he was getting back on his feet.  I congratulated him and moved on, as dinner was coming to an end.

 

I left the dining hall with my friend, David Timothy of SoupMobile, who was also volunteering that night.  When we passed through the gates of the Bridge to the sidewalk beyond, a man approached us.  This individual, someone David knew from his years of being a licensed mobile feeder of the homeless in Dallas, had recently been badly beaten up.  David examined the man’s right eye and the side of his face, blue and very swollen, and took note of the drying blood, cuts and scratches all over his face and arms.  He then went off to his car to get the man a bottle of cold water, and, by the time he returned, a Dallas Police officer had pulled on blue medical gloves and was talking to the beating victim.  Within a matter of seconds, an ambulance pulled up, and the man was helped into the back of the ambulance where EMT’s began treating him on the spot.

 

I don’t know if I can express how rare it is in my experience to see street people get instantaneous medical care (unless they are working with a non-profit.)  Unfortunately, it’s tragically commonplace for them to be injured because of the rough life on the street.  I remember a night when a beating victim, someone I knew named G., sat on the sidewalk in front of the the Day Resource Center, and many of us felt extremely grateful that there happened to be a young doctor volunteering with the church group feeding people that night who had a first aid kit in his car, so that he could kneel in front of G. (who, in addition to having been beaten, had been burned with cigarettes) and patch him up before G. went on his way into the night.

 

While the beating victim was getting settled into the ambulance in front of the Bridge, I talked to another friend, D., who has also been on the street for many years.  Turns out, she appears to be Success Story #3 for the night, as she is now a Resident at the Bridge and is working on getting her state I.D. in order to complete her job search and get hired.  D. raised her t-shirt a few inches to show me her tummy that stuck out from her ribs about 1/4 inch.  “I’m even gaining weight!”  she said proudly.  “Yeah, well, wish I had your problem,” I said, and we had a good laugh.

 

I know there are setbacks at the Bridge, and maybe I’m just focusing on the upside.  But to see people getting off the street, into apartments, into jobs, into mental health treatment, into rehabilitation where needed makes me tremendously optimistic.

 

The Bridge staff clearly has its hand full dealing with homeless / business / downtown resident / police relations.  Also, the leadership is struggling to find a balance between the need for rules and an ‘open-door’ policy.  But frankly, these bumps in the road are to be expected with such a vulnerable population as people who are homeless.  Running the Bridge is not a task for the faint of heart, to be sure.  And this is not to say great things haven’t been done over the years at places like the Stewpot.  But the numbers simply overwhelm the private sector.  Having seen how things have been for so many years here in Dallas, and having felt so often discouraged by what the future might hold, I am truly very heartened by what I see happening now in the lives of individual homeless people and the homeless population as a whole.  Miracles abound.  

 

Tony (Success Story #2) said this to me at dinner:  “For those who want to get help, everything they need is here,” and he pointed to the main buildings of the Bridge.  That’s a recommendation from someone for whom it’s not just theoretical.  

 

The fact that the Bridge is actually delivering on its promise to get people off the street amidst a ‘tidal wave’ of need and numbers that are much greater than anticipated says to me, once again:  a majority of Dallas citizens voted for that blessed $23 million bond package a few years back, despite well-funded opposition to its passage.  Enlightened leadership has put together a state-of-the-art facility.  Week after week, in spite of setbacks, construction delays and critics, it actually seems to be working.  Go, Dallas!

 

KS

 

Slavery Today: Buying and Selling Children July 9, 2008

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

 

Did you know that, by one account, there are more slaves on the planet today than at any time in history?  27 million.  Many of them are children.  If there’s a topic nearer to my heart than homelessness, it’s the deplorable plight of so many children world wide.

Last night, ABC News’ Nightline did a report on child-trafficking in Haiti.  Here’s the link:

http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/story?id=5326508&page=1

The report was hard to watch.  I cried during much of it, because of the subject matter and because one of the girls in the report resembles so closely one of my granddaughters.  Nonetheless, if we refuse to know, we are unable to make in impact, right?

So, please, click on the link and watch or read the report.  Then click on “Click HERE to learn more about what you can do to help end child slavery.”  These children are people who TRULY have no voice, and, in my view, their exploiters represent the greatest evil on the planet.

KS