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!