The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

In the Midst of Them August 27, 2008

Regarding people who are homeless in Dallas…


“We are called to serve them. They are the least of these in our community, and Jesus has taken up residence with them, according to the gospel, and he is to be found in their midst. We exist to serve Christ, and according to Matthew 25, that’s where Christ is, so we serve them.”


                                                    ~~Dr. Joe Clifford, Senior Pastor                                                                                                                             First Presbyterian Church, Dallas, Texas                                                                                                             Dallas Observer, December 13, 2007




Pregnant and On the Street August 19, 2008

Current Journal

Tuesday, 8/19/08


I had this experience two years ago.  I befriended a young street couple;  the woman was pregnant.  I tried in vain to help them find temporary housing.  The short version of the story was that I spent many hours calling every nonprofit I’d ever heard of on their behalf (they didn’t have access to a telephone), and the couple didn’t fit the criteria for any of the programs I contacted because they weren’t married and wouldn’t separate.  They wanted to marry but couldn’t because the man’s identification documents had been stolen, and there were complications from his background in getting them reissued.   


I didn’t know a lot about the different organizations who were helping the homeless at that time, and I could write a book on what I learned from that experience.  Things are much better in Dallas since then, especially with the Bridge providing a central location for services.  One thing that was evident then and still is: there were many groups helping the homeless in their own small and valuable way, few of them knew what the other was doing, and none of them could help my friends.


The couple ended up moving from the street into an abandoned building in Deep Ellum, then to underneath a bridge, where she miscarried.  It was maddening, trying to put together a puzzle that actually did involve life and death — with many of the pertinent pieces missing.  I simply couldn’t believe that in a city this size, with wealth this predominant, there wasn’t a housing program that would accommodate them together temporarily until the baby was born.  Guess what?  To my knowledge, there still isn’t.


Christian organizations do most of the ‘heavy lifting’ with the homeless and depend on church congregations for financial support.  Since the church does not condone living together without marriage, service providers that are connected to the Christian faith community do not generally allow unmarried couples to be housed together in their programs.


I might as well go ahead and appall my fellow feminists here and say that I hold a pro-life stance, so I am going to proceed to call the living being within a woman’s belly a child.  If we are going to address this problem of homeless women staying on the street while they’re pregnant and put the unborn child first — first above our ideas of the morality or immorality of conceiving a child out of wedlock — then we have to revisit housing pregnant street mothers who are unwilling to give up living with their street husbands and consider housing them together.  These couples are often married in their own eyes but not married legally or in the eyes of society.


Here’s why:  most of those women that I’ve known won’t separate from the man they are with while they are homeless.  They will stay on the street rather than go into housing alone because, along with the emotional and physical attachment they have to ‘their man’, he has been and is their protection — in fact, often their very survival.  The woman I spoke about in the first paragraph told me that, even when she was with her ‘man’ — and he was big, tough, and strong — other men on the street reached out and grabbed at her body frequently, pregnancy notwithstanding.


Another thing:  I’m not a person who generally feels I need to be taken care of, but when I was pregnant, this changed.  I felt particularly vulnerable during this phase of married life.  Many other comfortable, middle-class women I know have said the same thing, and one can imagine the magnification of this if one were homeless.


People will say these women should think twice before they get pregnant while homeless.  How about this statistic?  I have been told that at least 25% of socially and legally recognized marriages are ‘shotgun’ weddings, and that’s a conservative number of those that are willing to admit to their situation.  But in ‘polite society’, we can rush up the wedding or hedge the conception date.  Unplanned pregnancies happen in all segments of society, but homeless women can’t hide theirs behind closed doors.  Do I think it’s the world’s greatest plan to conceive a child while one’s living on the street?  Of course not, but it’s happening, and that’s the reality.


It is all well and good to carefully screen the individuals we let into our nonprofit programs and then report marvelous numbers and statistics of success about how well we’ve served them.  What about the people who don’t meet our narrow criteria?  What if those people are carrying around a new life within them?  What’s our priority?


Many years ago, my cousin, Lyn, whom I deeply admire, founded a pilot program for pregnant teens at an inner-city high school in a poverty-and-crime-ridden area in my hometown.  She and her organization, the Junior League, built a day-care center on the school grounds for the children to be cared for while the parents finished high school, and required both the mothers and fathers to take parenting classes, which the center provided.  The program was tremendously successful.  Many young women graduated from high school who would have dropped out, attended college, raised their children and had successful lives because of Lyn’s program.  It became a national model.  The most important part to me was that much better mothers and fathers were created because of the parenting training, and all kinds of problems were circumvented because of those new skills.  I was utterly amazed to learn later that some people in town complained that Lyn and her program were causing teen pregnancies!


I call myself a Christian, and I am a churchgoer at that.  Still, call my viewpoint pragmatism or moral relativism if you will.  But we cannot claim to honor unborn life and then fail to do every single thing in our power to facilitate its well-being because we do not approve of the lifestyle choices of the parents involved.  Housing those parents together, regardless of paperwork, in order to give them some stability, guidance, protection and structure would be a start.




This article is linked to the following:


Guest Commentary by Pat Spradley August 15, 2008

Thursday, August 14, 2008


America, The Land of Unequal Opportunity

by Pat Spradley


Homeless people are not all the same.

Homeless people are not all the same. There are some who for some reason, no matter what you do, will never break out of the homeless trap they are in. That might be due to mental illness, drug use, alcohol addiction, disability or a multitude of reasons, many of them cumulative. These are the individuals who require assisted housing with social service support, or they will just return to the streets. In some cases, they will return to the streets even with supportive services, and there is nothing we can do about it. Fortunately, this is a minority among homeless individuals, and most often these are the ones you will encounter during your day-to-day activities on the street. Unfortunately, too many of us keep that perception of homeless people in our minds, unwittingly thinking it is representative of all of the homeless population.


What about the majority?

The majority of homeless individuals and families are down on their luck. They may be suffering from the consequences of poor decisions, abuse, and loss of work, injury or other unfortunate circumstances.  In these cases, a little help and encouragement can go a long way. These are individuals who are seeking a chance to start over or just need a little help to get them back on their feet.  Many are individuals who just need someone to have faith in them, offer encouragement and give them a hand when assistance is needed. In many cases, with proper help and guidance early on, these individuals will escape homelessness never to return. Unfortunately, it is this population that often has the most difficulty getting the help they need and may find themselves caught in a downward spiral with no hope.


Why is this happening?

The squeaky wheel approach is being taken, and those who are seen and wanted out of sight are getting the focus. In the process, there is no safety net, or giant holes are created in the small net that is there, for those who could be saved from chronic homelessness early on. They are left with very little help, especially single men who are childless. It does not take long for the social stigma and predicament to take a toll on these individuals, and our opportunity to help with minimal assistance is lost. They are trapped in no man’s land and left to flounder on their own. They are in survival mode, and a whole new psyche evolves. Depression overwhelms them; many develop drug or alcohol habits just to cope. They aren’t bad people, they just give up hope or learn to survive in a different world than the housed.


Prevent homelessness with opportunity.

Everyone in this great country deserves an opportunity for meaningful work and a roof over their head to compensate for that work.  Job skills differ, and we are not all learning abled in the same way.  We know that jobs at all levels need to be performed to keep a healthy economy.  We must recognize that the need for affordable housing in ALL areas is needed to support ALL workers, including those who may be differently abled or performing in the lower-paying jobs.  That should include being able to live in the neighborhood where you work.  More affordable housing is needed in all areas and needed now.

Our one-size-fits-all method of education must change.  It is time, once again, to start teaching trades and skills in schools that prepare youths who are not college material how to make a meaningful living and life for themselves. Not everyone is college material, and we must stop selling the fallacy that no degree equals failure.  We need people with trade skills and always will.  Create and encourage job training programs in our schools which will create opportunity. This will prevent homelessness for many and offer an escape from homelessness for others.

Every homeless person has a story, and we must remember that their story is as unique and different as each individual we encounter.  In a democracy, you will never find a level playing field for all, but there is more we can do to help those who desire to succeed. It may be a different degree or level of success than our own but no less important.


Pat Spradley is the Editor of Street Zine, a newspaper which provides self-help for people living in poverty.


Progress, Not Perfection: Working Together August 6, 2008

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Advocating for Mutual Respect and Communication in Solving Homelessness in Dallas


At a recent nonprofit event, during a conversation with someone affiliated with the sponsoring organization, that individual began to speak negatively — and not quietly — about the performance of an agency partnering with her own on a large project.  Attacking the same problem, the two agencies are using somewhat differing philosophies.  One seems to be effective with a certain segment of the targeted population, but not all.  The other, using a variant approach, seems to be having some success with a slightly different group.  I listened to her perspective, and, when I nodded reflectively but didn’t immediately and fully agree, she seemed a little offended.  I found the whole conversation very dispiriting.  Can social service really be an unhappy competition among approaches and still succeed?


When we implement within our own organization an approach to ending homelessness and poverty that seems to work, it’s easy to think:  this is the answer.  The concomitant of that is:  we found it, through our own experience, and it represents the only valid point of view.  But, in truth, there is not ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that’s a panacea to these overarching issues.  Different approaches are necessary, combined into a mosaic of complementarity.   As those who know homeless people are aware:  the solutions to homelessness are as as complex as the number of individuals who are homeless.  All solutions, even brilliant ones, are “One size fits some.”


Last week I was having coffee with a group of friends.  One is a longtime South Dallas civil rights activist, and another a politician.  The politician, someone who has not been closely involved with the homeless community, said to me:  “Listen to this idea for ending homelessness.  A co-op where homeless people live for a year.  No money is exchanged.  They work for credits and learn life skills and how to run a business, and in exchange are provided for during that time.  At the end, they know how to live in society and have earned enough credits to get a job and an apartment.  Don’t you think that would work to end homelessness?”  “It’s a good idea,” I said, “I think it would work for a certain number of people.’  Still, he was convinced this was The Solution — in theory, it sounded so logical.  The problem though, as I see it, is that it does not take into account the ‘psychology of the individual,’ to steal a phrase from my favorite writer, humorist P.G. Wodehouse.  


My friend the civil rights’ leader, on the other hand, has taken it upon himself to go out many times in the past with mobile feeders of the homeless, meeting and interacting with people who live on the street.  He immediately ‘got’ that a good theory and a workable solution are two entirely different creatures.


Suppose we develop an approach that works for our own organization in attacking a social problem, and we find that we have an impact on the problem at hand.  Does that mean the philosophy we develop along the way is the only viable one?  


One agency learns that having volunteers from prosperous parts of town come to the low-income community where they operate in order to ‘get a hit of poverty’ is demeaning to the community and does not work with their vision of what they want to achieve and are accomplishing.  Does that mean that all occasional volunteering is bad?  No.  


Right down the street will be an agency which could not survive without groups of volunteers who come, work and sometimes never return.  The mission of each group is different.  Each attacks a portion of a big problem, say inner city poverty and/ or homelessness, with an approach that works for them.  Each is good.  Each has grown from the ground up an organization with an effective approach IN THEIR ARENA.


The food service program at the Bridge, for example, could not run without a strong, vibrant and often-changing volunteer base, because serving over 2600 meals a day is a tremendous task, and the same volunteer force could not show up three times a day to do it.  So the Stewpot, which runs it, has recruited and funneled over 3000 people into the Meal Services program at the Bridge since it opened at the end of May.  And if that volunteer base did not consist of church groups, some from out of town, which might or might not ever come again, the work would not get done.  


Who knows the impact that one visit, one encounter with poverty or homelessness may have on an individual volunteer?  Because we never see them again in that setting does not mean their experience ended there.  Perhaps they reflected on their experience and are blazing trails elsewhere in the city, or in the world.


Contrast that to an inner city after-school program which clearly benefits more from a limited number of committed workers, who might preferably come from the community in which the program is based, in order to form lasting and mentoring relationships with the children participating in the program.  Random volunteers coming and going there is not a desirable remedy to the man and woman-power need.


Both approaches are good, both approaches fill the need-sized gap.  The problem comes when we think that our way is the only way and don’t respect the differing approach of the other.  


There is an ‘establishment’ of homeless services in Dallas — the agencies that have been around for many years and have served beautifully and successfully a number of homeless individuals.  And there is an approach somewhat new to Dallas, based upon ‘best practices’ research from other cities, that is being tried at the Bridge.  The new is far from perfect, as has been widely reported.  But if we already had all the answers to getting people off the streets and housed, we wouldn’t be having the discussion we’re having in Dallas right now about the approaches being tried at the Bridge, and we wouldn’t, in fact, need the Bridge itself.


Certain issues and problems that are occurring there now were predicted ahead of time by people advocating for the homeless.  For example, planning for the facility was flawed in the number of beds allotted.  Is this a surprise to anyone?  It was widely talked about by homeless advocates before the Bridge opened.  Why didn’t the ‘heads’ at the bridge realize that with between 6000 and 10,000 homeless people in  Dallas county, 400 beds wouldn’t be enough?  Or if they did, plan differently?  I don’t know.


What about rules and regulations at the Bridge?  Because a complete open-door policy has required some serious adjustment due to the predators who surround the homeless (again, a given with this population), does that mean we need to go back to the stringent requirements and limits of the previously-existing shelters, to paying for a bed, to turning people away when the quota for the night is filled, to booting them and their belongings out before dawn to spend the day on the street or at work?  If we do that, we’re right back where we started.


I also agree with others who say that it is problematic that those running the Bridge have not, for the most part, served on the front lines in other homeless services, although they have certainly been involved long-term in homeless advocacy.  There’s no question that management there is in a learning curve, and this too was expected by most people close to the homeless community.


To me, the most serious error being made by management at the Bridge doesn’t lie in their non-threatening, non-punitive approach to homeless individuals (those preying on the homeless are another matter entirely), but rather the difficulty for most people outside the Bridge to contact them.  I know several people who have tried often and to no avail to get in touch with them in order to offer help.  When the mayor was coming to visit recently, those of us making the arrangements, including the mayor’s own staff, had to go through the subcontractor for meal services, the Stewpot, in order to ever reach landfall with Bridge management!  I think that’s a big problem, because as a wise person close to the situation said, when there’s a void of information and accessibility, it’s entirely likely that it will be filled with negatives.


[Inviting Mayor Leppert to the Bridge, by the way, initiated by homeless advocates outside Bridge management, was not done in order to do a snow job on politicians, but rather the opposite — to give the mayor direct access to the homeless themselves —  and that is exactly what happened.  He spent the evening talking to them on his own, without management around him.  He is smart enough to come to his own conclusions about how things are going, and I’m sure he will.]


I see no way to go back to limiting the number of people inside the Bridge gates without going back to arresting those who are outside, which is like going back to the dark ages.  Sleeping on the lawn inside the campus on a mat is better than sleeping on the sidewalk, and it is safer, no matter what critics say.  That is why people are doing it in such numbers.  However, careful screening of those coming into the campus in order to make sure they are not predatory to the homeless population is essential and is apparently being done.  Ditto whatever makes the campus safer.


But we should never forget what things were like in the past.  The agencies that have existed in Dallas for years to help the homeless were doing fantastic work.  And 6000 people still didn’t have a bed at night.  Sorry, folks, but I in no way look back nostalgically at that situation.  As is said in twelve-step programs, “Progress, Not Perfection.”  I stick by my appraisal that we are making progress in Dallas:  not perfect, fraught with setbacks, but progress nonetheless.


I have not been homeless, and that limits my perspective.  What I have done, consistently for five years, is talk to homeless people themselves, ask them about their lives and their opinions about things.  I have also sought the advice of people who work directly with them and have studied to some extent the ‘best practices’ in other cities. I have purposely not been a ‘joiner’ of organizations, with the exception of sitting on one advisory board.  I want to keep the perspective of an outsider.


I propose something radical.  Why don’t we talk to each other, listen to each other, be available to each other, as individuals and as organizations?  Communicate.  Listen to people who know, who have done the work before.  Ask everyone involved, then make our best decision.


That’s what I was trying to do with the individual at the nonprofit meeting.  I wanted to hear her perspective, and it was an important one which contained information that I did not have.  But it was also biased… in favor of her own group, with no quarter given to any other.  If we can take off our earmuffs and listen what others have to say, maybe we will get finally somewhere.


We are where we are with the Bridge, and the problems are significant.  But to equate it and its challenges in any way to the Day Resource Center is simply ludicrous.  It’s a mixed bag, but it’s still light years ahead of where we’ve been.  And, for the most part, homeless people themselves will tell you that, if you ask them in a spirit of genuine inquiry.


We need to support the Bridge, while continuing to help it improve.  And the Bridge management needs to let us.



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Post Removed: Please Read Note August 4, 2008

Monday, August 4, 2008


From Thich Nhat Hanh:

       ~~Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step


[I am very sorry to report that I have had to remove this post about extreme poverty in other parts of the world because of continued and extremely objectionable spam it has generated coming into the spam blocker of this blog.  Although I never opened it, the tag words themselves were very offensive. You can read the quote that was here in Thich’s book above, under the essay entitled “Flowers and Garbage.”]   KS,  10/11/08

[Also see May 1, March 31, March 11, 2008, or click on ‘Buddhism’ under ‘Categories.’]