Monday, October 20, 2008
Looking For, and Finding, Good Things
As he came through the food line at the Bridge last week, Max (not his real name) leaned in to whisper in my ear when I handed him his plate, “I need to talk to you outside after dinner.” “Sure,” I said, “Meet you out there.”
The service in the Second Chance Cafe was flawless as always. We had three acapella singers with excellent voices serenade us in succession as over 700 people filed through to eat, then Pops arrived to play piano. A few times during the meal, Edward St. John, Operations Director for the Stewpot meal services at the Bridge, came on the sound system and gave a weather forecast for the upcoming days. “So prepare yourselves to stay warm if you’re sleeping outside,” he said with concern, “It’s going to be 52 degrees tomorrow night.”
After the meal, I stayed around to talk to Edward for a few minutes — we hadn’t worked the same meal shift for a couple of months. When we’d gotten caught up on the news, he said, “We are really enjoying this [referring to fulfilling the meal service contract for the Bridge.] It’s a big challenge, but we love it.” I was glad to hear it, because the numbers of guests have been much higher at the Bridge than anyone predicted since it opened in May of this year, and the Stewpot has stepped up magnificently to the challenge of feeding them. “It’s all about the [homeless] people,” he continued. “Some good things are happening here at the Bridge.” “The love shows in the way all of you are doing things,” I told him. I had watched him greet people warmly all night when they came through the door. I could tell our homeless friends were ‘under his skin,’ that his heart was genuinely open to them.
As I started to leave the cafe, I saw Max motioning to me through the glass door. He pointed to a small courtyard off the dining room, mouthing “Meet me there.” “I’m on my way,” I said.
I exited into the courtyard and walked slowly along the curving sidewalk, waiting for Max. I was also looking for another friend who has been in the Residents’ Program inside the Bridge. He was happy that he was about to ‘graduate’ and move into permanent supportive housing, having been steadily employed through the Bridge’s job placement program for many weeks. I wanted to hear his story, but couldn’t find him in the clusters of homeless guests talking outside. I noticed how quiet, clean and organized things were in the small courtyard where I was walking. The activity there seemed purposeful. It was just after sunset, and some of the women I know were already bedded down under the dining hall eaves, protecting themselves from the chill of the night air.
I had noticed during the food service that many people had come through the line with blankets wrapped around them, and the rest were wearing coats. The thing that was different from autumns past with the homeless in Dallas was that everyone was protected from the elements by some kind of covering, and the blankets and coats they had on were clean. With the Bridge providing washers and dryers that the guests can sign up for, and twelve showers each for men and women, it’s now possible for people to clean up. It’s quite a noticeable change.
Every winter (since 2003) that I’ve seen our friends on the street, there have always been a number of people who had no protection from the weather whatsoever, neither blanket nor coat: perhaps they had just become homeless in the past few days and had been unable to bring possessions with them, or perhaps their belongings had been stolen. There may have been people without coats or blankets among the 700+ people we saw that night, but, if so, I didn’t see them. This amounts to a revolution in my experience. Yes, Edward is right, some good things are happening at the Bridge.
I looked up to see Max working his way towards me through a crowd of people in the courtyard who were waiting to enter a meeting room. He gave me a bear hug and kiss on the cheek, as he always does. “Hi, Mama,” he said, using the nickname he’s given me.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I asked him. He leaned in close and whispered in my ear, “I’ve been off ______ [a street drug] for ______ weeks!” Truth be told, I hadn’t known he was addicted, but I hugged him back and offered him congratulations. “Are you going to meetings [twelve step]? This is fantastic. You look great, so clear and calm.” “I feel great. It’s because of this man,” and he introduced me to his mentor at the Bridge. We three talked for a few more minutes, and I exited the courtyard and went to my car, feeling as if I were walking on air.
I looked back at the beautiful facility that the voters of Dallas, with their compassionate hearts, provided for the homeless through a $23 million bond a few years back. Warm light bathed the courtyard of the complex and poured from the windows. It had been an unexpected joy to see Max doing well, on his path, waiting for a place in a rehabilitation center, but already into his sobriety.
Maybe you have to know first hand exactly how rocky things were in winters past to fully understand the radical change that has taken place in our city for our homeless friends, but, yes indeed, some very good things are happening at the Bridge. We have to keep supporting the cooperative vision of Mike Faenza, Mike Rawlings, Bruce Buchanan, Joe Clifford, Mayor Tom Leppert and many others who, through thick and sometimes very thin, are making this happen. Thank you, Dallas.