The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Powerlessness December 30, 2008

Filed under: Christianity,homelessness,inspiration — Karen Shafer @ 9:52 pm

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


God ‘Unmasks the Illusion of Power’


‘Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.’

~~Matthew 11:29


“God chose powerlessness.   God chose to enter into human history in complete weakness.  That divine choice forms the center of the Christian faith.  In Jesus of Nazareth, the powerless God appeared among us to unmask the illusion of power, to disarm the prince of darkness who rules the world, and to bring the divided human race to a new unity.


Through total and unmitigated powerlessness, God shows us divine mercy.  The radical, divine choice is the choice to reveal glory, beauty, truth, peace, joy, and, most of all, love in and through the complete divestment of power.  It is very hard — if not impossible — for us to grasp this divine mystery.”


                                        ~~Henri Nouwen,  ‘Advent Meditations from the Writings of Henri Nouwen’


 

We Built It, They Came, Now What? December 15, 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

 

We Built It, They Came, Now What?

 

Here I sit in the same cafe where I sat exactly 5 years ago, thinking the exact thoughts I had the first time I went out with HungerBusters Mobile Soup Kitchen to feed the homeless on the streets of Dallas in 2003.  How are the people around me going about their daily lives (and how am I?) while homeless individuals in the hundreds are starving and freezing on the streets of our city?

 

This time, though, the public will has been mobilized, the $21 million has been spent building the Bridge Homeless Assistance Center in downtown Dallas, the ‘promise’ has been fulfilled, hopes have been raised for homeless and housed alike, and much good has been accomplished, only to have it come crashing down now that bitterly cold weather is upon us. It Has Been Built, and They Have Come.  And now They are locked out by the hundreds.

 

What a grim, and, for me, unexpected lesson in failed bureaucracy.  People who know much more than I do may have seen it coming.  I didn’t.

 

There is much rumor and hyperbole around the disastrous new policy implemented at the Bridge since December 1, so I am going to focus first on what I know for sure.

 

What I Know For Sure

 

~~People who do not have a Bridge ID cannot get into the campus for meals.  The numbers of meals served at the Second Chance Cafe by the Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church has dropped to around 1300 per day from around 2150.  That means that, currently, 850 times a day someone is being denied a meal that has been provided since May, 2008, and that Second Chance Cafe is committed to serving.  This meal service was promised in national and local media by Bridge management when the center opened.

 

A friend who was licensed to feed on the streets, but is now prohibited from feeding the homeless downtown by a city ordinance which does not allow feeding outside the Bridge, told me a story of a man coming up to his car on the street outside the Bridge asking for food and crying because he was so hungry several days ago.  Such stories are just the tip of the iceberg.

 

~~The Bridge ID application procedures have been unwieldy and frustrating, if not non-navigable, for the homeless, to say the least.  As of  the end of last week, the process for getting an ID required standing in 3 different lines for up to 3-4 hours, and sometimes still coming away with no ID.  Add to that that to get a Bridge ID, preexisting identification is required, and many chronically homeless people don’t have that, or have had their ID’s stolen, and you see the potential frustration inherent in the process.  Throw in the percentage of this group that are mentally ill and have poor coping skills to begin with.  Add to that the number of homeless people who have to be at work 6 AM, when the Bridge ID lines opened at 9 AM, and you start to see the complications of a solution that on its face sounds simple and reasonable.  There have been promises of streamlined procedures from Bridge management, and hopefully they will/ have come through.

 

People who were issued temporary ID’s as early as Thanksgiving still don’t have their permanent ID’s.  Sometimes they are admitted to the Bridge with a letter from their Bridge caseworker, and sometimes not, depending upon who is on duty at the gate.

 

~~ As to the Bridge sending its overflow guests to other shelters, I was out among the homeless during the subfreezing weather a week ago and learned that the shelters were requiring payment and identification, two things they are often without.  But, more importantly, I learned that on those cold nights the shelters were full.  Even if you discount the ‘shelter-resistant’ population — and you cannot in good conscience do that — I personally saw and spoke with many people sleeping outside shelters on those nights who told me they had tried to get in and were turned away for lack of space.  And, if you can’t get into a shelter, you obviously can’t eat your meals there.

 

Additionally, the working homeless are still at work at the time most shelters require occupants to be inside, around 4 PM, so they are essentially penalized for having jobs.

 

Just this afternoon I spoke on the phone with a friend who is currently sleeping under a freeway overpass  and offered to let him sleep on my couch.  He said overflow procedures are in practice at the shelters due to subfreezing temperatures tonight, but, at Dallas Life Foundation, for example, you have five free nights until you have to pay, and he’s saving his money until he really needs it (! the current temperature is around 30 degrees!) because all the homeless are having to buy their food now since the Second Chance Cafe is unable to serve them meals due to lack of access to the Bridge campus.

 

When you add to that reports of theft and other problems within some of the shelters and you understand why there are, once again, hundreds of people hiding wherever they can and sleeping outdoors.

 

~~  The primary population this policy change has impacted negatively is the “chronically homeless,” the exact population the Bridge was to target when it opened.


~~  A homeless man was seriously burned last week trying to stay warm in a parking garage stairwell in downtown Dallas.

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/stories/121308dnmetgarage.561b9995.html

 

~~  When I was at the Bridge campus on November 30, the last night that sleeping was allowed on the courtyard, and I spoke with a number of women sleeping there about where they’d sleep the next night.  ”We have no idea,” they told me.  All of these women were on their own, without the protection of male partners.  I don’t know whether you know what women alone face living on the street, but it is not a pretty picture.    

 

~~  I personally know one pregnant woman who is on the street in this weather, and I would surmise from past experience that there are more.

 

What I Believe to be the Case


~~While the stated reason the Bridge has closed its gates to those without Bridge Identification because of issues with the Fire Marshall, it has been shown to be the case in the past that temporary compromises on these sorts of issues can be reached within the city for the greater good of the affected population, where there is a constructive plan and the public and political will to do so.  

 

~~ While rumors persist among and from my homeless friends that two people have died sleeping outdoors in this weather, there has been no confirmation of this.  However, what is being predicted by homeless people and service providers alike is that, before winter is out, there will be casualties of this current situation.  We have to do all in our power to prevent this happening.

 

What Can Be Done

 

I am certain this problem can be solved quickly, and it must be.   Here are some suggestions for what can be done.  I welcome others in the comments section.  It is not an exaggeration to say that people’s lives are at stake.

 

For this winter, I respectfully request that we:

~~Effective immediately, reopen the Bridge campus during meal hours to anyone who needs a meal.  This has been the practice since the opening in May.

~~ Reopen the Bridge campus for sleeping for anyone who is nonviolent, and especially for women, and use the police manpower that is currently being used for sweeps of the homeless to keep order there if necessary.  This way, people can at least be safe. Those who have previously been banned for violent or predatory behavior should remain so.

~~  For warmth, large outdoor heaters could be set up and a large tent with side flaps for temporary protection could be provided — infinitely better than sleeping in the open on the concrete.

~~  The Fire Marshall could be asked to make special provision for the winter for an expanded number of people to be allowed at the Bridge until Spring 2009.  The city or the Bridge should provide funding for a Fire Marshall to be on duty at all times to insure public safety for the numbers of individuals that need to be sheltered for the winter.

~~  These policies should be in place every day until a date to be determined in the Spring, 2009, not just for subfreezing weather.

~~  Even with the cost of extra policing and fire prevention, the costs to the city are likely to be considerably less that the current cost of police sweeps of the homeless downtown and of providing for them through emergency services, (ambulances, hospitals, jails, emergency mental health services, crisis intervention, policing), as we are now back to doing, statistically proven to be by far THE MOST EXPENSIVE way to deal with homelessness, humanitarian concerns aside.

~~  Alternatively, or in addition, we could consider using one of the abandoned buildings downtown as temporary shelter, complete with Porta-Potties, and use Downtown Safety Patrol or Dallas Police to keep order there.  Guests there could eat and use other services (bathrooms, laundry, storage) at the Bridge, as they were doing before December 1.

~~  Being a ‘Can-Do’ city, I know that we can come up with the Code and Zoning permits we need to make these solutions possible if we feel they would be successful and effective.

 

In Conclusion

 

With the publicity around the Dallas International Street Church regarding its becoming a refuge for the homeless when they were turned away from the Bridge and other shelters  (See “Miracle on Second Avenue”)  I don’t have to tell you that there is unhappy irony in a tiny, poor, South-Dallas church trumping a $21 million state-of the art homeless assistance center in its care of the homeless population.

http://www.wfaa.com/video/?z=y&nvid=312288

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/121308dnmetchurchfix.38b6e7d.html

 

The homeless population is the responsibility of the Bridge now, and the staff there are being paid well, in a state-of-the-art facility, to handle these issues.  It is failing to live up to that responsibility at this time.  With our tax dollars supporting the Bridge, we as taxpayers are entitled to transparency and accountability, not just an effective public relations campaign.

 

It would be tragic if the promising start made by the Bridge towards a compassionate and successful resolution to the homeless problem in Dallas up until now were at this point seriously derailed by a policy that is harming in a critical way the population it is supposed to be helping.

 

KS

Link:  http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2008/dec/16/bridge-we-built-it-they-came-now-what/

 

Miracle on Second Avenue December 12, 2008

Thursday, December 11, 2008

 

Miracle on Second Avenue

 

Sometimes, through a benevolent combination of circumstances, you get the privilege of walking straight into the heart of Love, and tonight, at the invitation of my friend David Timothy, AKA SoupMan, I got to do that.

 

For months David had been inviting me to visit the Dallas International Street Church with him, but I hadn’t gotten around to it.  Then the story broke today about this tiny, poor, South-Dallas church sheltering homeless people in the hundreds who had been unable to get into the Bridge and other shelters in downtown Dallas.  When I had dropped by the SoupMobile this afternoon to pick up some brochures and chat with David and had learned he was going to the Street Church tonight to deliver some crates of canned food, I jumped at the chance to go with him.

 

All day rumors had been flying about the status of people being allowed to sleep inside the Street Church for tonight (Thursday).  The previous night the Fire Marshall had shut them down for code violations — the church is housed in a very old building south of Fair Park — and for having too many people inside sleeping on the pews, on the floor, anywhere there was a square inch, so that they would not have to sleep outdoors in the subfreezing weather.  The Dallas International Street Church had become the last refuge of many of the Dallas homeless population now that the Bridge had found it necessary to revise its open-door policy to coincide, unfortunately, with cold weather.  The timing of the implementation of this policy change with the advent of subfreezing weather was abysmal, and was resulting in extremely difficult circumstances whose lives are already quite challenging.

 

http://www.wfaa.com/video/?z=y&nvid=312288


First we’d heard the Fire Department would have a representative stay in the church tonight to keep an eye on things and allow the homeless to shelter there.  Then we’d heard that was a no-go, and that a large open-sided tent the congregation owns — complete with a with an outdoor heater — was to be set up to shelter the homeless behind the church  — not exactly snugly warm, but better than sleeping in the open or on the concrete.

 

We pulled up into the church’s parking lot in the SoupMobile van to unload the food, and I noticed an official City of Dallas vehicle parked outside.  “I think the Fire Marshall is here,” I told David.  In the next moment, a woman came running up to us waving her arms and either laughing or crying — I couldn’t tell which.  It was ‘Queen,’ the de facto shelter director, and she was calling out, “Oh, thank God you’re here.  Did you bring any food?  You’re not going to believe what’s happened!”  The city had relented, it turned out, and was going to allow the homeless to sleep inside after all, with a Fire Marshall present all night to oversee things.  “Look, look, there they come!”  She pointed to a group of people walking along the sidewalk toward the door of the church.  “They’ve walked all the way from downtown!  We were not allowed to go downtown and pick them up in busses [which had been happening earlier in the week], but, if they can walk to here, they can come inside.  We made the rounds of the shelters earlier.  People have to have money and ID’s to get in, but, anyway, the shelters were all full.”

 

Several men came out of the church to unload the van, and we all went inside.  A church service was in progress, loud, spirited, with a gospel band.  Queen took me by the hand and led me through the pews of people, introducing me as we went along.  We sat down in the second row, and, suddenly, both of us began to cry.  She put her arm around me, this sister that I’d never met before tonight, and I leaned my head against her shoulder.  The frustration, the anger, the bewilderment, the stress that this week had brought to everyone who loves and works with Dallas’ homeless people — it poured out of us both to the sound of the searing gospel music as we searched our pockets for Kleenex and looked at each other without the necessity of explaining anything.

 

The sermon, given by a young, dynamic preacher, was pure, was strong, was speaking truth to power without condemning anyone.  “Seven months ago,” he said, “I was an addict, was homeless, hadn’t had a bath, was walking up and down Second Avenue, right out here.”  He pointed toward the front of the church.  Speaking eloquently about letting yourself be willing to shine, he said, “The changes that have happened to me in the past few months should by all rights have taken years.”

 

As the service continued, David took me for a tour of the building.  To say that Pastor Karen Dudley operates the International Street Church on a shoestring is a mild understatement [http://www.kdministries.org/staff.php].  When dinner was served in the kitchen, the plates of the first shift of ten or so people had to be washed before the next round could be fed!   Looking on, David said to me, “Seems just a little bit like the stretching required in the feeding of the loaves and fishes, doesn’t it?”  We laughed.  “Hey,” he commented, “this is a pretty good-looking meal they’re serving tonight, mashed potatoes and meat.  Often they don’t have hot food here at night.  Louis,” he asked the cook, “where did this food come from?”  “From you, SoupMan!” Louis said, “You brought it yesterday, and it’s been in the freezer since then.”  David had forgotten he’d ‘paid it forward’ with some food sent to the SoupMobile by Bakers Ribs!  It was pretty funny.

 

Near us in the kitchen, I noticed a quiet, unobtrusive young man sitting by the wall, observing, and saw that he wore a badge.  I walked over and introduced myself, asking, “Are you with the City?”  “Yes,” he said cordially, “My name is Anthony _____.  I’m the Fire Marshall.”  We expressed our gratitude to him for being there and our happiness that a compromise had been worked out with the city.  He was polite and kind, with a low-key demeanor and good people skills in evidence.

 

Twenty-six code violations were found the previous night when the city had shut the shelter down, and we looked at some of them.  It’s a very old building, and some fix up is in order, to be sure.  The contractor who had graciously volunteered his services to make the repairs and get the building up to code after the story of the shutdown aired on WFAA, Channel 8, is due to arrive at 9 A.M. tomorrow morning (Friday) to get started.

 

We went outside to talk to some people, and Queen came out.  “Guess what?  You’ll never believe it.  That was the Dallas Morning News on the phone just now.  Two people have called in and are going to pay for hotel rooms for a few dozen people tonight!  We’re signing them up right now!”  There were ‘woohoos’ and high-fives all around.  When a [shelter] door closes, sometimes more than one window miraculously opens.

 

By this time, the church service had ended.  We went back in the building for one last look around and noticed a clean-cut, white-shirted man standing across the room with Anthony.  When we approached him, we could read “K. Sipes, Fire Chief” embroidered on his shirt.  It was now 9:40 P.M., and, long day notwithstanding, Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Sipes himself was on the premises to check out how things were going.  We met him, talked to him for a while.  “This compromise seems like a win-win for the homeless and the city,” David said.  “We don’t want people to be out in the cold in this weather,” the Chief told us.

 

After a dispiriting week, it was a very uplifting couple of hours, amid the people who are the poorest of the poor, the most outcast of the outcast.  The gratitude, the love, the truth, the peace that is in that place and among those people does indeed pass all understanding.

 

KS

 

P.S.  Much appreciation to the good people at Channel 8 News, WFAA, for their coverage of this issue.

 

Bitter December 5, 2008

Thursday, December 4, 2008

 

Bitter

 

Last night, armed with a carload of heavy coats and blankets given to us by an Anonymous Angel, I went out on a mission into the heart of downtown Dallas with a good friend.  We went  in search of the city’s homeless people who have been banned from sleeping in the Bridge courtyard as of December 1 and are now back to ‘sleeping rough.’

 

After an hour of driving around, we couldn’t find anyone out on the street, but we knew they were there — just in hiding.  It we could have found them, though, so could have the Dallas Police, who had been issuing written warnings and citations to them for the past two days.  We talked to the very few homeless individuals who were walking on the downtown streets.  “Where is everyone sleeping tonight?” we asked them.  “They’ve scattered,” a woman told us.  “The police have really been after us and came this morning at 6 A.M. to the freeway fence where people were sleeping and started ticketing them.  Media crews showed up about that, and it saved some.”

 

My friend and I knew the obvious places where homeless people used to sleep before the Bridge opened, and we drove there.  Not a soul could be seen at any of these locations.  After that, we checked out the places we knew of that are farther out from the central district downtown.  No one in sight, no heaps of blankets on the concrete containing sleeping human beings.

 

We guessed where to look even farther afield, and we guessed correctly.  When we found them, we stopped our car and got out.  They knew us, trusted us, and began to come out of hiding, one or two at a time, in the dark, in the cold, to talk to us.  Near where we parked, one person had found a single piece of wood about 2 inches wide and 3 feet long, had been able to light it and was huddled over it, trying to stay warm.  Some people were sleeping under cardboard, some just blankets, most well out of sight.  One man said, “I’d been sleeping at the Bridge until they shut us out on Monday.”

 

It had been a Godsend that our ‘angel’ had showed up that afternoon and given us enough coats and blankets to give away.  I stood at the rear of the vehicle and handed people blankets one by one.  “Can I have one for my wife?” someone asked.  “She’s sleeping right over there around the corner.”  At our vehicle’s side door, my friend fitted people with warm jackets.  We also had some socks, hats and gloves.  We stood around and talked.  Word spread that we were there, and more people showed up.  Everyone hugged us, thanked us, hugged us again.  At the end, they wanted to pray with us, so we put our arms around each other’s shoulders in a circle, and one of the men spoke a prayer of thanks and offered requests for our well-being.  The Miracle of the Coats and Blankets was that, when we were finished at the end of the night, we had exactly one blanket left.

 

Of course, even though people are now hungry — because some are no longer allowed on the Bridge campus at all due to the new identification procedure and some only have day passes which keep them off the Bridge campus after 5 P.M., so they either miss all meals or the evening meal — it is illegal for us to feed them.  All feeding of the homeless outside the Bridge (except on private property) is now officially banned by the city.  So there are currently many people who can at this point neither eat at the Bridge, nor can they be offered food outside it.  I had heard already since December 1 the dinner numbers at the Stewpot’s Second Chance Cafe (the Bridge dining hall) are down to the mid-200’s from the steady number of 750-900 per meal since the homeless assistance center opened in May of this year.

 

Last night, we left our homeless friends and drove around some more downtown.  A number of people were sleeping on the sidewalk next to one of the shelters, which was full.  These people were clearly not shelter-resistant:  we spoke with some of them, and they had tried to get in.

 

Once again, the poorest of the poor are being criminalized and driven underground.  The ‘fringe’ people are being forced back to the fringes and beyond.  It is a tragic turn of events.

 

Designed to serve in particular the ‘chronically homeless,’ the Bridge is not effectively doing that for large numbers of them at this time.  For a few days this week, these people were back out on the street.  For a couple of days after that, they were persistently ticketed by police at the orders of undetermined entities at City Hall.  Now, they are in hiding:  in the open, on the ground, cold, hungry.  Tonight, I heard a weather report that a ‘bitter’ freeze is on its way to the Dallas area.  Imagine how that will feel sleeping outdoors without even the shelter of a building to lie close to.

 

We can do better.  We have done better for the past few short months.  And we must do so again immediately, before people begin to die from the cold.

 

We must deliver on the emergency shelter that has been promised.  At the very least, we must allow the shelter-resistant homeless or those the shelters can’t accommodate — especially women — to sleep back on the Bridge campus away from predators and violent offenders.  As the Bridge management sorts through who is ‘qualified and unqualified’ to receive shelter there, we must follow through on the the commitment that the Bridge has clearly and emphatically put forward to the public through the media since it opened in May and even before:  to provide safe refuge and access to the meals that the Stewpot is offering to all those who need it.  

 

For heaven’s sake and for our own as well, it is time to stop playing politics with people’s lives.

 

KS

 

Conversation With the DPD: A Good Man Just Doing His Job December 3, 2008

 

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

 

Conversation With a Dallas Police Officer:  A Good Man ‘Just Doing His Job’

 

Last night at 10:35 P.M. I drove downtown to see for myself what was going on with the homeless people who’d been banned from sleeping in the courtyard of the Bridge and were once again sleeping on the street.  I had heard a rumor that authorities were going to start ticketing homeless people tonight.  I drove down Corsicana Street and turned right onto Park Lane.  Just ahead of me were a small group of homeless individuals sitting or lying on the steps of a ramshackle building across the street from the Bridge and few Dallas Police officers standing in front of them on the sidewalk and street.  There were a couple of police bicycles pulled up there, a scooter of some sort, and, as I sat there, a police cruiser arrived.

 

I stopped my car beside one of the officers and rolled down my window, asking him respectfully, “What’s going on?  Are you ticketing people tonight?”  His face was familiar, and he was polite and forthcoming.  “Right now we’re issuing warnings.  Tomorrow, a list will be drawn up and we’ll go from there.”  I asked for more details:  were there to be warrants and arrests?  “I don’t know.  I just get my orders piece by piece.”  I questioned him further about where the orders were coming from.  City Hall was all he knew, but no specifics.  “I know this must be hard on you guys, too,” I told him.  “No, I’m just doing my job,” he said emphatically.  “Thank you for the information,” I told him.  I made eye contact with a homeless man who was sitting on the sidewalk waiting for his citation from another policeman.  “I wish it could be different,” I said to all concerned.  

 

I used to see the police department differently in these situations.  Around this same time last year, I would have thought of the ticketing officers as enemies of my homeless friends.  Then I sat in a church service at First Presbyterian Church downtown and listened to a sermon by Dr. Joe Clifford around the time 150 to 200 homeless people were taking refuge at night from police arrest by sleeping on that church’s parking lot.  At the end of his moving sermon, Dr. Clifford said a prayer that surprised me:  he prayed with sympathy and with unity for the homeless, for the church, for the city, for the Dallas Police — ALL of whom, he said, were doing the best they could in a difficult situation.  In that moment, my thinking changed from ‘us’ — the homeless and those who advocate for them — and ‘them’ — city officials and police who make and enforce laws that I believe unfairly target the homeless — to ‘all of us, doing the best we know how at this point in time.’

 

Nonetheless, as I drove away and pulled up to a stop light near the Farmer’s Market last evening, I felt devastated by this turn of events.  For the second night in a row, I sat by the Farmer’s Market in my car and wept.  This is what we were putting behind us when the Bridge opened, wasn’t it?  Weren’t the days of huddled and miserable human beings sleeping on the cold concrete of our city streets being roused from their brief rest by uniformed men, ‘just doing their jobs’, issuing them citations for ‘sleeping in public,’ ‘obstructing the sidewalk,’ and any number of other ordinances designed to specifically get the homeless out of public view… weren’t those days now going to be behind us for good?

 

I pulled over into a driveway and ‘phoned a friend’ who knows the situation.  He, too, was stunned by this turn of events.  Neither of us could believe that, a year later, after all that has come to pass, we are back to this.  God help us all, then and now.

 

KS

 

The Bridge Closing Its Courtyard for Sleeping December 1, 2008

Monday, December 1, 2008


The Bridge Closes Its Courtyard For Sleeping:  The Rest of the Story

 

I have been a consistent and vocal supporter of the Bridge homeless assistance center since its opening in May, 2008, and have believed that, even with the glitches and challenges in getting it up and running that have been widely reported, it has had an extremely positive impact on the Dallas community, both homeless and housed.  However, I have serious questions about the current decision to ‘clear the Bridge courtyard’ for cold weather and deny overnight access for safe sleeping there to homeless individuals who are not able to go into shelters for a variety of reasons.

[http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/city/dallas/stories/DN-thebridge_10met.ART.State.Edition2.4a7f026.html]

 

Where is the impetus coming from to relocate homeless people who have, until December 1, been sleeping in the Bridge courtyard, now that the coldest part of the year is upon us?  On the face of it, relocation to shelters seems a compassionate response to colder weather.  However, what will be the result?  History and experience tell us that there will be some people who will not, for one reason or another, be able to go into shelters, even with the adaptations made to their usual guidelines by the shelter directors in order to accommodate them at the request of Bridge management.  People who know this vulnerable population realize this.

 

A friend of mine who is homeless says this forced relocation off the courtyard will simply lead to many more people being back on the street, and people I’ve talked with who are directly involved in homeless services tend to agree with him.  Already, one finds an increasing number of people sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks in the area surrounding the Bridge.  It seems we may be inviting some of our old dilemmas back into the picture.  Certain people will have nowhere to go;  yet everyone has to be somewhere.

 

I can only imagine, and have tried to comprehend, the myriad pressures on Bridge management.  From what I understand, in this case, pressure is coming from the City of Dallas via the Fire Marshall around the issue of code compliance.  The permit for a larger than expected population at the Bridge was temporary.  The decision ‘up there somewhere’ has been made that the numbers need to be reduced.  Why now?  We have had overcrowding at the Bridge since its opening in May.

 

Just as it makes sense to ban people from the Bridge who are consistently violent, there are also good arguments for tracking more closely than was originally thought necessary those who use the services at the Bridge.  Hence, there is now a requirement for Bridge guests to have ID cards.  But Friday evening I talked to a homeless friend at dinner at the Second Chance Cafe (the Bridge dining hall run by the Stewpot) who said he had stood in line that day for 4 hours and then been unable to get one.  Then he found out he’d also been directed to the wrong line!

 

Friday night, when I left the Second Chance Cafe at the Bridge after helping serve dinner, I walked around the darkened courtyard where most people were already bedded down against the cold.  I did a very approximate count, and there seemed to be at least 150 people sleeping outdoors there.  Many of them were women.  Once courtyard sleeping closes, where will they go?  It seems counterproductive, to say the very least, for them to go back out on the street and seems reminiscent of the not-so-good old days.

 

I went back to the Bridge Sunday night, November 30, and spoke with several people who were sleeping on the sidewalk inside the gates, three out of four of whom were women, about where they’d sleep after that night.  ”We have no idea,” they told me.  

 

When I left to drive home, I saw that, in the blocks surrounding the Bridge campus, people were sleeping in doorways, on the sidewalk, up against the freeway fence, huddled under a floodlight for safety:  the EXACT conditions that the Bridge was built to eliminate.  A very vulnerable community, once again in extreme disarray.

 

Although people sleeping in the cold may truly be the concern of staff and the city, it’s still preferable to sleep ‘cold and safe’ rather than ‘cold and in danger’ — that is, to at least be able to sleep within the confines of the Bridge fences.  So, while there may be a legitimate and compassionate impetus for people to be moved into shelters, booting them off the courtyard doesn’t meet the criterion of making things better for them.  

 

As things always are for the homeless community, I’m guessing the ‘full story’ is very complicated.  Someone in authority has made a decision profoundly affecting people’s lives, and probably for reasons other than the ones which have been stated.  But then that decision has to be explained in ways that will try to please everyone and that will seem as if it has at its basis the highest well-being of those it impacts.  To what extent well-being as a motive is the reality is impossible to tell.  But, if the good of the homeless is the intent, it is surely not panning out that way in practice.  It would be nice every now and then just to be told the truth about it from the very start.

 

It is clear to me how rapidly and successfully the Dallas community is able and willing to take effective action by the way we solved our temporary housing problems for the homeless last winter, once the political will and a plan to do so were in place.  We are a ‘Can-Do’ city.  The new policy of banning Bridge courtyard sleeping may be well-intentioned but is, in my view, misdirected.

 

My hope is that we will change course right away and make a commitment to do what is necessary to allow nonviolent homeless individuals, and, in particular women, to sleep within the confines of the Bridge campus through the winter as we continue to sort through maze of who is ‘qualified and unqualified’ to receive shelter.  This is not the time to jump ship on the commitment that has been clearly and emphatically put out there since before the Bridge opened.

 

KS