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.
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.