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.
~~ 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.
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.
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.