The Intermittent Volunteer’s Weblog

Befriending People in Dallas Who Are Homeless

Off the Wagon: Max Revisited August 29, 2011

Monday, August 29, 2011

 

“Abandon yourself entirely to God’s guidance.  Do not hesitate or be frightened.”

~~  Mother Teresa

Friends who read this blog have told me that the posts they like best are those that tell about the lives of people living on the street.  In that spirit, here’s an entry from my journal from 2009.  Prior to this encounter, Max was in recovery from an addiction, had a sponsor and was attending Twelve-Step meetings.

 

Journal Archives  

Sunday, February 22, 2009

 

Off the Wagon:  Max Revisited

Sitting on my patio this afternoon drinking a cup of tea in this beautiful weather, I thought about my friend, Max, and tears stung my eyes.  Everywhere I looked around the garden I saw his smiling face and bright blue eyes: in the fresh, green Vinca springing up by the gravel path, in the last of the rusty leaves still clinging to the Red Oak tree by the fence.

 

It’s funny:  you may not think about a person every day, but there’s a notch somewhere in your gut that fits neatly into place when you know they’re doing well, and that comes unhinged when they’re not.

 

There are joys without number in knowing and loving people who live on the street, but this is one of the costs.  Once you know, you can’t ‘not know’, and their troubles visit you even in the most peaceful moments.  On the other hand, the depth of their suffering, and sharing it with them, carves out a place in yourself where their loving spirits reside, and that is a gift beyond measure that also stays with you.

 

One day this week, I was crossing a downtown street with a friend and heard a voice calling out, “Hey, Mama!” in my direction.  It was Max, who grabbed me in a bear hug as I stepped up onto the curb and planted his characteristic kiss on my cheek, complete with the “Mmmm,MMM!” sound that people make when we kiss someone we haven’t seen in a while.  I hadn’t seen Max in about a month, and I almost didn’t recognize him from our most recent encounter.  This day, he was unshaven and disheveled, a different Max than I’d last seen, ‘spit-shined and polished’, as they say, with a new buzzed haircut of which he was proud.

 

“How’re you doing?” I asked him.  “Well, not so good,” he confessed, “I’ve slipped a little bit.  I’m having some trouble.”  I knew what he meant.  He’d been struggling with and — when last I saw him — succeeding in kicking his addition to crack cocaine.  At that time, he’d been more than three months ‘clean’ — not an easy thing when you’re on the street, because those who are willing to facilitate your return to your old life greet you out there at every turn, when you don’t have a door you can close to get away from them, clear your head and make a ‘right’ choice for yourself.

 

What I said to him was, “I’m so, so sorry about this.”  There is absolutely no point in a ‘tsk, tsk.’  For starters, like every other human being, I make bad decisions on a daily basis.  However, gratefully, I have the peace and quiet of a home within which to consider my options.

 

Also, I know well that the person who will be hardest on Max in this case is certain to be himself.  I have rarely met a person living on the street who falls back into an addiction and does anything other than take responsibility for it and heap blame and guilt on their own shoulders.  “I’m working to get back on track,” he told me.  “Max, I know you can do it, and I’ll be praying that you do.”  “Love you, Mama.”  “Love you, Max.”  We parted.

 

Max had been sleeping in The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center courtyard before it closed for sleeping December 1, 2008, and was one of the lucky ones who got into a shelter.  As long as he’s been sober, he’s been talking about securing a place in a drug rehabilitation program in Houston.

 

The sheer guts that it takes for a former addict to stay clean and sober for four months while spending his or her days on the streets of a big city is a lot more guts than most of us have.  Shelters put people outside around 6 A.M. and reopen for business around four in the afternoon, and this man works past the afternoon cut off.

 

Yet Max did it.  And I pray he can do it again.

 

KS

 

 

Mayoral Forum Held at The Stewpot April 16, 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2010


Mayoral Forum Held at The Stewpot This Week


The Stewpot of First Presbyterian Church, Dallas, held a mayoral forum Thursday, April 14, 2011 to give Dallas Mayoral candidates an opportunity to address questions regarding the concerns and well-being of Dallas homeless citizens.  Present at the event were vendors of the homeless newspaper Street Zine (published by The Stewpot), Stewpot and Crossroads Community Services staff, Bridge Homeless Assistance Center staff and homeless advocates.  The forum was organized by Street Zine Editor, Pat Spradley and other Stewpot staffers, and the candidates were invited to the event by homeless advocate Clare Nilson.

Panelists were former Dallas Police Chief, David Kunkle, and former Homeless Czar, Mike Rawlings. Candidates Ron Natinsky and Edward Okpa were invited but unable to attend.

The questions ranged from their support of sales of the homeless newspaper published by The Stewpot, Street Zine and the needs of homeless citizens generally, to questions about the Bridge Homeless Assistance Center, and specifics regarding the candidates’ opinions of so-called Quality of Life ordinances, passed by Dallas and other cities to limit the presence and movements of homeless citizens in public places.  Those attending learned about the opinions of the men regarding homelessness and a little of their personalities as well.

Everyone involved in the event is appreciative that the two candidates took time to attend and offer their perspectives on the important issues facing those experiencing homelessness in our city.  Much gratitude as well goes to Ms. Spradley, Ms. Nilson and the Rev. Dr. Bruce Buchanan, Executive Director of The Stewpot, as well as Stewpot staff, for hosting this event.

KS

Check the Street Zine Facebook page next week for an update on this important and informational event and see some pictures as well at :

www.facebook.com/pages/Street-Zine/157413954313713?sk=wall

 

Empty Streets December 14, 2010

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Empty Streets


Last night I realized that this is the first year in many that I haven’t given away my winter coat, hat and gloves to someone living on the street.  However, lest this admission be seen as my attempt to cast myself as St. Karen for past impulsive generosity — the same sort of thing I’ve often seen other advocates do — I’ll quickly add that this year’s new self-care feels good.  I ordered a good wool coat from a catalog in early fall and am wearing it right now — indoors, sitting in a cafe.  And I fully intend to keep it with me until spring.

However, if I were inclined to drive around in downtown Dallas, as I’ve done for the past seven winters, and look for people who are out on the street and in need of warm clothing in order to give them something to wear or a blanket, I’d be hard put to find them.  The streets of our fair city are pristine these days late at night — free from those in need or want and, for that matter, of everyone else.

Last week I attended a lecture near downtown that ended around 10 P.M., so I drove through the central business district afterward — past The Stewpot, past The Bridge, past Austin Street Shelter.  It was cold, but not bitter, so there was no one waiting on the sidewalk outside The Bridge for ‘overflow’ to go into effect due to cold weather policy, and I saw only two people, walking quickly, on the streets.  At Austin Street last winter in my ’rounds’, I always found between five and twenty people sleeping either on the sidewalk or in the parking lots adjacent to the shelter.  But this year all of those areas are fenced in, and there was nary a backpack, sleeping bag or plastic-grocery-sack suitcase to be found.

I’d like to think this is a result of the unstinting efforts of homeless service providers and advocates to solve the problem of homelessness in Dallas — that we are a glistening city, a beacon on a hill, because there are no longer any homeless people in the downtown area.  But, as the newly-strengthened panhandling ordinances passed by the Dallas City Council show us, we are still, in Dallas, extremely concerned about the appearance of things, and I think the empty streets are much more likely to be a result of policing.  Our unhoused brothers and sisters are still with us.  They just don’t dare show themselves on the streets of downtown at night.

I’ve written about this in the past, so I won’t repeat my thoughts here.

http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2010/feb/22/dallas-homeless-sweeps-are-counterproductive/

http://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2010/jul/13/dallas-be-great-city-must-we-all-look-alike/

But, like many others, I’m concerned that the creation of new ‘solicitation-free zones’ in the expanded ordinance has at its heart a deeper purpose than the desire to protect the middle class and the tourist who are visiting downtown from aggressive and ‘vewy scawey’ panhandling homeless people, and I worry about its application in practice.

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/localnews/tv/stories/DN-panhandle_11met.ART.State.Edition1.27fee36.html

Here’s a quote from the Dallas Morning News article above:

“Bradley Kizzia, an attorney for Groden, said he is concerned the ordinance is written so broadly that the city could use it to crack down anytime on people like his client.

Groden was arrested in June for selling conspiracy theory merchandise in Dealey Plaza without authorization. He has sued the city, arguing his free speech rights were infringed.

“Nowhere in the [amended ordinance] does it even mention begging or panhandling. Rather, the ordinance is specifically aimed at ‘solicitation,’ which is broadly defined. I’m suspicious of the city’s intent and how the Dallas Police Department will be asked to apply the ordinance,” Kizzia wrote in a recent e-mail.

Kizzia said the ordinance appears to be tied to the Super Bowl and could be used to round up any number of people the city doesn’t want on the streets.

“The language of the ordinance’s prohibition on ‘solicitation’ is not aimed only at aggressive, coercive, or threatening conduct. Watch it be used against the likes of street musicians in the West End (who leave open their instrument cases for tips) and street preachers who accept donations,” he wrote.

First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers said the ordinance is targeted to panhandlers who work the streets for handouts.”

How will such a broadly written ordinance be interpreted by city officials, and how will it play out to those trying to survive on the streets?  It remains to be seen.

I can’t help feeling, as I reflect on the last seven years during which homelessness in Dallas has been an issue to which I’ve paid attention:  we just don’t get it in Dallas, and we never will.

KS

 

To Be a Great City, Must We All Look Alike? July 7, 2010

Sunday, June 20, 2010


To Be A Great City, Must We All Look Alike?

Recently I received an e-mail from a Dallas church leader whom I greatly respect, and it contained this statement regarding people who are homeless in Dallas: “We don’t want them on our streets.  We don’t want them in our neighborhoods.  We can’t have it both ways.”

The debate on how and where homeless citizens will be housed has long been debated nationally, and the fight of neighborhoods to exclude homeless housing even has its own acronym:  NIMBY — Not In My Backyard.  This conversation in Dallas has recently become more open and heated because of a dispute between the agencies representing homeless citizens — in particular, the Dallas Housing Authority and The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center — and homeowner / business associations in North Oak Cliff, over the city’s plan to house up to one hundred homeless individuals in Cliff Manor.  WhiIe painful, the discussion is also desirable, because it is leading to a higher-profile airing of the many sides of the Permanent Supportive Housing issue.

For me, it brings to mind a question that is not always asked:  why do we object so vehemently to seeing poor people on our streets and in our neighborhoods, and is this objection reasonable?  Is having our streets free of ‘the poor’ a desirable goal?

I am reminded of several visits I made to Paris, France, several years ago when one of my daughters studied and worked there.  I found it to be the most exhilarating and beautiful place I’d ever been — architecturally stunning, and fascinating in its diversity.  The thrilling, dizzying mix of all sorts of people — on the streets, in the crowded cafes, rushing into the Metro; reading, sitting, lying on the grass; running, walking, cycling; old men and kids bowling in the parks — these things make it a vigorous, animated city, and I fell for it the first time I was driven through its environs by my future son-in-law.

I especially liked walking in the evening to the Champ de Mars, the park in front of the Eiffel Tower.  There I saw families picnicking, dogs chasing Frisbees, and people of every description playing games or music — even juggling fire!  Those gathered at day’s end in the large open grassy space are poor and rich, dressed up and dressed simply.

When I compare life in Paris with my experiences working with homeless people in Dallas for the last six and a half years, one particular difference leaps to mind.  Cities across America, including Dallas, continue to develop and implement strategies to get people who are homeless out of sight.  These include passing special laws that target homeless individuals — ‘sleeping in public,’ ‘criminal trespass,’ ‘blocking the sidewalk,’ — so-called ‘Quality of Life’ ordinances for which a person in business clothing would not be ticketed but which allow police to pinpoint those who ‘look homeless’ and try to hustle them from view.

We all know how the Quality-of-Life-Ordinance story concludes:  tickets that cannot be paid by homeless individuals, warrants for their arrest, jail terms which make their complicated life situation even more challenging, the filling of jails with people who are in fact generally not a social threat.  This much-written-about practice of shifting the homeless from emergency services to prison to back on the street is not only the costliest way of doing business, it’s utterly inhumane, because so many of the homeless are mentally ill and do not belong in jail.  So the people authorities want to get rid of haven’t gone anywhere, only now they have more obstacles to overcome in order to get their lives together.  It makes no sense at all.

While we strive here to keep our homeless citizens out of public view by enforcing these laws, in Paris no one was being ticketed for lying on the grass of the park or sitting on its benches, because everybody does these things — talking, laughing, singing, sleeping.  Yet, somehow that city has a spectacular ‘quality of life’ because its public life is vibrant and diverse.

I have come to realize that by trying to control the access of our least fortunate citizens to places and aspects of our common city life, we are attempting to create an environment that is homogeneous and sterile rather than one that is vital and alive.  Could this be a reason why revitalization in downtown Dallas continues to lag?  Is it really interesting to interact with and observe only people who are polished and look as though they just breezed in from ritzy a suburban mall?

The homeless are with us.  When we don’t see them, it is only because they have been forced into hiding.  We are creating a deceptive level of comfort for ourselves by forcing from view people who make us uncomfortable in their poverty.

The desire for homogeneity in communities used to manifest itself primarily in terms of skin color: Jim Crow laws, segregation.  While racism is still a significant problem in our country, now it seems that we at least pay lip service to the desirability of racial diversity, and civil rights laws are in place to enforce equal rights and give access to the judicial system when they are violated.  Whether you believe that racism has gone underground or has actually decreased, it’s still apparently acceptable to shun people because of their economic situation, especially when it comes to individuals who ‘look homeless.’  What is wrong with having people on the streets of our cities who may be dressed in clothing and groomed in a manner that is not ‘up to’ our middle class standards?  It seems to me that successful cities are not merely hothouses designed only for the rich and well-heeled.  A great city is a place where all kinds of people can live, as well as simply ‘be’ — not only people who look or dress a certain way.

Perhaps it would be a good thing if the current discussion, which began by a debate over the location of Permanent Supportive Housing for people experiencing homelessness, precipitated an identity crisis for us as a city and led us to look at ourselves both deeply and objectively.  Is it possible for us to step back and re-invision the Dallas of tomorrow from a different perspective?  Does our vision for ourselves really need to include having our streets free of everyone who doesn’t ‘look like us’?

Recently at Dallas City Council, two homeless women in attendance at the public meeting were asked by an advocate to stand.  Outraged, a city leader said he felt ‘ambushed.’  One puzzles as to what could possibly motivate such a statement.  Perhaps seeing people who are poor being called attention to in a meeting (a meeting that is in fact open to everyone) is offensive to some because it puts a human face on homelessness.  When we see and come to know people who are ‘poor’ as fellow human beings, it’s no longer quite as easy to marginalize them.  Once we see their humanity and recognize it as identical to our own, we may realize: it’s not ‘us and them’.  These could be our neighbors and our friends.

What is the cost to us as a city when we pursue policies that exclude a certain group of people from public life?  Besides the vibrancy which comes from diversity, at risk is also the greater good of the city — its moral fiber, its wholeness, its ability to address and solve hard problems such as homelessness.

I’ll bring up a point that I’ve not heard mentioned as we’re swept along in the tide of this essential and critically important battle to provide housing for 700 to 1000 long-term, street-dwelling homeless people in Dallas:  there will be a few people — a few — who will not want to go into housing, even though the vast majority want very much to be housed.  Therein lies a hidden danger in having as our goal city streets that are pristine in the sense of being homeless-and-beggar-free. It is important that our success in housing people does not become a further excuse to persecute those who are unable or unwilling to be housed.  It is not a ‘blight’ to see people on the streets of our town who ‘look homeless’ — ie, poor — but it is truly tragic when people desperately want housing and are unable get it.

We have to be wary of having as our goal a city which is visibly free of ‘poor’ people if the impetus for that goal is the desire within ourselves to live insulated lives, free of the necessity to view the suffering of others.

As the Dallas public becomes increasingly educated through informed public dialogue about the benefits of Permanent Supportive Housing, perhaps holding in our hearts an honor for our differences can help us understand that those who have had a very different life path from our own can still be excellent neighbors.

It is not easy or simple to walk the path of reaching out to those who are down on their luck by including rather than excluding them from public life, because when we do this, we share in their pain, and we may become temporarily uncomfortable.  But the upside is that our lives will be richer and more meaningful by far when we embrace our differences and realize that we are all — rich, poor, and in between — much greater and finer than we ever dreamed when we are able to work and live together.

KS

This article appears in the July, 2010 edition of Street Zinehttp://www.thestewpot.org/

and on Pegasus News.comhttp://www.pegasusnews.com/news/2010/jul/13/dallas-be-great-city-must-we-all-look-alike/?refscroll=13

 

The Medium Is the Message June 25, 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Medium Is the Message


“McLuhan understood “medium” in a broad sense. He identified the light bulb as a clear demonstration of the concept of “the medium is the message”. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. McLuhan states that “a light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.” ~~ Wikipedia


Marshall McLuhan is right.  And that is primarily what I took away from the Town Hall Meeting at Methodist Hospital this past Monday night over the city’s plan to house up to 100 homeless individuals in Oak Cliff Manor.  The [forgive the hyperbole] rabid [forgive the hyperbole again] mob mentality became the message — and the incivility [ understatement] of many in the group was, tragically, mostly what many of us gleaned from the interchange.  Whatever valid points were made by ‘the O.C.’ and its more rational, civil residents were lost in the cat calls and shouting down of speakers by the more outspoken [understatement also] representatives of the neighborhood.  I would have been deeply embarrassed to have them represent me, and I think many of the reasonable Oak Cliff residents may have felt the same.

You can keep up with the unfolding drama here:

http://dallashomelessnetwork.blogspot.com/

Meanwhile, a message from the thesaurus:

Uncivil:  ‘Lacking in social refinement’

Synonyms:  rude, discourteous, disgracious, disrespectful, ill, ill-bred, ill-mannered, impertinent, impolite, incivil, incondite, inurbane, mannerless, uncalled-for, uncourteous, uncouth, ungracious, unhandsome, unmannered, unmannerly, unpolished, brusque, crusty, curt, gruff, harsh, intrusive, meddlesome, crabbed, surly, boorish, churlish, clownish, loutish


That doesn’t say it all, but it’s a start.

KS

 

Cold Weather Policy and Our Homeless Neighbors February 14, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Cold Weather Policy and Our Homeless Neighbors


Driving around downtown in the cold weather in the days preceding the Big Snow in Dallas, I began pondering our city’s Cold Weather Policy for our neighbors who are living on the street.  I had recently learned during the monthly Homeless Advocacy Meeting at The Stewpot that a January, 2010 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless points to 40 degrees F as the temperature recommended for activation of Cold Weather Policy nationwide.

The City of Dallas currently has a policy of 32 degrees — freezing — for such activation:  putting shelters on overflow and opening enough emergency shelters to give everyone a bed.

I was happy to learn this week from Dennis Strickland, Lead Case Worker at The Bridge, that staff there has implemented a policy closer to the NCH recommendation:  37 degrees, or a wind chill of 37 degrees.  They also now allow ‘self-referral’ of guests after 10 PM during cold weather.  There was at least one night during the Big Snow that the gates of The Bridge were not closed for re-entry at 10 P.M., which means there was an open campus. Homeless guests are allowed to sit up in the Welcome Center all night, and, if necessary after referrals and pick up from other shelters, the dining room can be opened for sleeping after getting in extra staff.

These are important and significant improvements over last winter and show an ongoing commitment to accommodate our friends on the street and keep them safe from injury and hypothermia.  The Bridge staff seem to be coping as best they can within the limits of their space availability.

I would love the see the city as a whole move toward adopting all of the recommendations in the NCH report.  The entire report is worth a read.  Here are some highlights that struck me as particularly pertinent.  It is of particular concern that, although ours is far from the most harsh climate in the United States, it is in fact the most dangerous for people living outdoors.

http://www.nationalhomeless.org/publications/winter_weather/index.html

p. 15

the most dangerous cases of hypothermia do not occur when the ambient temperature is far below freezing.  Instead, Dr. O’Connell says, the worst cases they see arise when the days are warm (between 40F and 50F) and the nighttime temperature drops to the mid-30’s.

Temperature cut-offs should be avoided, since the effectiveness of a shelter is decreased when the population it serves does not know, from night to night, whether the shelter will be open.  If a temperature cut-off is necessary, due to financial or other reasons, the cut-off should be at least 40F in order to prevent the most dangerous cases of hypothermia, according to Dr. O’Connell.

p.17

An exemplary winter shelter would be open 24 hours each day between October 1 and April 30, regardless of temperature, as well as any other days during the year when the temperature falls below 40F.  It would also admit all homeless people, regardless of sobriety status or past bans, unless they are violent or causing an extreme disturbance.

It is also important to note that a consistent, across-the-board policy throughout a set number of months and all shelters builds trust between the homeless population and the service providers attempting to help them and indeed to keep them alive.

KS

http://www.nationalhomeless.org/

 

Overwhelming Need November 14, 2009

 

Saturday, November 14, 2009

With winter upon us, it’s a good time to reflect upon the extremes of need that will exist this year for those who are not yet housed and are living on the street.  I found this entry in my journal from the end of last summer, when I still volunteered at the Second Chance Cafe, run by The Stewpot at the Bridge, and thought I would share it.  KS


Journal Archives, Friday, August 16, 2008


Overwhelming Need


Sometimes the amount of need among people who are experiencing homeless in Dallas — even with the welcome advent of the Bridge, our new homeless assistance center — seems overwhelming.  This was one of those nights.  The enormity of the problems of the people involved, the monumental scope of the pain in their lives, the scarcity of readily available solutions, such as adequate housing:  these things were at the forefront of my mind tonight as I left the Second Chance Cafe at the Bridge after helping to serve dinner to somewhere between seven hundred and eight hundred people.

 

Of course, this evening’s bright spot was, as it always is, looking into the eyes of people as they came through the food line.  Always, but even more so tonight, the eyes of the guests meeting mine as they came through the line — almost without exception — were full of light, respect and dignity, longing for acceptance,  willingness to respond with love to the smallest kindness — so much more so than I would ever be able to be in their circumstances.  They almost always say ‘Very Blessed,’ or at the least ‘Can’t complain,’ when asked how they are doing.  The other great blessings are the other volunteers, who show up every week, and the Stewpot staff, which shows up every day.

 

I find that if I just hand somebody a plate in the food line at the Bridge, they may be looking down, preoccupied or frowning, and go on their way with a ‘thank you,’ but without ever looking up.  If I greet them or ask how they are doing, their whole face, their whole being changes — they become radiant.  If I say their name, they become a friend.  And that is no different than you or me.  It’s just that the desperate nature of their circumstances keeps it real:  they know how much it means to have a friend, and what it means not to have any.

 

Why is it that sometimes, like tonight, I look at homeless individuals and the scope of homelessness in Dallas and feel weighed down by the challenges?  Is it seeing people as their ‘diagnosis’ or label rather than seeing them just as the people they are, in the here and now?  Maybe. 

 

I usually see the beauty when I go to the Bridge.  Tonight I could only see how far there is to go.  It was one of those rare times when I say to myself, “How do those who deal with this face to face every single day — for example, the Stewpot staff or the caseworkers and management at the Bridge — how do they do it all the time without losing hope or becoming jaded?”  Granted, I think, write or talk about homelessness in Dallas every day, but I go to the Bridge only a couple of times a month.

 

Perhaps it’s a ‘fix-it’ mentality that one can get into, although trying to ‘fix it’ is a necessary component of approaching the problem as a whole.  Sometimes, though, until we can figure out what we need to ‘do,’ maybe it has to be enough just to go to where the pain is and ‘be with’ it.  It seems that there is tremendous grace in that.  In face, maybe, while action is necessary, being present for someone is the most important part of taking action anyway.

 

Granted, it may not be enough to ‘hang out’ with people who are experiencing homelessness.  But being with them, talking with them, sharing their concerns — one human to another — is one of the most essential parts of what we do, just as it is with our families.

 

KS