Choosing Streets Over Shelters

September 29, 2011  

BEYOND THE BUBBLE

By Essete Workneh
eworkneh@mail.smu.edu

Lil'Bit at Main Street Garden Park. (Photo by Essete Workneh)

Her figure appears diminutive and fragile. Crouched down on the grass at Main Street Garden Park, her knees hugged securely to her body, she appears to be in deep thought, serenely lost in her own contemplations.

Her blue shirt is muddied with dark stains, her jeans torn and tattered, her stained shoes carefully placed beside her—these dumpster treasures are her few possessions.
For the woman who calls herself Lil’Bit, visits to the downtown Dallas park are a part of her daily life.

“There’s something enjoyable about being outside…I find a certain peace here,” she says as she fiddles with the bottoms of her pants.

The woman, who appeared to be middle aged, did not want to give her full name, her age, or where she came from. According to Jay Dunn, Managing Director of The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center, that’s not surprising.

“Most of the people that have been on the streets have experienced significant trauma, so as a result it’s very difficult for them to be trusting. Trauma is debilitating,” he said

Last year, a survey published by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance cited a one percent increase in Dallas County’s homeless population, to 5,750. In addition, poverty rates are up overall. The Census Bureau reported that almost one in six Americans was living below the federal poverty line in 2010.

This increase places more pressure on an already overcrowded shelter system, especially since a division of the homeless population prefers to assemble in places like parks, under bridges, and at intersections, rather than reside in shelters.

Luis Arpispe, 53, said that he has been homeless for almost two years. He said he was released from prison in 2009 after serving a 15-year sentence for attempted rape and drug possession. Though he does not enjoy being homeless, he prefers sleeping outdoors to the strict regiment of shelter life.

“I just came out of prison with rules, and I come out here and there’s more rules,” he said as he sat on a Main Street Garden park bench.

Main Street Garden, a public park located in downtown Dallas, operates as a regular hangout for people like Arpispe, who prefer to remain outdoors. In July, Dallas City Councilmember Angela Hunt wrote a series of tweets criticizing the homeless who camp out in the park, and wondered why nothing was being done to stop them.

Angela Hunt tweet about the Homeless in Main Street Garden Park


She wrote, “I’m tired of bums in Main St. Garden. Counted 12-many sleeping. Where is DPD? Where is Bridge?! Mary, help!” Her text was referring to Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm.
Hunt also posted a series of pictures of the homeless to go along with her tweets. When later asked by the Dallas Observer if she regretted using the term “bum,” Hunt appeared to stand by her comments.

“I am referring only to the subset of the homeless who are aggressive panhandlers, who publicly use drugs and alcohol, and who, rather than use the shelters and the
services provided by the city and nonprofits, choose instead to sleep on our parks,” she explained to the alternate paper in July. “The fact is we’ve made a tremendous investment in The Bridge, I’ve testified in Austin to get our first single-room occupancy unit building in downtown, and I’ve spoken at two homeless conferences, so I am not unfamiliar with the issue and the plight of the homeless and not unsympathetic.”

Another Hunt Tweet


She went on to explain that when the homeless choose to congregate in parks, rather than seeking shelters, they create a hostile environment for children and families
who are then deterred from using the facilities.

SMU Professor George Holden, a developmental psychologist who studies social development and family functioning, agreed that an area that is popular with the homeless may deter families from visiting.

“People have negative perceptions of the homeless and think they’re dangerous,” he said.
“They haven’t had any contact with them and therefore are sort of frightened by them.”

Holden described much of the concern, which he said has more to do with the misconceptions people have about the homeless, as unwarranted.

“Anybody can be dangerous,” he said. “The people most likely to assault a young woman are family members, not strangers.”

Dunn, The Bridge Director, a homeless shelter which is located on 1818 Corsicana St. near Main Street Garden, said that while he can’t speak for the intent behind her tweets, Hunt has been very supportive of The Bridge’s efforts.

“That dialogue created an opportunity for us to engage related stake holders,” said Dunn. “Because The Bridge is looked to by community to be the primary recovery center for homeless adults, it’s fair for us to be a apart of any conversation about homeless adults.”

The Bridge opened its doors in May 2008; funds for the land purchase and building construction were generated through a $23.8 million City Bond Program passed in 2005. The facility costs $1,595,153.25, every four months, and $24.97 per person, per day.
Jared White, a regular Main Street Garden visitor, said that while panhandlers can get annoying, Hunt’s comments were poorly worded.

“Parks are public places and they shouldn’t be restricted to how much money you do or don’t have,” he said. “It’s not appropriate for her to distinguish upon financial status.”

Arpispe said he chooses to stay in the park because The Bridge is full of “locos and psychos,” and claimed the psychologists constantly attempt to give him medication.

According to Professor Sheri Kunovich, assistant professor of Sociology at SMU, those who choose to live outside the shelter system are often disrupted by shelter rules that don’t make sense to them.

“I sincerely doubt many people choose this lifestyle, I think it is more likely that they suffer from mental illness, addiction, or lack of personal support system to help them out,” she said

Heidi Hodges, Program Director of Family Gateway, a Dallas family homeless shelter located on Swiss Avenue, said a combination of mental disabilities and difficulty adjusting to new rules, contributes to the chronically homeless, those homeless for over a year.

“It’s hard to be in a shelter…we have to have rules for order and structure. Structure in the middle class is different than structure in poverty, so that’s hard to adjust to,” she said. “I would hate to come anywhere and have somebody else tell me what to do.”
Professor Holden said that while a considerable portion of the population is experiencing mental illness, other factors could be attributed to explaining why some dislike the shelter lifestyle.

“Some of these individuals are fearful of others, some women who have been traumatized by domestic violence may be fearful of being around other men, and some don’t like the rules and regulations, and would rather be on their own,” he said.

According to Dunn, the three primary reasons why people experience chronic homelessness are the development of an untreated mental behavioral health problem, complicated criminal justice issues that prevent them from obtaining employment, and the surrounding community’s failure to successfully engage the population through outreach programs.

Robert Thomas, 35, said he grew up in poverty and has been homeless for the past three years. Thomas, who said he was convicted of aggravated assault, finds it difficult to find a decent paying job; he would rather spend his time on the streets than work for minimum wage. He acknowledged the dismal shelter environment as one of the reasons he prefers to live outside.

Thomas and Arpispe at Main Street Garden Park. (Photo by Essete Workneh)


Professor Holden found Thomas’ remarks unsurprising, “it can be a depressing environment to be in,” he said. “It helps to show the magnitude of the problem to them, so I can see how that can be discouraging.”

Thomas complained about harassment from police, who give homeless people tickets for sleeping in parks, and claimed Dallas residents have little compassion for the homeless.

“We’re alienated. If we don’t have a job, if we don’t have a place to live, they alienate us,” he said.

Dunn believes the only way to solve homelessness is by taking a holistic approach, and allowing all parties (shelters, police, citizens, politicians) to work together to create innovative solutions that enable adults to prepare themselves for independent or semi-independent living.

“It’s easy to split factions and say it’s this parties fault or that teams fault,” he said. “But the bigger picture is we can solve this if we work together, and focus on doing more of what works.”

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