Choosing Streets Over Shelters

September 29, 2011 by · Comments Off 


By Essete Workneh

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.”

AUDIO SLIDESHOW: From Homeless to Hopeful

November 22, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

By Elena Harding

Freddie Robertson is one of the residents in Dallas who has utilized The Bridge, a downtown homeless center. On Dec. 1, he will move into his own place as part of a transitional housing program.

The Bridge to a Brighter Tomorrow

November 22, 2010 by · Comments Off 

Editor’s note: For a story on another homeless Bridge resident who is transitioning into regular housing, see Elena Harding’s audio slideshow.

By Felicia Logan

Trials and tribulations are nothing new to Dallas native John Paul, who has been homeless at least eight of his 40 years alive. Although he seems down to earth and friendly, a hint of sadness tinges his dark brown eyes. He was once a productive member of society, spending time in college, the military and driving trucks for a living. Now he “hustles to make it.”

“Situations and life circumstances brought me here, no problem,” Paul said. “Just deal with it and move on.”

Several factors, including divorce and depression, led Paul to make some bad decisions and go down the wrong side of the tracks, he said.

Dallas Native John Paul tells his story outside of The Bridge, his current home. (PHOTO BY FELICIA LOGAN / SMU DAILY MUSTANG)

Paul is one of about 900 victims of homelessness that utilize the services of The Bridge on any given day. Located at 1818 Corsicana St. in Dallas’ Historic District, The Bridge, which opened in May 2008, is a $21 million city-owned facility run by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance.

In order to help those who are chronically homeless, the facility provides a place for the homeless to take daily showers, wash clothes, sleep, eat and sometimes work at the facility. Non-residents can come and go as they please, but they must be in by 10 p.m., and out by 5 a.m.

“The greatest need of the homeless is just a safe place to lay their heads,” said The Bridge’s Guest Services Associate Jackie Hammons.

Paul said his basic needs are being met at The Bridge, but that the facility never has any room.

“Once they’ve helped you awhile, they treat you like you’re a burden,” Paul said. “If you don’t get a job, then you’re stuck out like this. Unless you really have a mental illness, you can’t sit around.”

The Bridge has apartments upstairs, but is always filled to capacity. In fact, it is now double the capacity.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said the facility is aptly named.

“The Bridge is named what it is, a bridge,” Price said. “It was never designed for so many people.”

James McGhee knows extreme adversity, too. A slight man of 5’8, the hardships of life are deeply etched into his rugged face. He said trying to recover from alcoholism has caused him to live a life of hopelessness. Sheer grit and determination is what keeps him going.

“I just can’t roll over and die,” said McGhee, who bathes and eats at The Bridge.

MDHA, a non-profit organization composed of a broad spectrum of stakeholders committed to end homelessness, located at The Bridge. A collaborative of Dallas agencies within this alliance represent shelters, hospitals, government agencies, local municipalities, non-profits, faith-based organizations and housing treatment providers, among others. Private benefactors, corporations and volunteers contribute to keeping the center up and running.

The Bridge provides a transition from destitution to restoration, which is a far cry from those living underneath bridges. The agency offers a wide array of services, including temporary, transitional housing located throughout Dallas, employment assistance, education assistance, mental health services, substance abuse services and healthcare, which are provided by Parkland Hospital.

Recently, neighborhood groups have been on the offense regarding MDHA’s plans to do more for the homeless through its transitional housing program, “Homes for Our Neighbors.”

“Not in my Backyard” is the main theme among these groups. According to The Dallas Morning News, north Oak Cliff residents are against moving homeless people into their neighborhood.

Price believes ignorance only perpetuates the plight of the homeless.

“Perception is the greatest problem regarding homelessness,” Price said. “They’re never perceived as being human beings. Funding and assisting the less fortunate will only go so far. Their insular attitudes have to change.”

McGhee grew up with alcoholic parents, and his destiny in life seemed to have been preordained. As a high school drop out, McGhee learned the trade of masonry. His stubby, dirty fingers shake slightly as he struggles to light one of the discarded cigarette butts he finds on the street. Unemployed, he makes do with what he scrapes up through panhandling and doing odd jobs here and there.

“Man, it’s hard, really rough out here,” he says.

McGhee is able to bathe, wash his clothes and get a decent meal at the Bridge, services he greatly appreciates. He also takes advantage of the free healthcare Parkland Hospital provides. The Bridge is open 24 hours a day, and has police officers on-site to keep the peace, a necessary precaution, because people come to the facility under the affluence of drugs and alcohol. There is a no tolerance ban on drugs and alcohol at the facility.

The Bridge’s motto of “Strength, Hope, Dignity” are words of comfort for McGhee.

However, McGhee says, “Right now, I just keep living as best I can.”