I visited The Bridge last Wednesday night. Accompanying me were six other men who are my friends and who share a common commitment to seeing life improve for the homeless population here in Dallas.
Use the "Search" tool on this page or Google "The Bridge" to learn more about the new, city-owned facility. And, for full disclosure sake, you should know that I serve on the Board of Directors for the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the organization responsible for its management and operations.
I wanted to go there at night. I wanted to be inside after the gates close. I wanted to see firsthand how things were going after about two months operation. While I had been there about once a week since it opened, I had never dropped in after dark.
Over 500 people were finding a place to sleep in the pavillion area that includes a covered shelter area with about 200 cots. The balance of the folk were sleeping on mats under the stars of the courtyard area. Another 100 were sheltered inside the transitional housing area of the facility.
As before when I've visited, I walked around for about an hour just talking to people--asking how they liked the place, how they were being treated, etc. Not surprisingly, most didn't want to be there. Most were eager to get out and off the streets.
There is no doubt that the facility has removed hundreds of people from the streets of Dallas, both at night and during the day. Driving down Young Street toward City Hall during the day, you can observe the noticeable disappearance of a large number of homeless persons, though a handfull persist in camping in their old familiar places. We're also told that "criminal activity" in the Downtown area has dropped significantly. Most of the eliminated offenses are acts of vagrancy that simply have to do with being human. Still, The Bridge provides a place of some respite, support and resources for those who are there.
In reality, the place is overwhelmed. Too many people in need, too little space, staff and resources to meet the demand.
I gave out lots of business cards and told people about our Destination Home effort that provides permanent, supportive housing to disabled individuals. Before I made it home, I had received two calls and the following day the phone rang steadily with calls from those who were interested.
While I could write much more about the experience, I came away with one fundamental understanding: as a community, we must develop, build, open hundreds of additional units of housing for the homeless. Additional housing resources will bring the numbers down at The Bridge. Permanent housing units will open the transitional function of The Bridge to the possibility of success.
Without more permanent, supportive housing, The Bridge will not be successful. Without housing resources that are easy to access, no matter how accomplished the management team, success will be impossible.
It is my firm belief that many, if not most, of the people I encountered during my most recent visit are currently ready for housing. That is not the question.
The real questions are these:
1. Does Dallas have the moral and political will to provide the resources to develop the housing that is needed? To meet the challenge and fulfill the need will take new dollars and new risk. But, every dollar invested will return a premium in terms of quality of life in our community for everyone.
2. And, can service providers come to understand that we aren't the secret to success in this endeavor? My experience teaches me that most people don't need me to improve their experience of life. Most need a fair opportunity and all need freedom to choose what services they will take advantage of. Housing first should become our mantra. Those who need special services can be assisted in finding them, but only AFTER they are housed.
We must find ways to break the logjam at The Bridge. To me, the solution is very clear: new determination coupled with a new vision for how we respond to the poorest among us.