Last week I was invited by the Dallas Homeowners League to moderate a panel which included representatives from four central Dallas neighborhoods: The Farmers Market, Deep Ellum, The Cedars, and downtown. There was plenty to talk about, from connectivity, to public safety, to development, to schools, to highways, to greenspace, and on and on. We probably could have jabbered on for hours and hours, but the DHL folks run a tight ship and the plug was pulled promptly at 8 p.m.
The last topic we discussed was probably the one most residents in those four areas were most concerned about: homelessness.
All you have to do to understand the challenges and contradictions inherent in the issue of homelessness in Dallas’ central core is to go stand on the rooftop of 508 Park, which is being renovated and restored in all its Art Deco glory by First Presbyterian Church. From the roof, you look north and can see Main Street Garden, the current edge of the downtown revitalization efforts that are spreading outwards from Main St. Look south, and you see the many apartments and townhomes going up around the Farmer’s Market. In between, you see vacancy and urban decay, empty streets, boarded up buildings, parking lots. It’s a no man’s land between downtown’s two success stories. There’s a reason why this is where First Presbyterian Church set up its Stewpot and is adding additional services targeting the homeless population to 508 Park. This no man’s land is territory currently occupied by the city’s drifters, the vagrants, the tramps.
One of my favorite things about 508 Park is its planned museum dedicated to street culture. There is a stigma surrounding the word “homeless,” but 508 Park instead nods to the legacy of the American street culture that is responsible for so much richness and history. After all, the songs Robert Johnson famously recorded in 508 Park are a testament to lives lived in the underbelly of the American Dream, songs about people down on their luck, burnt out, pushed out, forced out, and bummed out.
In central Dallas, though, the homeless are a problem. Much of the crime in the area can be attributed to the homeless population. Their presence contributes to the perception that neighborhoods are unsafe; they can be a detriment to investment and revitalization efforts. The homeless population is a strain on police and medical resources. Service centers meant to assist the homeless community can also be magnates to the people who prey on the homeless: pimps, pushers, and thieves.
During the panel, the conversation about the homeless quickly turned to The Bridge, the homeless shelter that was opened on Corsicana St. in 2008. The Farmers Market’s Tanya Ragan said that the organizations who are helping the homeless in central Dallas, people like First Presbyterian and the Stewpot, are good neighbors who are doing a good job. The Bridge, however, is a bad neighbor. In 2013, The Dallas Morning News reported glowingly about The Bridge’s success with its mission of serving as a “springboard” for the homeless, and its architecture and design has also received wide acclaim. But those active in the area today say that that situation has changed. The Bridge is responsible for creating an environment for the homeless that is detrimental to the rest of the area. It is too small, located too far from medical services and Parkland Hospital. It is responsible for too many police calls. It needs to be moved, they say.
Crispin Lawson with downtown made an impassioned plea for keeping The Bridge where it is. Downtown, he argued, is the most effective location to serve the homeless population. They need the walkability, the access to public transit. If you push out the Bridge, it will only mean taking an unsolved problem and forcing it on someone else. Furthermore, that someone else will likely be a neighborhood that is too politically weak to fight against the relocation. We need to keep the homeless downtown and work harder to figure out how to better to serve them.
That’s when the DHL shut us down, and so the conversation lacked what would have been a stimulating back-and-forth between these two sides. The conversation did continue informally after the event, and I heard the other side’s response to Lawson. In short, no one wants to try to evict the homeless population from Downtown Dallas. Places like The Stewpot are models for integrating homeless into a growing urban district. The problem, simply, is The Bridge. And if it were relocated to a larger facility closer to Parkland Hospital, it would actually better serve the people it is charged with helping, these neighbors argued. And what would happen if the current Bridge facility was repurposed as, say, a charter school catering to families that lived in the downtown area?
It’s an interesting idea, to move The Bridge into the medical district. There would still be available public transit and perhaps the area is better suited to deal with some of the mental and physical health challenges that arise at The Bridge (one person who spoke to me at the event, a police officer, related stories of people calling ambulances to The Bridge to report indigestion or looking to fill prescriptions). No doubt there would also be pushback from area stakeholders in the medical district, and I wonder if moving The Bridge would mean moving a significant segment of the homeless population, or would it simply mean removing services from their lives. Plus, politically, dealing with the homeless is always a sticky subject. The Bridge was one of Mayor Mike Rawlings’ major achievements when he was the city’s “homeless czar” before he became mayor. Few elected representatives would actually want to deal with it if they didn’t have to.
Admittedly, I haven’t dug too deeply into this and am just relaying an interesting conversation taking place among various neighborhood stakeholders. But it seems like the way we have dealt with the homeless up until now is through de facto ghettoization, clustering of services into a single location that effectively creates a homeless district. That district is located in a part of the city that is starting to find its way back to urbanity. After hearing from the neighbors, it sounds like the approach isn’t working anymore. At the very least, perhaps now is the time to restart the conversation.