Downtown and the Homeless: Is It Time to Consider Relocating The Bridge?

Neighborhood stakeholders say the homeless shelter isn't a very good neighbor.

© Overland Partners
© Overland Partners

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.


  • Tam Tagon

    If we’re talking about closing the current facility and reopening it in a different location, we’re talking about the wrong thing. We should be talking about opening new locations that’ll allow the current location to evolve. Instead of moving the shelter closer to the hospitals, the hospitals should be opening a clinic next to The Bridge.

    • Ashlee Hueston

      There is a Parkland clinic at The Bridge and The Stewpot for nonemergency appointments (first come first serve) during the week. They also operate a shuttle back and forth to Big Parkland throughout the day for no charge.

  • VFL

    The current location of The Bridge, the supportive services and the overall plan to create housing was the focus of years of discussions, site visits to other cities and extensive meetings with HUD and HHS. Here is a little of the background. You could visit with the Mayor who acted as homeless “czar” for a number of years if you are interested in more background.;Revised%209-10.pdf

  • jayhawk1996

    I agree with Tam – we need more locations, not a new one somewhere else. BTW, there’s already a Salvation Army shelter on Harry Hines, across the street from old Parkland and next to new Parkland.

  • MoeBHarrell

    Have to disagree with moving the shelter away from the homeless population. My understanding: The Bridge was built on its current site to help out where help was needed most. Is anyone familiar with the Salvation Army residential building on Harry Hines? It would appear there is already a shelter-style operation at work right on Parkland’s doorstep. I would rather have MORE Bridges.

  • TruthTeller

    The fact is the Stewpot and others are simply enablers that allow the drug addicted and mentally ill to continue their self-destructive life styles at the publics expense. They will continue to hinder development in downtown and will not improve their lives if the focus is making them comfortable in the homeless environment. This city and county should have the resources to help people who are down on their luck. For the chronic homeless there should be less sympathy and more of an effort to get them into treatment programs or provide them with mental health services that keep them on their medications. I am in favor of helping these folks but with a tougher more effective kind of love.

  • David Rapp

    Thats a lot of money to build something and just walk away from it .

  • Michael Przekwas

    There must be a balance between the needs o the homeless and those who chose to invest in homes or property downtown. When the Bridge was built, it was touted to be the solution to all their problems. The Bridge officials roamed the surrounding communities, stating that it would be an end to street feeding, loitering, petty crime. There would be a zero tolerance for many of the quality of life issues that we downtown residents face today. The management of the Bridge seems to be immune to criticism and totally unresponsive to the needs of the surrounding communities. The facility is too small, the population too unregulated, the service resistant are drawn to the area for free services, but since with cannot, or will not check in, camp along the freeway and empty lots. Garbage, feces, discarded clothing litter the surrounding areas. Feeders, heedless of the negative impact on communities, toss food out of cars like they are feeding pigeons, and then scurry back to the suburbs in a cloud of smugness, leaving behind the trash, uneaten food, and other detritus for the city or the neighbors to clean up. Why should people, who buy property, develop businesses, pay taxes be held hostage to this?

    In the discussion Peter wrote about, people were ready to voice their concerns. But as often happens when the topic of homelessness and its solutions is brought up, they are accused of lacking compassion, hating the homeless or worse. That implication was made at this discussion, and no one was given the opportunity to respond. People are compassionate and truly understand the plight of the homeless, but to have their motives for bettering their communities questioned was insulting.

  • John norby

    The bridge is a detriment to downtown. Families with children will not even enter this area. I personally will not allow my daughter to even walk in this area during the daytime let alone at night. The bridge has a policy of not asking any information from the homeless that stay there. Many of them have police records and some are registered sex offenders. The bridges policy says it’s degrading to ask for identification and require some kind of background check. Why would we turn these people loose on the street in the heart of downtown Dallas? It has become a hideout for unlawful persons. If you notice there’s no children and very few women at the bridge. They are not safe there.

  • Raymond Crawford

    Having the Bridge at it’s present location is a detriment to revitalizing the neighborhood. Poor planning on Mike’s part again.
    Chicago has about 10 homeless shelters scattered throughout the city and none of them are in
    areas that rely on tourists, entertainment revenue, etc. except for one in Lincoln Park that is small and on a major thoroughfare. The remaining ones are on the outer fringes of the city or in low income sections,

  • Michael Przekwas

    They laughed? What hypocrites.Their mission statement states “To improve health care in our community, Texas, our nation, and the world through innovation and education.” If they do not even consider that providing more timely, more effective care to the homeless part of their mission, or do even consider the issues displays a shameful arrogance.

  • Long Memory

    That’s an amazing story. Funny, isn’t it, how folks move into an area that appears to have no future, and when they make a successful go of it others want to come in and make the area better. And more expensive to live in. It’s a nice touch, too, to see that they already have a vision of what they want to do with the Bridge when they get rid of the pesky people who use that facility. I’m sure someone can see it as a nice charter school for the incoming children of the privileged who will come there when the place is sufficiently gentrified. You know, don’t you, that people are no damned good.

  • Paula Dunn

    I lived downtown Dallas and there were a lot of good people from The Bridge. I think it should be supported and the occupant should be encouraged to advance.

  • Shawn Lowary

    Has it not been shown to be cheaper to house the homeless then let the homeless continue to be homeless? People that have mental illness also need the stability of a home to stay on there medication regiment and to get healthier. Problem is it cost a lot of money up front to save even more down the line.