Friday, July 18, 2008

Dallas' new homeless shelter, The Bridge, off to bumpy start

Despite overwhelming crowds, the operator of The Bridge stands by his philosophy of not turning away anyone in need. Dallas' new homeless shelter continues to serve twice as many people as the center was built to accommodate.

But its open-door approach has led to problems: drug-dealing, fights, thefts and lax security. People who weren't homeless were preying on guests with mental illnesses, disabilities and addictions.

Several staff members were assaulted by guests at The Bridge, according to Joel John Roberts, chief executive of PATH Partners of Los Angeles, which formerly provided social workers for the facility. And security guards were "accepting pizza and soft drinks from known drug dealers," he said.

"There appears to be no coordinated and proactive system to appropriately identify who is on the campus," Mr. Roberts said in a June 18 letter to Mike Faenza, president and chief executive of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance.

The homeless alliance, which runs The Bridge for the city, has since terminated its contract with PATH Partners. A PATH Partners spokeswoman said Thursday that the agency had no comment about the letter.

Mr. Faenza said the problems outlined in the letter have been resolved.

The shelter now has a curfew so people cannot enter after 10 p.m. without approval, he said. The Bridge also has increased the number of security officers and kicked out drug dealers, he said. He said he had no evidence of officers accepting bribes.

Mr. Faenza disputed Mr. Roberts' claim that half the people in the center's courtyard were not homeless. He said staffers discovered roughly 80 people who preyed upon the homeless. He said they were told to leave.

In addition, Mr. Faenza said he knows of only one assault against a caseworker and said it did not lead to serious injury. He said some staffers were uncomfortable working with people with serious mental illnesses.

The Bridge, which opened May 20, aims to help Dallas' chronic homeless population: people with severe mental illness or addictions who have been on the streets long-term. And Mr. Faenza said that includes people who may be angry and who can be unpleasant.

In its efforts to attract homeless people who don't typically go to shelters, The Bridge does not immediately interview new guests, Mr. Faenza said. But staffers do follow up with them within a day, he said.

Mr. Faenza takes issue with perceptions that the shelter has no rules, saying that it does not allow violence, drugs or alcohol. But unlike most shelters, guests do not have to pay or participate in programs.

"We have done a wonderful job working with people with very difficult problems," Mr. Faenza said.

Police respond to calls to The Bridge almost daily, according to police reports. Some of those calls involve thefts or fights. Others involve people in psychiatric crisis. Dallas police Lt. Anthony Williams said he's satisfied that The Bridge has made efforts to address safety at the shelter.

"The Bridge is a victim of its own success," Lt. Williams said. "There are going to be growing pains."

Mike Rawlings, Dallas' homeless czar, said most of the homeless people at The Bridge are pleased with its services. He also said The Bridge has had a positive effect on the downtown area by reducing crime and moving people off the streets.

"People are coming in droves, and if it wasn't a good situation, they wouldn't be coming," Mr. Rawlings said.

The next step, he said, is to find housing for homeless people, which would alleviate the overcrowding. He also said he's working on a plan that would allow some of the homeless guests to use other shelters.

"We never intended to have people sleeping in the courtyard, but it's better than having them sleep on the streets," Mr. Rawlings said.

The Bridge was bustling Thursday afternoon. Many homeless people sat in nearly 100-degree heat on the concrete or on benches next to sleeping bags and duffel bags containing their belongings. The shelter's storage area was full.

Louis Jones, who's staying at The Bridge, said he hopes to leave town as soon as possible.

"This is a hellhole," he said. "There are pedophiles, criminals. They don't screen anybody. I'm afraid I might catch TB."

Mr. Jones said that there are frequent fights at the facility and that people use drugs there.

Another resident, Diana Watson, said there are fights and thieves. But she said she's thankful to be living inside The Bridge's transitional housing and to be working with a caseworker who's encouraging her to find work.

"This place is helping a lot of people," she said.

Dallas' new homeless shelter, The Bridge, has been serving about twice as many people as the $21 million facility was designed to accommodate since it opened May 20. Hundreds of people sleep in the concrete courtyard each night because the shelter's 300 beds are full. The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which runs The Bridge for the city, does not have data to explain the unexpected numbers. Among the theories:

OUTDOOR CAMPS: The size of this hidden population has been underestimated, advocates say.

OTHER SHELTERS: They charge fees or demand that residents participate in rehabilitation programs. The Bridge does neither.

OTHER CITIES: Officials from The Bridge said that's only a small percentage of the population.

POLICE: Some homeless people say officers threatened them with jail if they didn't go to The Bridge. A police spokesman disputed that, but said officers at times have allowed homeless people caught violating the law to go to The Bridge instead of jail.

NOT HOMELESS: Operators say they have identified and removed people who have come to prey on the vulnerable.