Jonathan Grace stands out in a crowd.
He’s an imposing presence, tall enough that when he walks into a room you notice him. He’s also got shoulder-length hair and a beard, that’s the other reason he catches your eye. He’s usually wearing jeans, a open-necked shirt and work boots and bears a strong resemblance to Leonardo Da Vinci’s depiction of Jesus in The Last Supper. Your first reaction is: what’s up with this guy?
The first time I encountered him was last winter at the Point-In-Time census of the Dallas homeless population, done by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. The count is executed one night a year, usually in January, with the goal of determining how many people are without shelter on that particular evening.
I was one of a half-dozen “census-takers” assigned to his group. Our job was to interview homeless folks camping under the I-45 bridge that night. It was cold. It was dark. The only illumination came from the urban orange sodium lights of the nearby Interstate and the glow from skyscrapers downtown. It was smelly too, despite the chill.
Grace waded right into the tent city. The rest of us hung back timidly, with our clipboards, questionnaires, and flashlights, before following him in. Turned out, he knew most of the three hundred or so campers by name. Many are members of Church at the Square, where he is the pastor.
Fighting homelessness is a mission for Grace.
As a pastor, he finds his congregation has a unique kind of honesty. “There’s no pretension with these people,” he says. “No pretense that things are all okay. They don’t have the walls to hide their brokenness behind.”
A visitor to Church at the Square can see this every Sunday. Services are usually held outdoors on a sheltered patio at CitySquare, a community center located close to where I-45 passes over I-30 in the Mixmaster. CitySquare is a beacon provider of health, food and social services to poor people.
It’s funded by public and private donations. Church at the Square is a project of Highland Park United Methodist Church, to which Jonathan Grace is attached.
The service is non-denominational, with the subject of poverty often taking center stage. During the testimony part of the service, worshippers are often brutally honest about how they got where they are. Prison, drugs, and poor health are often part of the narrative. They mention where they were a year ago, who’s sick in their family, and where they hope to be in the future. That’s usually defined in days and weeks rather than months or years.
The pastor knows many of their stories. They come to him for advice and help. He helped Byron Johnson find a place to live.
“He cares about people,” Johnson says. “And he goes to bat for you, you know? Anytime things go wrong, if he thinks you’re right, he’s going to make it right, you know?” Johnson also says the pastor is the butt of teasing because of the way he looks. “They say he looks like Jesus, you know?”
In November, the pastor’s job got grittier. He’s now the manager of newly completed Cottages at Hickory Crossing, across the street from CitySquare. The Cottages are 50 free-standing small houses, each 400 square feet, which will provide a place to live for currently homeless ‘neighbors,’ the description CitySquare uses for the population it serves.
The Cottages took longer to build than expected, and Jonathan Grace was saddened that one of his favorite neighbors, Julie Goodfriend died before she could move into a cottage.
As of the first week of December, fourteen of the cottages are expected to be occupied. Grace is painstakingly vetting every new resident, each of whom must sign a lease. Rent is a third of a neighbor’s monthly income, or $50 a month if they are jobless. In return, neighbors get a tidy bedroom, a fully equipped kitchenette, sitting room, bathroom and front porch. The simple joy of taking a shower and having a safe place to sleep will now be part of their lives.
It’s estimated that each homeless person costs the city of Dallas $40,000 a year. CitySquare estimates that the annual cost of housing a neighbor at The Cottages will be $15,000, a savings to taxpayers of $25,000 a year per person.
Grace hopes that The Cottages are just a beginning.
“If we can prove that this is a stable and functioning system for ending homelessness, for re-integrating folks into society, I’d hope that other organizations would step in and build their own facilities like this.”
Now it’s up to Grace to make it all work.