When I talked to him, Roy Shirley was sucking on a packet of bright yellow mustard, standing on the St. Paul Street bridge, just a few feet away from “The Bridge,” Dallas’ homeless shelter.
At 249 beds, The Bridge is full every night. Even though its sleeping space is at capacity, the facility still provides meals, showers, mental health services, medical care, job counseling and veterans assistance to all comers.
Roy Shirley expects to be sleeping on the St. Paul bridge until February. He was released from prison last Friday, he says, after spending eight years incarcerated. His face tells a story of his jail time: a tattoo running just below his hairline declares he is “a product of prison reform.” He is waiting for his social security card and food stamps, he said, but doesn’t expect them to arrive soon. So here he is, easing into the street community on the St. Paul bridge. “There’s a lot of neat people out here,” Shirley says. “A lot of crazies, too.”
The diverse stories of the people on the St. Paul bridge reveal the complexity and intractability of homelessness.
Eating out of a cold can of chili as she sits on the concrete, Gretta, 58, tells me she’s been diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic. She won’t tell me her last name, but she states the reason for her homelessness matter-of-factly: drugs. She is on the sidewalk today instead of inside The Bridge because she and her male companion Jesse were thrown out of the facility the day before, for screaming at each other. “And they put us out, they barred us for three days, for literally nothing.”
Sam Merten, Community Affairs Officer at The Bridge tells me clients can be expelled from the shelter for anywhere from three days to life, depending on their offense. Suspension is a fact-of-life necessity in maintaining order in such an unstable population. What concerns Merten much more is Dallas’ inability to “get its arms around” the larger problem of homelessness. San Francisco, he notes, spends $250 million on homelessness. Dallas spends a fraction of that.
Last year, the city moved homeless camps out from under the I-45 bridge because of a threat to freeway traffic there, among other things. Now the St. Paul camp has popped up. “It’s a whack-a-mole situation,” Merten says. “What’s needed is a comprehensive plan...We now have 200 homeless villages in Dallas. Seattle has created a few sanctioned encampments.” Those, he says, are managed by the city. Any municipality seeking to adopt such a plan, Merten recognizes, has to deal with the reality that nobody wants a homeless camp of any kind in their neighborhood.
Even with money, the problem eludes total solution.
Some of the homeless population is “service resistant,” Merten says, meaning they don’t like shelters or formal programs, and are willing to take their chances on the street.
Sleeping on the St. Paul bridge can mean getting robbed. Greta, who didn’t want me to use her last name, tells me her identification was stolen inside The Bridge. “Your ID is your whole life,” she said. “I don’t have an ID or social security card, or birth certificate right now because my bags were stolen....you have to start all over again. It takes ID to get ID.”
Bad luck, poverty, crime, drugs and mental illness are all potential strands of homelessness. They’re woven together in different densities in every individual. One effective tool in a cure, says Sam Merten, is affordable housing. “You have to incentivize developers to build low-cost housing. Many of our clients can get housing vouchers, but there is no place for them to rent.”
Oscar Brown beat the odds. After a divorce and problems with drugs, he was homeless. After spending weeks at The Bridge, he found a job, with Downtown Dallas, Inc., and most important of all, a place to live. He has his own apartment downtown. As complicated as the components of homelessness are, the ultimate solution is simple: shelter.