Saturday, February 28, 2009

Making New Friends, Part I

Even when a project doesn’t work out the way you want it to, being engaged in the world as a way of paying dividends that you don’t expect. Our recent effort to redevelop 1011 S. Akard proved this theory.

Larry and Ted Hamilton weren’t entirely new acquaintances. We got to know Larry and Ted when we started work on CityWalk, which was right across the street from a project of theirs, the Mosaic. The Mosaic is a beautiful high end apartment building. [picture if available] CityWalk is a project for those on the lowest end of the economic spectrum, but we think it’s beautiful as well. [insert picture] I wouldn’t say that Larry and Ted were opposed to CityWalk to begin with, but they were a bit skeptical and wanted to know more about how permanent supportive housing works.

What impressed me most was the effort both Larry and Ted made to learn about permanent supportive housing before taking a definite position. In the end they became enthusiastic supporters of the idea (enthusiastic enough that I think they have both forgotten they were ever skeptical). It is refreshing, and unfortunately rare, when someone takes a reasoned look at an issue and then decides what to do rather than depend on a gut reaction and only justifying their decision after it was already made. But in this case Larry and Ted came to the conclusion that the idea made both human and business sense and put their support behind it.

Lately we’ve gotten to know Larry and Ted even better as we tried to put together the redevelopment of 1011 S. Akard. At first we were just going to sell the building to us. Now they are going to be taking the project over from us to see if they can get it completed when we couldn’t. They’ve been completely aboveboard and honest during the entire process. Larry and Ted Hamilton could simply have sold the property to the first buyer—probably someone who would operate it as a hotel of dubious reputation—and saved themselves a lot of effort. But that’s not their style.

Their concern all along has been to put the building back into productive use and to find a solution that is healthy for the community. Most of the time we may aim to serve different markets, but I think Central Dallas CDC and Larry and Ted Hamilton share the same values.

Friday, February 27, 2009

La boheme

I’m a fan of opera. Not because I understand classical music. Not because I have a good ear—just the opposite. It’s because it’s the perfect entertainment for our fast-paced digital age. I get bored at the symphony and I can barely sit through most movies, but I find opera absolutely captivating.

There’s just so much going on. There is a full orchestra, costumes, staging and, of course, beautiful singing. It’s the perfect entertainment for an age in which nobody has more than a five-minute attention span.

The Dallas Opera’s production of La boheme by Puccini that I attended last weekend is a great example. In addition to all of the above, there was a children’s chorus, clowns, a marching band—and I’ve probably forgotten something. Every time you blinked something new was going on.

The plot is (like most operas) simple. A group of four male friends, a poet, a painter, a philosopher and a musician live together in a Paris flat—as exuberantly as current graduate students. One, Rodolfo, meets his true love Mimi. Mimi is poor, beautiful and true at heart. Another, Marcello, pairs up with Musetta, a flirt always demanding to be the center of attention. The course of love never runs smoothly, so the lovers all part. Then, in the final act, a dying Mimi returns to Rudolfo and in spite of all that he and the other friends, including Musetta, can do, she dies.

It was energetic and hilarious, sentimental and tragic by turns. It probably didn’t hurt that the male lead, James Valenti playing Rodolfo, was a real heart throb. [picture can be found at this link:]. Wonderful entertainment, which was well-received by the audience.

But even then it wasn’t pure entertainment. Rodolfo chases Mimi away because the poor living conditions in their flat are making her consumption worse. He can’t stand her coughing and worries that she will die. She leaves and finds a wealthier man, but dying returns to Rodolfo, her true love.

Even watching a more than 100 year old opera, I can’t escape the urgency of providing decent, affordable housing—with decent housing maybe Mimi would never have left Rodolfo and would not have died so young.

By the way, the singing was amazing.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Brain Transplant

The project we were working on for 1011 S. Akard survived the hearing today at City Council—sort of. In order to get thirty days more to get the approval of the neighborhood association, we agreed to give the project over to Larry and Ted Hamilton, a father and son team who are probably the best developers in Dallas at turning old buildings into new residential housing. Larry and Ted were willing to step in because they are the current owners of the building and they didn’t want to either leave the building vacant or sell it to somebody who would use it as a “flea-bag hotel”, almost the only other choices available to them. In short, the patient lived but only because we put a new brain in.

I have mixed feelings. Central Dallas CDC worked hard on this project, so it isn’t easy to give it up. I am skeptical that the Hamiltons will be able to include any permanent supportive housing in the development. On the other hand, Larry and Ted do quality work, mostly at the higher end of the market, and if they can create affordable housing with anything approaching the panache of their market-rate housing, then it will be an enormous benefit to the City of Dallas and to the people we want to help. In addition, Larry and Ted are extremely honorable people and I have a fair amount of confidence that if the development goes forward in any form, one way or another they will make sure that Central Dallas CDC recovers the thousands of dollars this project has already cost us.

On the third hand (what! you don’t have a third hand? it’s very useful), this means our work isn’t over. We have to thread the labyrinthine rules of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs in order to put the development effectively under the control of Larry and Ted Hamilton without violating any of its rules related to the scoring of tax credit applications. That task is doable, but difficult and time consuming.

In other words, it means a lot more work without any pay and without prospect of developing a project at the end of it. I guess it must be community service.

Finally, this change probably means no additional housing for our homeless neighbors and providing that housing was the reason we started this effort in the first place. I only hope the effort of the Hamiltons is successful so at least some good comes out of all this work.

It will be another disappointment if the result is only another vacant building. It’s already a blow that the neighborhood apparently prefers a vacant, razor-wire surrounded building to permanent supportive housing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mardi Gras

Our office celebrated Mardi Gras today. I don’t think any of us are from Louisiana, but that didn’t stop us. We celebrate any holiday that involves eating, even more obscure ones.

There was an ominous omen however. Johnice Woods, whose title is Property Development Coordinator and who works with me on putting together our new deals—and runs some of the property rehabilitation on her own—brought the King Cake. But the “baby” (a little plastic doll that is traditionally placed inside the cake) fell out on the way in.

The tradition is that whoever gets the piece of cake with the Baby in it has good fortune all year long and the obligation to bring the King Cake next year.

So, in these tough economic times, nobody gets good luck and next year: No Cake!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Showing CityWalk, Part I

It’s always a really good day for me when I get to show CityWalk to someone. I do this pretty often. Sometimes it’s a possible funder; sometimes it’s a community partner; sometimes I’m trying to sell or lease space and sometimes it’s just somebody that asked. Now, with the demolition completed, temporary power and a lift to the fifteenth floor, it’s pretty easy. But it wasn’t always that way.

Living in the big city (which Dallas is to me), you can get blasé. When there are dozens of taller buildings, then a fifteen-story building doesn’t seem so large, at least from the outside. But when you get inside the building and start looking around, then you realize that a high rise building is an incredible expression of human ingenuity. You also realize that it’s big and tall—especially if you’re going to the top.

When we first owned the building there were no lights and the elevators didn’t work. If you wanted, or needed, to get to the roof of the building then you had to climb fifteen stories of stairs (actually sixteen since the first floor is double height) in the dark. That’s a pretty daunting task unless you are young and in good condition (I’m neither).

The main stairway is in the center of the building and without lights you had to depend on a flashlight to make your way. When I was in the building alone, which happened occasionally, I always made sure to take at least two flashlights, sometimes three, and my cell phone. A flashlight going out or spraining an ankle could have had serious consequences. It was like caving.

The higher you climbed, the easier it was to get disoriented as to the floor you were on. And while every floor was laid out a little differently, if you lost count it wasn’t always easy to figure out what floor it was. Finding a specific place in the building was like solving a labyrinth. Cryptic signs to long gone tenants were your only clue.

Finally, you would reach the 14th floor. For reasons we never found out, the previous owner had cleared this floor so it was open and light. It was almost impossible to resist going over to the west windows to see the view (and catch your breath). The whole city is laid out before you. The Trinity River, Old Red (the old Dallas Courthouse), most of Oak Cliff and West Dallas are in view. To the north you can see Victory, the American Airlines Arena and Uptown.

Catch your breath, then climb the final two stairs to the roof. Out on the roof the wind will be blowing and the sun shining. Even at only fifteen stories, you tower above the city. Now the views open out in all directions and you look down on roof top gardens and pools. Now you can see the life of the city from an entirely different perspective.

Monday, February 23, 2009


Last week was a very difficult week. A project that we had worked on very hard met a cold, cold reception from the neighborhood. As of now, the project looks dead.

It’s never any fun to fail, and this is especially so when you think you’ve got something really good proposed. For us, there is an added sadness. We feel that we’ve failed people who don’t have any voice of their own and depend on us to speak for them. It’s bad to fail; worse to let your friends down.

So I did one of the things I like to do when I feel sad. I made breadcrumbs. I drive my wife and my college-age daughter who lives at home about crazy because I absolutely refuse to throw a single piece of stale bread away. There are times when, if you were foolish enough to look into our pantry, that you would see a big white garbage bag filled with pieces of a dozen loaves of bread that have gone stale.

Periodically, I gather all the stale bread in the house and patiently crumble it into breadcrumbs. How I do it depends on how hard it is. Sometimes I run it through the food processor. Some I can crumble by hand. Other times I have to get the big chef’s knife out and slice it into thin pieces before I can make it into breadcrumbs, but every piece of stale bread is reduce to breadcrumbs, no matter how long it takes.

Of course this means that our household usually has the world’s largest supply of breadcrumbs. In addition to obvious uses—breading for frying, toppings for casseroles and the like—I’ve explored dozens of other uses for breadcrumbs. I thicken soups with them. I use breadcrumbs to replace part of the flour in recipes. I fry them to eat with spaghetti. I make puddings.

Some of those uses are more popular than others. I’m the only one that will even try to eat the puddings. The important thing for me, however, is not to waste. If the bread isn’t too hard, then I can make croutons, which are very good, or melba toast, which always comes out terrible. You could break your teeth on the melba toast. Someday, though, I believe that if I keep trying I will find a good use for all the breadcrumbs I make.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Other Shoe Has Dropped!

The misery of waiting for bad news is over and this time the joke is on us. The Cedars Neighborhood Association voted 15 to 39 to oppose Central Dallas CDC’s proposal to redevelop 1011 S. Akard into 232 apartment units, fifty of which would be reserved for people who had been homeless. The proposal also included building 72 new market rate units.

It’s a bitter disappointment for us, but at least the people that work at Central Dallas CDC will still have a home to return to this evening. And I, at least, find it easier to deal with the disappointment, once it’s known, rather than dreading the news that is coming.

For fifty people, sleeping on the streets, or in shelters, or in a makeshift camp down in one of the creek beds, it means any chance of relief must wait another year. It means at least another year of scrambling for shelter beds by 6:00 p.m. and scrambling to gather all your earthly goods by 6:00 a.m. so you can walk the streets for twelve hours.

It means owning only what you can carry. It means living in the freezing cold of a winter night and sweltering through brutal heat of summer days. Without any place to call your own.

It means suffering, and illness, and maybe not surviving.

For at least another year.

Dallas has 6,000 homeless people. Only 1,200 residences would let the city end homelessness (because once on their feet, people would move on). The stated policy of the city is to build those places to live. The cost of providing a place for people to live is the same as the costs of having people on the street.

Let me say that again: The cost to treat people humanely is no more than what we spend now.

How could I ever explain to fifty people sleeping in the wet cold this evening, that not only do we have no place for them, we won’t be building any place for them soon. Not because we don’t have the money; not because we don’t know how to make a place for them, but because, once again, a couple of dozen people have said: Not In My Back Yard! Because they would rather have a vacant building wrapped in razor wire than let people trying to rebuild their life live in the same neighborhood as they do.

How can we let 39 people, in a city of more than a million residents, decide that fifty of their fellow citizens must wait another year, or more, before coming in out of the cold? And let that happen again and again until there is no place left to go.

In the last fifteen years, Dallas has started construction on only fifty new units that will provide places for the homeless to call home. It doesn’t seem to matter that the studies all show that permanent supportive housing doesn’t damage property values or increase crime. It doesn’t matter how many compromises we make to meet the concerns of the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter than the alternative is empty buildings and razor wire.

The answer is always: No, not here. A few people shout and all the political will of the city disappears.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

For God’s Sake, Drop the Other Shoe!

For me, there is nothing worse than waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s that sickening feeling you get when you know an accident is inevitable, but just before it happens.

It’s watching a movie you’ve already seen and knowing the tragic result. It’s the desperation three-point shot that you know isn’t going to go in. It’s the Ace on the River that isn’t going to come. It’s the moment just before the doctor gives you a bad diagnosis. It’s when you know you are going to lose your job, or get dumped, or lose the deal and it’s too late to change anything, but you keep hoping against hope that what you know will happen, won’t happen.

This weekend was like that for me. We’d done all we could do and were waiting for the result. Still hoping but knowing in our heart of hearts that we’d lost. So I decided to research the origin of the phase that describes this feeling: “Waiting for the other shoe to drop.” It turns out that it’s the punch line of a very old joke:

Its source is said to come from the following story. A man comes in late at night to a lodging house, rather the worse for wear. He sits on his bed, drags one shoe off and drops it on the floor. Guiltily remembering everyone around him is trying to sleep, he takes the other one off much more carefully and quietly puts in on the floor. He then finishes undressing and gets into bed. Just as he is drifting off to sleep, a shout comes from the man in the room below: “Well, drop the other one then! I can’t sleep, waiting for you to drop the other shoe!”. This may come from music hall or vaudeville, though it would seem that nobody has been able to tie it down more precisely.

Credit goes to Charles Costante at

Apparently this joke was old, even in 1921:

More recently, he found an even older example in the New York Times of March 1921: “If nine out of ten of us hadn’t heard that ‘drop that other shoe’ chestnut and molded our lives accordingly for the sake of the neighbor below us, what would be the end of us?” So it was old even then.

But there is a joke within the joke. The other shoe is never going to drop—it’s already been placed quietly on the floor. So the man in the room below is staying awake needlessly worrying about something that is never going to happen. I guess that’s a lesson to us all.

Monday, February 16, 2009

CityWalk, Part 2

Even before we formed Central Dallas CDC, people were approaching Central Dallas Ministries about building housing for people who are now homeless. I assume that’s partly because CDM has a great reputation for serving the community, but mostly because the need was (and still is) so great that I imagine that anybody that might be willing to take a shot at building housing for the homeless was being asked to try.

We always said no. We had two reasons. First, CDM had always concentrated on serving the working poor. Only recently has it moved into serving the homeless as well. Second, we didn’t know how we to make a development like CityWalk work. But we did decide it was time to learn.

Besides study and research and talking with people who understood the issue, we visited successful developments in cities around the country, and, because there is always more to learn, we are still making visits. I visited three projects in San Francisco while I was on vacation there (that’s unusual sightseeing, isn’t it?). Larry James, President/CEO of CDM and Chairman of the Central Dallas CDC board, visited places in Seattle. We also visited Houston and Austin and other places, but the most significant visit we made was to the developments of Common Ground in New York.

Common Ground (here: has probably been doing the work of ending homelessness longer and better than anyone else. It’s projects are half formerly homeless people and half other low income people. Most of them are located in Manhattan and they are beautiful. Small, but well-organized and well-thought through and all with long waiting lists. Five of us flew to New York to see two of their developments on a bitterly cold day in February. After we visited Common Ground and met the people living in their buildings and talked to Common Ground’s staff, we knew that Common Ground had developed a system that worked, and worked so well that it made the idea of ending homelessness seem possible.

All we needed to do was copy them and adapt their ideas to Dallas. We didn’t need to invent a formula that worked. Someone had already done that for us. That trip was the real start of CityWalk.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Baby Buggies

This morning, again, I saw a man pushing a baby buggy. All his worldly goods were piled into the baby buggy. This has become a common site in the part of East Dallas where I work. It’s another example of the law of unintended consequences.

A few years ago the then Mayor Laura Miller of Dallas put through a law making it illegal to push a shopping cart through the streets of the city. The reason was to keep homeless people from roaming the streets pushing full shopping carts. Of course the shopping carts were stolen from local grocery stores, and people shouldn’t have taken them. But the real reason for the law wasn’t to stop the theft of shopping carts. It was to remove the unsightly homeless people from pushing shopping carts full of stuff that looks like junk from the view of the people of Dallas.

The Dallas Police Department must enforce the law pretty effectively, because I almost never see anybody roaming the streets with full shopping carts anymore. But the stuff in the shopping carts wasn’t junk to the homeless people pushing them, it was all they owned. Sometimes cans to be resold, sometimes blankets for a bedroll, and other times food or miscellaneous items that they had some use for.

So homeless people have adopted an alternative pushcart—baby buggies. After the law was first passed there was a time of market uncertainty when a number of alternatives were tried out. I saw a wheelbarrow, bicycles and a number of wheeled contraptions that I couldn’t identify. In the end, though, baby buggies become the vehicle of choice.

I suppose that means that it isn’t safe to leave a baby buggy untended these days, and that certainly isn’t a good thing. But I’m mostly struck by how odd it looks to see a grown person pushing a baby buggy around the streets. I wonder if it feels demeaning—worse than pushing a shopping cart, or if after being on the street people become so used to indignities that they don’t care.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Water in the Desert

Lately I’ve been reading a book by Craig Childs called The Secret Knowledge of Water. The book is about his experiences searching for water holes in the deserts of Arizona. If you’ve spent even a little time in the deserts of the southwest United States, then you can feel the wonder of finding a stream or a tinaja in a place that is otherwise completely dry.

I remember the first time I walked up Enchanted Rock in the Texas state park. [here’s a link to the picture I’d like here:]. There were dozens of small pools, and in each pool there were fairy shrimp. [link to picture:] I had never seen them before and couldn’t imagine how they got up into each of the small pools scattered around that great stone.

Childs takes the exploration of water holes in the desert to extremes. He walks off into the driest places in our country with only enough water to go out—not enough to come back if he doesn’t find water. That takes faith of a special kind.

One of the things he writes has been running through my mind lately, “The half way point is more important than the destination.” I don’t know if it’s right, but I think it’s an important way to look at life and work. You need to know what your destination is, but after that it may be better not to think all the way through to the end but only to the next step. A lot of things seem impossible if you look at all that must be done to complete them. It doesn’t seem so bad, and not nearly so difficult, if you just think about completing the next step.

Friday, February 13, 2009

CityWalk@Akard, Part

The building at 511 N. Akard, which we’ve named CityWalk@Akard, has an interesting history. It was originally built by the Baptist Annuity Board, which explains the crosses in the center of some of the grid lines in the patterned brick on the south and north walls of the building. A few additional words on its history can be found here:, on an interesting site on Dallas architectural history. The main link is You can find all sorts of interesting tidbits on the site—like the fact that CityWalk is the 49th tallest building in the City of Dallas.

When we first acquired 511 N. Akard, you could still see all the electrical outlets for what must have been dozens of adding machines on the second floor. I don’t know whether it was what actually happened, or not, but I imagine dozens of bookkeepers opening envelopes from all the member churches in the Southern Baptist Convention and recording the retirement contributions for the pastors of each church. The building had at least two vaults, one of them was enormous, and I suppose that’s where the funds and records were kept.

I find it an amazing coincidence (and perhaps more than coincidental) that the most suitable building we could find downtown for affordable housing was built by one faith-based organization and is now owned by another faith-based organization.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Neighborhood, Part 1

Moving to CityWalk, 511 N. Akard, means moving to a new neighborhood. This counts double for me, because not only will I be working there, my wife and I will also be living in the building. A place seems different when it’s your neighborhood. You look at it more closely. Already I’m much more interested in what’s going on downtown than I ever was before.

I’ve worked in Downtown Dallas on and off since 1984, but it’s been a dozen years since I’ve worked there, and I’ve never lived downtown. So as part of getting to know the neighborhood and providing information to the people who will live at CityWalk, I’ve asked our intern Alisa to start putting together information on neighborhood businesses. Here is her first entry:

Places to eat at the corner of Elm and AkardGalilee GrillMiguel'sJimmy John'sSome notes about the neighborhood, there are several places nearby that are open for dinner, which is a good sign for downtown nightlife. The corner of Elm and Akard has a few good dining possibilities. First, Miguel's just north of Elm on the east side of Akard overlooks the DART rail line. Miguel's is a real Mexican food restaurant and not just a chain so they have homemade guac and an interior appearance that you may be used to from other local tex-mex joints. They are open until 7pm Monday through Friday.Just to the South and across Elm is Galilee Grill (1502 Elm or 214.760.7333) which is open for dinner from 5pm to 9pm every day but Sunday. Galilee serves all the staples of Eastern Medeterranean food including tabouli salad, shwarma, kabob, and falafel. The dinner entrees are slightly more expensive than lunch but don't cost any more than $9 and come with a choice of soup or salad. The interior is sparse but modern and clean with plenty of tables where you can eat, but you can also take your food to go.On the Southwest side of the corner, across from Galilee Grill a Jimmy John's has opened serving made to order "gourmet sandwiches" for five or six dollars. Jimmy John's will deliver any day of the week but the store is open until 7 if you want to grab a sandwich and some chips or a cookie and eat it there. Jimmy John's is at 1414 Elm St. or (214) 741-2970.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Importance of Place, Part 2

I wasn’t born in Texas. In fact, I was more or less coerced into moving here by my wife, who offered me the choice of moving to Texas and getting married—or not.

I know that will make everything I say suspect to some of you, but it’s important to a topic I think about all the time: The role of place in our life.

The hill and lake country of northern Michigan was about as different from the high, lonesome plains of Texas (yes, I do live in Dallas, but grant me a little poetic license) as you can imagine. The country of my youth was forest, vistas were closed, and during the short growing season plants grew everywhere, almost so fast you could see them grow. Even in the winter the trees and hills cut your view short.

When I first came here, I was unnerved. I felt exposed under the wide sky like a rabbit with no place to hide from the hawk. When I walked in a Texas forest, the proportions felt wrong. The trees were only one third or one fourth the size of the soaring forests in the north. I felt like a giant striding among a Lilliputian forest.

Now that I’ve been here twenty-five years I don’t get those feelings anymore. I’m comfortable with the landscape. But I remember how important a sense of place, of being home, can be, and how easily it can be lost.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Importance of Place

My favorite poet (today at least) is Wendell Berry. He’s about as unusual a literary person as you can imagine. For decades he has lived on a farm in Kentucky that he works with draft horses and hand tools, repairing the damage to the land that resulted from generations of mistreatment. This is one of his poems:

Stay Home

I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t
come with me.
You stay home too.

I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

I am always impressed with the peace and beauty he has found in a place where others wouldn’t see either. His sensibility seems so different from the America I know of the open road, of the movement west and of the workaholic, get up and go, multitasking life we lead.

I wonder sometimes if I will ever mature into feeling the satisfaction that his poems express with the world we are given.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Housing First! Part Three

It isn’t hard to understand why efforts to help someone get their life in order before they have a place to live are doomed to failure. What’s the longest camping trip you’ve ever been on? For me, it was nine days and eight nights. The trip itself was glorious. We canoed down a wilderness river in the middle of beautiful canyons. Starry skies and bright sun were above us. We were well prepared with all the gear (and more) that anyone could ever need. In memory, it is one of the highlights of my life.

But if I think back about the reality of the trip, I also know that by the end we were dirty and smelly (in spite of our best efforts to stay clean). Our muscles were sore and we were tired from more than a week of sleeping on the ground. And, although we didn’t get to the point of any real blow ups, by the end of the trip we were beginning to find one another’s idiosyncrasies pretty annoying.

Even then, we did better than many groups do. Stories of fist fights breaking out on long camping trips are legion. Traveling every night and being away from the comforts of home places stress on people. That happens even when it’s voluntary and temporary. Imagine that it’s your whole life.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Housing First! Part Two

The first doctrine of the Housing First model, “The direct, or nearly direct, placement of targeted homeless people into permanent housing . . .” is revolutionary. For decades here in the United States we have taken for granted the idea that people had to “be prepared” for housing. When I hear people take this position, I always imagine they have in mind some wild child reared by wolves who has never slept indoors. A new Romus or Remulus for a new world growing up in the woods without human contact.

I’ve never met such a wild child. I doubt I ever will (but I have seen the movie Nell). The homeless men and women that I know began like all of us, but then somehow their life went wrong, usually in more than one way. People had a mental illness, an addiction, a loss of job, loss of a spouse or family, a financial setback or a serious illness. One man I knew lived alone and had lost contact with his family. He had a heart attack and was hospitalized. By the time he recovered enough to leave the hospital; he had been evicted by the apartment complex where he lived. All his possessions had been placed in the street by the sheriff and were gone. He was in overwhelming debt from the expenses of his illness.

Now, I probably know as well as most people that many, many homeless people were complicit in the route that led to their homelessness, but many, even most, is not all. I’m not sure that it matters in the end.

What the Housing First model understands (for all of you skeptics that believe nothing good came out of the Bush administration, and for all you other skeptics that believe Housing First is a liberal plot, it was Bush’s administration that made Housing First the policy of the country) is that trying to treat homeless people while they are still homeless is throwing money down a rat hole.

Doing what works isn’t a political act, its good old American pragmatism, and Housing First works.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Housing First!

The model we use is called “Housing First”. Here is how the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs defines it:

Housing First programs may be constructed in a number of ways, but share the following features:

The direct, or nearly direct, placement of targeted homeless people into permanent housing. Even though the initial housing placement may be transitional in nature, the program commits to ensuring that the client is housed permanently.

While supportive services are to be offered and made readily available, the program does not require participation in these services to remain in the housing.

The use of assertive outreach to engage and offer housing to homeless people with mental illness who are reluctant to enter shelters or engage in services. Once in housing, a low demand approach accommodates client alcohol and substance use, so that “relapse” will not result in the client losing housing (Marlatt and Tapert, 1993). 5

The continued effort to provide case management and to hold housing for clients, even if they leave their program housing for short periods.

Housing First programs may be constructed in a number of ways, but share the following features:
The direct, or nearly direct, placement of targeted homeless people into permanent housing. Even though the initial housing placement may be transitional in nature, the program commits to ensuring that the client is housed permanently.

While supportive services are to be offered and made readily available, the program does not require participation in these services to remain in the housing.

The use of assertive outreach to engage and offer housing to homeless people with mental illness who are reluctant to enter shelters or engage in services. Once in housing, a low demand approach accommodates client alcohol and substance use, so that “relapse” will not result in the client losing housing (Marlatt and Tapert, 1993). 5

The continued effort to provide case management and to hold housing for clients, even if they leave their program housing for short periods., p. 16. There is a lot to unpack here, and I’ll start doing my best to do so tomorrow.

Permanent Supportive Housing—2

Permanent Supportive Housing is not only permanent, it’s also supportive. To us that means that we don’t just put someone in an apartment and leave them to fend for themselves, we try to bring to that person whatever resources he or she needs to succeed in life.

But we don’t force anybody, ever to do anything (except pay the rent and live up to the lease). Some people find this difficult to understand. They are used to a system that requires membership in a twelve-step program or a particular religious belief before you get help.

We don’t think that’s the way to go. The people we deal with are adults. You can’t force them to become better—only they can choose what they want to do. Studies show that people do better when they choose voluntarily to participate in programs. (
People value what they choose. It may seem surprising to some, but it works.

The services we will provide are going to be the services that people want. I’ve watched how Central Dallas Ministries operates for the past decade and CDM lets the people it serves, its neighbors, tell it what they need. If you don’t prejudge, if you listen with an open mind and don’t believe you know people’s lives better than they do themselves, then our neighbors will tell you how to serve them.

To start we will make available the services that CDM and its partners already offer. But we are going to make every effort to listen hard. If people want opera tickets, or sewing circles, or mental health services or a place to garden, then we will make every effort to meet that need.

But first we will listen.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Permanent Supportive Housing

The housing that Central Dallas CDC is working on for people who are now homeless is “permanent supportive housing”. That means a couple of things. First (today’s topic), the housing is permanent. It is not transitional. Just like any other apartment project, you can stay so long as you pay the rent and comply with the terms of the lease.

I think it’s hard for most of us to imagine how difficult it is not to have a home. To be rootless and homeless, always on the move, never to have a place to call one’s own. We all crave the security of a place to call our own. I recently talked with a developer of senior housing who had done a demographic study of the people that moved into his developments. At first the demographics looked arbitrary and random. There was no way to predict where the people that moved to a certain property lived now or where they would choose to move.

When he looked closer, though, a pattern emerged. People tended to move back to an area where they had lived before. The pattern was hidden because people may have lived in the area two or three or more addresses in the past—sometimes several decades in the past.

I find, as I grow older, that my desire to move to a new place is less and less, and apparently I am not alone. Some 70% of seniors live the rest of their life wherever they celebrated their sixty-fifth birthday (I’m not quite to that marker, yet). (See,, for example). The idea is known as “aging in place”, which of course is what most people have always done. I guess now that moving to Florida and retirement communities has become so popular, we had to invent a term for it.

Housing for people that have been homeless needs to be permanent. That’s the promise that solves the fear of never having a place; of always being on the move. Some people will move on to a larger or fancier place, but not because we make them, but because that’s what they want. Some, especially if they are older, may live with us for the rest of their lives.

The opportunity to stay as long as you wish, even the rest of your life, is one of the secrets of success to permanent supportive housing.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Welcome to CityWalkTalk!

Welcome to CityWalk Talk! If you’ve read the introduction, then you know Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (forever after “Central Dallas CDC”) will be opening CityWalk@Akard, its rehabilitation of a fifteen-story office tower at 511 N. Akard in the center of Downtown Dallas this summer, and we wanted to create a place to talk about that development and the related issues we work on—urban redevelopment and the “Housing First” model for ending homelessness.

I will get to explaining most of this over the next week or so, but I think I should begin with a brief explanation of how Central Dallas CDC got started, what we do, and why we do it.

Ten years ago, I left the private practice of law to start a public interest law firm at Central Dallas Ministries [link], along with my partner Ken Koonce who still runs Legal Action Works. Our inspiration came from Larry James, CEO and President of Central Dallas Ministries (CDM) and his unique approach to urban ministry. Larry James may not put it quite this way, but CDM takes the idea of service more seriously than most organizations. That means the people who work at CDM aren’t in charge, but the people we work for, our neighbors, are in charge of what we do. Our neighbors told CDM they needed access to lawyers, so Larry James found Ken and me, a couple of lawyers willing to work for them.

Not long after I got to CDM, our neighbors told us that they needed help with housing. Too many of our neighbors couldn’t afford decent housing, and poor quality housing made all of the services provided by CDM less effective. CDM gave people food, but they needed a place to cook; provided medical care that was less effective without a healthy place to live; helped with education, but children need a place to study. So we created Central Dallas CDC as a nonprofit real estate development company to increase the supply of high-quality, affordable housing in the central areas of the City of Dallas.

Soon my legal assistant, Johnice Woods and I were not only practicing law, but building housing. After a couple of years the demands of running Central Dallas CDC had become so great and the time available to practice law so limited that I decided that I would have to stop practicing law in order to devote myself to working on developing housing, and Johnice (who had just completed her certification as a legal assistant) agreed to take up a new career in real estate development.