Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Talking to Small Groups, Part II

[I try to write something for CityWalkTalk every day, but my goal of a perfect month where I blog every single day is still escaping me. In June and July I only missed one day each. This month I was determined not to miss a single day, so Thursday evening I stayed late before leaving on a three-day weekend to complete the three blogs that have or will appear on Monday through Wednesday this week--but were supposed to have appeared on Saturday through Sunday. I stayed until I finished the blogs, but I was so tired I forgot to send them to Judy Lawrence who actually publishes the blogs for me. So it's another month gone without reaching my goal. Maybe I'll meet my goal in September.]

When explaining how we got into housing for those now homeless, I usually explain our original reluctance to work in this area. Now, almost a decade later, it is hard to remember, but when we first started Central Dallas CDC, we had limited experience with homeless clients. Most of the work of Central Dallas Ministries has been with the working poor. We never saw ourselves as a “homeless agency”; our view of ourselves was as one more neighbor trying to help each other. Many of the earliest employees of Central Dallas Ministries moved into the neighborhoods where CDM worked. It isn’t that hard to identify with lower income people who are working. It is much harder to identify with someone who is on the streets.

Finally, we decided that the need was so great and desperate that we had a moral duty to try to make a difference. At about this same time (in 2002 and 2003) a major change took place in helping those who are now homeless, the emergence of the “Housing First” model (I wrote blogs about it on February 6 through 8, if it’s not familiar to you). Housing First is the simplest of ideas in one respect—what homeless people need is homes, but it reversed completely the conventional wisdom. The government and charities had been spending money on feeding and drug treatment and counseling and employment services, and ignoring the fact that almost nobody gets better while still living on the street.

Housing First’s earliest proponent was the National Alliance to End Homeless, but to its everlasting credit, the administration of President George W. Bush picked the idea up and ran with it. I always try to mention the fact the Housing First is an initiative of the Bush Administration and has been continued by the Obama Administration. There is nothing partisan about Housing First. It’s just a smart idea.

When I talk about our approach to Housing First, I try to take the time to describe the research we did, visiting New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Philadelphia, Houston and Austin and talking a bit about the programs there. I usually also talk about our decision to put our headquarters in the same building so that we could ensure the property was properly run. Sometimes, but not always, I mention the fact that I will also be living at CityWalk.

The point of this part of the discussion is to show that we are serious minded about this endeavor. We don’t underestimate its difficulty, but neither are we intimidated by it.

The final part of my discussion goes into the details at CityWalk. How we are selecting residents. How rent will be paid. I talk about the rules and services for the residents.

Most important are stories. I’m very much an abstract thinker, but over my time at the Central Dallas family I have come to better understand the importance of concrete examples. I can’t yet talk about our residents, since we won’t open until October, but I can talk about the people we’ve met that are on the waiting list for CityWalk.

I can talk about people who’ve been waiting for over a year for a place to live like a victim of domestic violence who is living in a shelter, a man who’s been living in his truck for the past year, a young man looking for his first own place while still living with his mother, a women looking for a safe place for her and her disabled daughter and a women in recovery from substance abuse who now has a good job but broke her last lease and can’t find a place to rent.

As we meet more of our prospective and soon actual residents I will have more stories to tell.

If you know of a group willing to listen, I’d be happy to meet with them. I believe once some reasonable number of the people here in Dallas understands the problem of homelessness that Dallas will find a solution to the problem — which isn’t much more complicated than more homes.

The right number of people might be 100,000, which is about 10% of our population. If that is so, then it’s going to take me another 10,000 meetings, ten people at a time, to make the case. Fortunately I’m not alone in this effort, but it’s still going to take a lot of time meeting and talking with people, so it’s time to get started.

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