Show and Tell

16 Apr

Are you an artist?”

The man’s salt and pepper beard leaned forward expectantly as he awaited my response. It’s a question I’ve gotten before—typically when I have my sketchpad or some other obviously artsy supply in tow.

“Just killing time,” I’ve always replied to anyone asking the same.

But that morning on my way to work, I was without the telltale signs of charcoal-smudged fingers or paint-spattered clothing.

“How can you tell?” I finally asked, stumped.    

“You’re dressed like one,” he stated matter-of-factly, giving my mud-stained military boots, leather jacket, silver beanie with peeking dreads a sweeping wave.

I couldn’t help but chuckle. Typically my work wardrobe characterizes me as a teacher, secretary or librarian. But never an artist. Perhaps, I still held the glow from the weekend’s art sales. Days before, my work from the past two years lay bare for the first ever as people strolled past, their eyes falling on this painting and that, their words always trailed by an “I didn’t know you painted” or “Are these your father’s?”

My dad’s an art teacher. Has been for as long I can remember. Growing up, whenever I doodled on homework or sketched on the corners of class notes, my friends always asked where I learned how to draw.

 “Well, my dad’s an art teacher. . .” was my response.

Truthfully, no one had taught me to draw. Perhaps my love was passed down along with my dad’s brown eyes and hair, but to me his profession simply meant endless access to supplies.

In the past, all painting sold were through referrals: Never an en masse on display of my thoughts, passions and questions laid out for all to see.

As I tried to quiet my doubts, my mind traveled back to the man who first taught me not to worry about the opinions of others. His name was Patrick. I met him in the library during recess at a City Council meeting.  The day I met him, one of his eyes was bloodshot. A broken vessel from a fight, he later told me. But the thing I noticed most was his mammoth sketchpad. A huge sketchpad, frayed around the edges, that he was working in. I walked up to him, curious to see what he was working on. He obliged my curiosity and let me peep into his portfolio at elaborate sketches mostly created with nothing but a Number 2 Pencil. From then on, I met up with Patrick at least once a week. I sat next to him as he worked. He encouraged me to tap into my own. Most of the sketches I have gone on to paint were made as I sat and chatted with him. He admired my swiftness. I, his meticulousness.

I had no idea he was homeless. At the time, I was working on a story for the newspaper on the city’s homeless shelter, The Bridge. I wanted to know what it was really like to live there. But after befriending Patrick, I was hesitant about prying into his life. I finally summoned the gall to ask him about his experience there. The final story is below. I haven’t seen Patrick for nearly a year but I still have one of my favorite sketches of his on my wall as a reminder of his existence and quiet prayer for some of his resilience. Wherever he is, I have him to thank for my entrance into the art scene.

No Place Like Home

By LASHONDA COOKS

The Dallas Examiner

An old, weathered sketchpad is Patrick’s most prized possession: It is only out of his hands when he parks it, temporarily, at a loved one’s home or leaves it in one of The Bridge’s 651 storage bins, bins in high demand amongst a population often lacking a safe place to store belongings.

Its pages hold countless black and white drawings, with hints of color, of elaborate images of Black queens and kings, superheroes and warriors, images far removed from his current homeless reality.

When night falls, Patrick joins 224 others resting on blue mats beneath ceiling fans the size of helicopter blades in the Pavilion, the Bridge’s emergency shelter. The open-air room resembling a large garage is where most homeless guests slumber.

“The hotbox,” Patrick calls it.

He mentions rumors of the administration possibly adding air conditioning to the area, given this year’s heat wave.

“They’re trying to do better,” he adds.

The lack of air conditioning is not a fluke. It is a strategic part of the $17.4 million facility. In theory, the no-frills layout of The Pavilion attracts those who normally avoid shelters and but want the relative sense of protection offered the emergency shelter offers.

“Having them come into the Pavilion is not the end goal for the guests. That’s the starting point,” said Jay Dunn, The Bridge’s Managing Director.

From the Pavilion, they can see the Promised Land–the multistoried building where 100 units of air-conditioned transitional housing stands.

After two months of sleeping sandwiched between hundreds of other men on a mat on the Pavilion’s floor, Patrick is excited about moving into transitional housing, where men sleep on linen-covered beds in a large room divided by cubicles.

The women’s area is even cozier. Resembling college dormitories, the ladies are placed in rooms along with a roommate or two. Personal touches like stuffed animals, books, Maverick posters from this year’s win give the rooms a sense of permanence and personality.

The time it takes someone to move up from the Pavilion to the transitional housing varies. Guests must be referred by care managers. Referrals are moved forward or sent backwards by people like Tolliver, who says he reviews referrals daily. The goal is to have everyone out of The Bridge into supportive housing within 90 days.

“It doesn’t happen like that, generally,” Tim Tolliver, The Bridge’s Associate Services Manager, admits.

In reality, transitioning commonly takes anywhere from three months to a year.

“It really does depend on the stage of readiness,” Dunn reiterated.

Sometimes, guests still have work to finish, loose ends to tie with the criminal justice system. Other times, outside housing is simply not available.

“They help you best they can. Some of them seem to be dragging their feet. Some of them are not. My case worker, she’s pretty fair. She’s straight up and she’s honest about what’s going to happen,” Patrick states.

Patrick spent time in jail for selling crack cocaine to an undercover cop. Since then, he’s focused on regaining his independence and is excited about starting The Bridge’s job program. This focus and his diabetes have placed Patrick on The Bridge’s fast track.

One night, while he was sleeping in the Pavilion Patrick’s blood sugar dropped to 22.

“They couldn’t wake me up,” he recalled.

Since the scare, Patrick says The Bridge’s staff has been keeping a close eye on him, with some sneaking him crackers in between meals to make sure his diabetes remains under control.

“They’re pretty good about watching and taking care of you if they know you’ve got a problem,” Patrick adds.

For most guests, the biggest problem is behavioral health. According to Tolliver, at least 80 percent of the people entering The Bridge’s gates are dealing with mental health issues.

An on-site MetroCare and Parkland branch helps ensure guests are properly medicated.

At night in The Pavilion, the sexes are divided by the cement floor’s red fire lane. 157 men sleep on one side. 68 women sleep on the other.

The mats reflect the statistics. According to the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance’s 2011 Annual “Point-in-Time” Homeless Count and Census, women comprise 36 percent of Dallas’ homeless. 52 percent of the homeless are men. 56 percent of Dallas’ homeless population is African American.

Due to its open door policy and lack of background checks, children are not allowed at The Bridge. Children and families who come to the gates are whisked away to The Secret Garden, a hidden playroom in the rear of a building, to await referral to the Salvation Army, which does accept children and families.

“The one thing about The Bridge is that if you come here, we’re not going to turn you away,” Tolliver declared.

Thus, partnerships with neighboring shelters are integral. Of the 1,250 homeless guests that enter its gates every day, 900 must sleep at surrounding shelters at night. When the campus closes at 5 p.m., most of the people not on the shelter list have already left.

“We have to depend on our shelter partners because so many folks come through this gate every day,” Tolliver said. 

Every night, The Union Gospel Mission buses 200 men back to its shelter. The Austin Street shelter, which is walking distance from The Bridge, and the Salvation Army also receive surplus guests.

“The plan was to resource this for half this,” Dunn states.

He says a number of factors contribute to the underestimation, including the fact that the plan was formulated prior to the recession.

“So, while we have decreased homelessness amongst our target population by more than 50 percent since we’ve opened, because of the recession there have been new people that have become homeless that meet our profile,” Dunn explained.

People previously camping out on families’ couches who could no longer afford to support them form the base of the newly homeless. He says only 25 percent of the people they see are truly newly homeless folks who are capable of self-sufficient living.

Despite the limited space, homeless men and women from all over Dallas converge on the immaculate campus, largely because it is the only emergency shelter open during the day. Day services include laundry, telephone and mail services.

“Anybody that presents as homeless can have their mail sent here–anybody that presents as homeless can sign up to have their laundry done,” Tolliver states.

Another service provided is the Job Readiness Program, which links unemployed guests with the Texas Workforce. To be eligible, the interested must attend a couple of orientations and commit to a certain amount of community service hours every week. Once those hours are completed, guests are deemed “job ready,” and are referred to the Texas Workforce to gain unlimited access to the computer lab for job searching.

“We want to know if we assign someone an hour to be somewhere that they’re going to actually be there to complete those hours. So once that’s done, once we’ve established that, then they’re deemed job ready and they’re allowed to utilize the computer lab any time they want,” he explained.

The Bridge also partners with LifeNet, which employs many current and former Bridge guests.

To access these services, guests need a Bridge I.D., which is eagerly given to those who are willing to fill out a bit of paperwork. Those preferring anonymity can come in, eat and leave or hang out until 5 p.m. with a day pass.

 The Bridge’s overall goal is to place 25 – 30 people in to permanent housing every month. Every week, about 75 people are in graduate mode, in the final stage before moving out to supportive or permanent housing. Since opening, The Bridge has place over a 1,000 people into housing. 90 percent of The Bridge’s formerly homeless have retained self-sufficiency. Dunn also cites benefits to the greater community, which includes drops in crime in the area.

Tolliver attests to that. For the last six years, he and his wife have lived across the street from the campus. He recalls constant break-ins and vandalism of his property before the Bridge. Now, he says crime is much better.

“I can tell you that the impact . . . has been fantastic,” Tolliver exclaims.

The Bridge’s creation is the centerpiece of former mayor Laura Miller’s 10-year-plan to end homelessness. With less than three years left before the city’s 2014 deadline, is The Bridge up for the job?

“I think we’re close,” Dunn states.

He notes that the commitment to not have people experience homelessness for more than a year at a time, not a full-out end to homelessness in the city.

The key, Dunn notes, lies in tracking the homeless population both onsite at The Bridge and off-site, when they arrive at local hospitals or jail. Through an integrated partnership with these institutions, The Bridge hopes to erase the lapses in medication or benefits that often cause the recovering homeless to fall back into the streets.

The Bridge I.D., the required paperwork that homeless men and women must fill out to access the day shelter’s laundry mat, telephone and mail services, is the golden ticket to ending such lapses.

“We want to get to the point where we’re tracking that for the whole population all of the time,” he added.

The driving forces behind the ambitious goal are the benefits to the larger community and to the homeless, who are finally able to function in a house of their own.

“We end homelessness for somebody every week,” Tolliver reiterated. 

 

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