Encouraging developments in helping to house the needy

Posted on Jul 19, 2012 in Marc Sparks: In the News | 1 comment

Two years can seem like an eternity.

It was that long ago, in March of 2006, when I bemoaned the resistance that some business types put up against a plan to build apartments for poor residents in downtown Dallas.

Not only are the high-rise apartments being built and prepared to open next year on Akard Street, but the fuss has subsided. And the city now has a business-minded mayor who stood up last week to call for more compassion for our most vulnerable residents, including the homeless.

Mayor Tom Leppert’s remarks came a day before some low-income residents moved into a new 20-unit building in McKinney called the North Texas Gateway Apartments – the first transitional housing complex in Collin County.

What’s remarkable about the complex is that it was built with a $2 million gift from an Addison entrepreneur, Marc Sparks, a longtime supporter of the Samaritan Inn, the only homeless shelter in Collin County.

His generosity didn’t go unnoticed.

“You have to know that’s my dream – to have someone willing to do that,” said Jan Mitura, executive director of the Annette G. Strauss Family Gateway Center, a nonprofit agency in Dallas that provides transitional housing and an array of services for families experiencing homelessness. “Where’s my knight in shining armor?”

Family Gateway is a success story unto itself, emerging from gritty debates in Dallas more than two decades ago about how to tackle the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness. Family Gateway was born in 1986, and four years later, the agency built the area’s first transitional housing, Gateway Apartments, Ms. Mitura said.

“Mayor Strauss would always say that her work with Family Gateway was one of the best things she did as mayor,” said Ms. Mitura. “That was her proudest legacy.”

And yet it was a source of great debate at City Hall and beyond, with some civic leaders expressing concern about Dallas opening its doors too wide and inviting other cities to send their downtrodden souls here.

Dallas simply didn’t want to be a regional magnet. Still doesn’t. And Dallas leaders sure as heck didn’t want to take up arms against a sea of social problems alone.

That’s why the McKinney project is so promising. It’s yet another sign that other cities in the region are beginning to help carry the load that once fell almost entirely on Dallas, thanks to its dubious distinction as the urban core.

“I do feel like Dallas shoulders the burden” of providing for those who lack housing and health care in North Texas, said Tracy Westhoff, assistant executive director of the Samaritan Inn in McKinney. “I wish we could do more, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.”

We’re not there yet. Not by a long shot. But at least the conversation is changing.

“I’ve seen a gradual evolution,” Ms. Mitura said. “And the city has more compassion. I also see more responsiveness to the concept of affordable housing rather than shelters, and that’s important to me.”

It’s also important to John Greenan, executive director of the Central Dallas Community Development Corp., the nonprofit that’s building a mixed-use development in downtown Dallas that will include some high-rise apartments for low-income residents and once-homeless folks.

The location of the project worried some, but the nonprofit, an offshoot of Central Dallas Ministries, allayed those concerns.

“When someone’s living in a place, they’re no longer homeless,” said Mr. Greenan, who pointed out that the misgivings some people have about the homeless and jobless are rooted in misunderstanding. “And the fact is that the numbers of poor people living in even nice neighborhoods are higher than people think.”

In other words, he said, when poor people are concentrated in one spot, such as a public housing project, we notice them. Otherwise, they slip under the radar, thus masking the depth and scope of the affordable housing crunch.

Those in need may not surface until they’re in crisis mode, desperately seeking health care, food or a place to stay.

Ms. Westhoff put it this way: “If you lost your job right now and lost all your income, how long could you survive?”

It’s not a new question. The responses are just different, reflecting a change in attitudes and a newfound willingness to help tackle the problems.

“What you’re seeing,” Ms. Mitura said, “is a lot of progress. At least that’s what I hope we’re seeing.”

It certainly bears watching.

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1 Comment

  1. God Bless you for helping pepole in need!! You are doing what God’s word has told you to do!! I have a son there now and i THANK you from the bottom of my heart!!!! Jean Calley

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