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Wayne Walker is one of those people who always gets waylaid by doing favors for strangers. The city of Dallas is lucky that he got sidetracked on his way to do missionary work and ended up helping the homeless population here for the last 20 years.
After years of street outreach and nearly a decade at another location, Walker opened the OurCalling center for the homeless in the Cedars neighborhood about two years ago. Now roughly 300 homeless people are fed or otherwise assisted at the facility every day.
Walker’s approach is unusual. For one, his organization has developed an app that allows homeless people to find critical services in Dallas and every other major city nationwide (for those who don’t have smartphones, OurCalling also distributes about 400 print versions of the directory a week).
Another unusual — and controversial — aspect is that OurCalling is a church rather than a homeless shelter. There are no beds here. Yet a couple of hundred people might sleep on the floor of the building on nights when it’s too cold to sleep outside.
The Dallas City Council recently heard a proposal to ban the practice of homeless people sleeping in churches, even on freezing nights. This, even though roughly 200 people already die on the streets prematurely every year, often from exposure, according to Walker.
Willie Pate is a U.S. Army veteran who has come to OurCalling center for food and support since it opened. The organization has helped him apply for housing, which he hopes to secure soon.
"I think that’s crazy," said Pate, when told about objections to OurCalling opening its doors on cold nights.
"I don’t care if you’re Christian, Baptist, Jewish, I’m not worried about that," said Frank Magee, another visitor. "I’m worried about: are the programs good? Can they help people out?"
At noon, OurCalling has the atmosphere of a bustling truck stop, with people getting called to the lunch counter, to the laundry and to the showers. Almost all the staff are people who once stood on the other side of that counter. And Walker checks in with almost all of them.
Did you think about homelessness when you were growing up?
When I was about 10 years old my parents became foster parents, and so they opened their home up to kids throughout the state that lived in very abusive situations. So I’ve been around homelessness for a long time.
I grew up in East Texas, in Jacksonville, my parents live on a couple hundred acres out in the woods. We had almost 70 different kids live in our house over the years, kids that have lived through the worst kinds of hell. Kids that have lived through physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, kids that watched their parents use drugs, or parents who used drugs on them, and kids that were assaulted in numerous ways, kids that have lived through just the worst kinds of life.
So those were brothers and sisters growing up. I watched my parents open their home, and Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself, and I watched my parents love their neighbors’ kids as their own.
I became an addict when I was probably 12 or 13 years old, and suffered a major brain injury when I was in high school, at 14 or 15. Just a stupid accident. I was playing basketball and I was put in the ICU for about a week.
And in college you had a religious awakening?
When I was in high school I was so manic depressed I tried to kill myself a few times, some pretty horrific scenarios, and really it was in college that I say that Jesus grabbed me by the throat and body slammed me a few times. I really recognized I was on a train wreck to destroy my life and everybody around me, and that’s when God really grabbed ahold of me.
How did you end up opening a church for the homeless?
While at seminary, and while preparing to go overseas, I fell in love with the homeless men and women in the streets of Dallas because they reminded me of the brothers and sisters I grew up with, struggling with the same issues: No one loves me, no one understands me, no one makes eye contact with me.
My future wife and I started feeding the homeless in downtown in 2001 with our church. At first, it was just us and a van. We would just go out and serve sandwiches.
Why did the facility take this form? Why a church?
I’m a pastor, and I don’t think a pastor is something you become, I think it’s just something you are. And so I was doing Bible studies and mentoring guys from probably day one under the trees in front of City Hall and in parking lots, and parking garages, and coffee shops and stuff like that.
"How do you become the man or woman God wants you to be?" That’s our primary focus — God has a plan and a purpose for your life, and it probably doesn’t include sleeping behind a building huddled up in a pile of trash drinking a 40 to dull the pain.
What do you mean when you talk about dignity?
There’s no public bathrooms in downtown Dallas. You will not find a city this size in the country that doesn’t have public bathrooms. We have bathrooms at the Farmer’s Market; they have security just to keep the homeless out. OurCalling bathrooms are some of the only bathrooms in the county for the homeless to come in where they can actually lock a door, be by yourself.
You come in to OurCalling today we have medical services here, we have mental health care services, we have ID services that help you if you have a ticket you need to work on. We help with the VA, the food stamps, licensed professional counseling, medical TB testing, HIV and STD testing, mental health care medications, housing, jobs, all that stuff. But what we do is we draw a circle around what we do, which really is discipleship, how do you grow spiritually?
How big is the homeless population in Dallas, and how many shelter beds are available?
We believe from our data that there’s between 8,000 to 10,000 homeless people in Dallas, every single day, currently experiencing homelessness. There’s shelter beds, there’s people in hospitals, there’s people in jails, there’s homeless kids in Dallas as well, but when you add all those pieces up, thousands are sleeping outside tonight.
There are about 2,300 shelter beds in Dallas.
Why is the Dallas homeless population growing so fast?
There are a lot of reasons — part of it is because we haven’t built the infrastructure to really address core homelessness, core poverty. It’s kind of like you have a small town, and you build a ton of housing and you look up one day and realize there’s tons of traffic, oh I forgot to build roads at the same time.
Low-income housing in Dallas is disappearing, we’re not expanding it. The three biggest mental health hospitals in our county have closed in the last three years.
At the growth rate that we’re experiencing, if you gave me a $200 million check today to build 1,000 permanent supportive housing units, by the time we turned a key to open the door three years from now, we’d need 6,000 more. So we are so far behind the ball addressing this from an infrastructure, political will perspective.
Is the solution more housing?
There’s a theory, with a lot of research behind it: Put a roof over their head first, don’t worry about anything else. Then provide wraparound support services. In Dallas, it’s been a roof, and that’s it. There’s not adequate support services. So, no rehab, no detox, no counseling, no support, no food, no furniture, no family, no life skills, no nothing. So, you got a roof over your head, and by the way, the cheapest place we can put you in, and the only place that will take your voucher is in the most crime-infested neighborhood in Dallas.
The likelihood you’re going to survive in that scenario with no support services is nil.
If you are approached by a homeless person, what is the best thing you can do to help?
Yeah I would say please don’t ever give them money, ever, under any circumstances. So what you should do then is a couple of things, one of them is recognize it’s a real person — not a pigeon. Acknowledge them, ask them their name, ask them how they’re doing today. It’s a real person.
You have to recognize the insanity in giving someone something that you know is not going to help him, has never helped him, and will never help him. It actually may be hurting him more, because I’ve got so many panhandlers that say: I wish people would quit giving me money, but I’m a dope fiend, all I know how to do is stand here and every time they give me money all I do is hurt myself.
Give them a directory, but then pick an organization in that book and give generously to that organization.
You got a ticket from the City of Dallas for operating as a shelter. How did that happen?
There’s some people who don’t like homeless people, yeah. We had neighbors that don’t appreciate what we’re doing, and that’s what Code Enforcement told us, they said we had neighbors that complained that you guys were open and letting people stay here, which is not your land use according to your certificate of occupancy. It was just a slap on the wrist, it didn’t mean anything.
There’s no alternative, and as long as there’s no alternative, we will do what we feel morally obligated to do to keep people safe.
Why do you think there’s a push to ban churches from acting as shelters?
You know there’s a lot people in this city that are faith-based people, there’s a lot of people in the city that value faith, or at least respect it, even if they’re not faith-based themselves.
Then there are people that just don’t — they’re anti-faith, or anti-church. They scream and holler that we don’t have to pay property taxes; they’re mad that they think we’re making a bunch of money off this stuff. I mean, I don’t know a staff member here that didn’t take a pay cut to work here; they could be paid much more working anywhere.
What’s a great success story to come out of OurCalling?
I’ll give you an example. We have a guy here [Joe Garcia] who used to live in a tent across the street from us years ago, that now gets a government check because of a problem, a disability he has. And so we were able to help him get an apartment. He’ll never be able to get a full-time job because of cognitive challenges that he has. But he still comes back here 40 hours a week every week, and he’s the one out there right now doing everybody’s laundry.
Joe shows up every day and diligently washes everybody’s clothes and serves his butt off here to make sure people have clean clothes.
Dignity’s important to us.
This Q&A was conducted, edited and condensed by Denton writer Rob Curran for The Dallas Morning News.
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