On a late-May Monday morning in downtown Dallas, it is sunny and pushing 80 degrees. Afternoon temps might hit 90. And real Texas summer hasn’t even started. Over the next few months, Dallas weather will rise from uncomfortable to potentially dangerous, especially for anyone without access to housing, say experts who work closely with Dallas’ homeless. In addition to the heat, those who are homeless are exposed to sunburns, dehydration and mosquitos, which can spread diseases such as West Nile Virus.
Inside the Stewpot resource center, a building on Young Street where the thermostat is set at 75, people who have nowhere else to go make themselves relatively comfortable in plastic chairs or on the white tiled floor or at a table near an older-model television. They are sleeping, reading, chatting or waiting for a caseworker to call on them.
The nonprofit, which is associated with First Presbyterian Church, has been innovating ways to help Dallas’ homeless since before 1975.
Last summer, Stewpot development associate Amy Desler — a Lakewood resident and mother of two — teamed up with Lake Highlands mom April Gorman to launch Little Stewpot Stewards. Their mission? To ease the seasonal struggles of Stewpot regulars.
The Stewards, some 60 kids from around Dallas, raise money and assemble “summer survival kits” comprising water, sunblock, sanitizer and bug spray, which they deliver to the Stewpot each Tuesday morning during summer break.
In summer 2013, Little Stewpot Stewards earned more than $3,500 by selling lemonade, and they distributed more than 600 kits to Stewpot clients.
“It is a two-hour commitment each week — distributing the packs, assembling packs for the next week, and then a lesson,” Desler says. “It has gotten so big. It started as a passion for April [Gorman], and I think she was completely amazed by how many wanted to participate. Our challenge has been to create those opportunities that are both meaningful for them and useful for the [clients at the Stewpot].”
Small gestures make a big impact
Even before a member donated the Stewpot building in the ’70s, the First Presbyterian Church was serving large amounts of food to Dallas’ homeless. For the next 20 years the Stewpot served meals — up to 1,500 a day. When The Bridge, Dallas County’s homeless assistance center, opened five years ago, meal services transferred there, but the Stewpot still provides the food.
Today the foundation also has extended its aid and, in myriad ways, assists some 14,000 people a year.
Downstairs near the Stewpot entrance, clients can access basic services — hygiene supplies, medical and dental care, employment and pre-employment assistance (that might mean acquiring identification or a mailing address, essential to obtaining work).
There are 6,000 homeless people in Dallas, says Stewpot director Bruce Buchanan. Ten percent of those are chronic; the other 90 percent are episodic.
“And there are 6,000 scenarios of how they got there, with some common denominators,” he says.
“The majority of the people who are here are from Dallas, have spent their lives here. There are issues related to choice — drugs, alcohol and untreated illnesses. There also can be domestic violence, aging out of foster care, mental illness or changes in the economy that cause a trickle-down effect.”
The second floor of the Stewpot features more-advanced programs — Street Zine (a system through which clients can sell and make a small profit selling newspapers), a children-and-youth program, and the Open Art Program, the Stewpot’s most beloved program, representative Amy Desler says, pointing to walls lined with colorful artwork created by the Stewpot clients.
The Stewpot is on the cusp of building a colossal new downtown center complete with an art studio, community garden, recording studio, amphitheater and athletic center.
But it is back at that fundamental level — basic safety and comfort, especially during the summer heat — that the Little Stewpot Stewards come in.
Danny Mitchell is tall and sinewy and looks healthy and clean. His appearance offers few and subtle clues that he is homeless — he carries a bag and wears multiple layers of clothing including a T-shirt, long-sleeved top, lightweight jacket and a cap, despite the day’s heat. He is well spoken and matter-of-fact when describing his failed marriage and cocaine addiction.
“I had a wife and an apartment in Pleasant Grove, but our relationship ended, we divorced, and I turned to drugs. Crack.”
He attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings now and has been clean for a few months, but he has a hard time staying off alcohol, he says. If he really wants to get better, he has to quit all of it, he acknowledges. He says that though his situation is tough, programs at the Stewpot offer hope.
“I have slept in the [homeless] camps, and I have been mugged and beaten while I was asleep. It is dangerous. But here, I have been able to see a Metro Care doctor, received medication for depression and bipolar disorder. I am applying for housing. And I have realized that there is a god and that I can turn to him. He keeps giving me blessings. I keep messing up. But I keep going back for forgiveness.”
Asking for help is not easy for 50-year-old Mitchell. His 26-year-old daughter and his mother both live in the Dallas area, but he does not ask them to support him.
“There is bad shame and guilt,” he explains.
He doesn’t feel it as much at the Stewpot, where there is a welcoming vibe, he says.
“They respect us. They are not judging. Many of them are here volunteering. I think that is an indicator of God’s love.”
Mitchell recognizes that summer in Texas presents particular challenges for him and others without homes.
“The heat, the mosquitos. You get thirsty,” he says.
The thoughtfulness of the Stewpot and the Little Stewpot Stewards, which will deliver summer care packages to Mitchell and others who need them, does not surprise him, but it fills him with gratitude, he says.
“They always know what you need, and they do not make you feel bad about it. I feel grateful for that. It makes me want to get better so I can come here and volunteer. I don’t want to keep missing out. I want a relationship with my family. I have grandkids. I want to help the way they helped me.”
Last Memorial Day weekend, Gorman (and her children John and Rory Kate) and Desler (and her two oldest children, Ariel and Cassidy) along with a dozen or so other families, launched the summer 2014 LSS program.
Throughout the summer, White Rock area residents will see the young philanthropists, more than 60 of them, around the neighborhood — each Steward family has committed to hosting one summertime lemonade stand.
The group will also be represented at both the Lake Highlands and Lakewood July 4 parades. Their respective goals are to raise funds for the care packages and to let the neighborhood know about the program, which Gorman says teaches “empathy and compassion at such young, impressionable ages.”
Jackson Reagan, 9, and his brother Blake, 6, were two of the original Stewards. Jackson says the Stewpot is “an interesting place” that he finds a little sad, but he says he feels better knowing he is doing something to help.
“It is always good to think of others’ needs, especially if they are homeless.”
He says he believes gestures such as the summer packages and handmade gifts the Stewards sent last Christmastime, for example, are appreciated. “They also need someone to pray for them,” he adds. “We each got assigned a person to pray for.”
Just like the hardworking staff at the Stewpot, the Stewards’ families “are trying hard to understand the plight of the clients,” Gorman explains, “and our children are making a difference in the lives of our homeless neighbors and friends,” she says.
Desler is confident the clients at the Stewpot will appreciate the children’s contribution.
The Stewpot, she says, “is a nice place. Nice in the sense that people feel welcome here. They express gratitude to us. There are a lot of please and thank yous and bless yous. That is what the Little Stewpot Stewards are going to hear.”