Cottages for the chronically homeless

Posted by on Sep 1, 2015 in Updates

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One of downtown Dallas’ newest neighborhoods will have a sweeping view of the skyline. Residents will sign a lease that costs no money and never expires — and will leave behind years or decades of homelessness in return.

The Cottages at Hickory Crossing will kick off a new approach in Dallas County’s fight against chronic homelessness. It will offer permanent housing before focusing on hard-to-solve problems that led residents to the streets. The tiny village with 50 homes will take aim at some of society’s most persistent challenges: mental illness, order addiction, sales poverty and isolation.

“To me, it’s a symbol of community and safety,” said Keith Ackerman, executive director of The Cottages at Hickory Crossing. “This is a place where you can now be and live and hopefully be a contributor to society once again.”

The cottages were also motivated by finances. The $6.8 million housing project is expected to save Dallas County taxpayers thousands of dollars by offering shelter and medical care to the “frequent fliers” of emergency rooms, hospitals and the jail.

Each person who will move into a cottage costs the county more than $40,000 in services per year, said Larry James, chief executive of Dallas nonprofit CitySquare. With a permanent home and a support system, she should cost the county less than $15,000.

“In this case, doing the right thing is also the best thing,” he said.

James said the houses are part of the therapy. “I always say, ‘If I can’t hang a picture on the wall, I’m not home,’” he said. “And home is what people need.”

Years in the making

The Cottages at Hickory Crossing project has been years in the making. Local nonprofits raised millions of dollars and found about 3.5 acres of land near Malcolm X Boulevard and Louise Avenue. The vacant South Dallas lot was covered with overgrown shrubs, abandoned concrete slabs and an occasional tent.

Small homes of wood and steel have risen there. They’re across the street from CitySquare’s Opportunity Center, a building that offers food, reading classes and employment training. They’re also across from a boarded-up house with a “No Trespassing” sign and a gas station.

The community straddles a well-known socioeconomic divide between northern and southern Dallas. It’s within blocks of a trendy brewery and a homeless shelter.

That contrast creates synergy, James said. “I hope this little neighborhood will inspire people to aspire to be housed and to believe and see it can happen.”

Move-in will begin in late October. Each resident will live in a 400-square-foot home with a compact kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom. The houses will be decorated with colorful lamps, plush bedding and brand-new appliances.

The community will have a retreat or camp-like feel. Janitors will be called rangers. Each cluster of homes will become a neighborhood with street names, front porches and a paved foot path. A nearby building, called a lodge, will offer yoga, painting and computer classes. A nurse, a psychiatrist and an around-the-clock concierge will work there.

Herbs and vegetables will grow in a community garden. Neighbors will be invited to regular town hall meetings and can volunteer for a role, such as manager of the garden.

Ackerman, 44, of Arlington, will act as its cruise director and manager. He decided to become a social worker after growing up in Charleroi, Pa., a small town near Pittsburgh that relied on steel mills and a glass factory for steady jobs and a strong economy. His father, an Episcopal minister, led a local church. When the steel mill across the river closed and the glass factory laid people off, rates of alcoholism, depression and suicide spiked. Churchgoers knocked on his family’s door late into the night.

Ackerman, the oldest of three children, would sometimes be shaken awake by his father to make sandwiches for visitors. As an adult, he’s worked with people in halfway houses, home arrest programs and a psychiatric hospital.

“There is always so much more to the individual and the story than you see in the first impression,” he said.

Staff will track down potential residents for the cottages at homeless shelters, on park benches, beneath overpasses and in makeshift camps on the fringes of the Trinity Forest. They will whittle down a list of about 300 individuals to the 50 most vulnerable — men and women who have “burned every bridge that they’ve got in their life,” Ackerman said.

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