Michael Ryan

Memoirs of an invisible man who’s now in plain view

A man who was believed to be homeless was found burned and dead behind a commercial strip shopping center on North Beach Street in Fort Worth early Wednesday.
A man who was believed to be homeless was found burned and dead behind a commercial strip shopping center on North Beach Street in Fort Worth early Wednesday. ramirez@star-telegram.com

I’m not so good with names, but I’ve been trying to memorize Vayvanthong Inthalangsy’s. I mean, since his death is burned in my memory, I’d like his name to be, too.

The 59-year-old homeless man died Nov. 14 in a fire he apparently built to stay warm during a cold snap — as most of us were pulling our covers up over ourselves in bed.

Few things are worse than unbridled tragedies, but completely unnecessary ones definitely are.

There’s no reason for anyone in Fort Worth to be building fires to survive, and ironically dying in the process. But no fires and no deaths are needed for homelessness to be considered a tragedy. We’re too blessed, too generous and too caring, and too many good people are working too hard to house, clothe and feed those in need.

Interestingly, the area’s homeless advocates — knowledgeable professionals, truth be known — tell me that, while emergency shelters always need funds, clothes and food, and this is a most meaningful time of year to shower them with such love, we don’t have a “foodless” or “clothesless” problem, as one advocate put it to me, so much as a homeless problem.

Tara Perez, manager of the city’s Directions Home division, which works with private agencies to make homelessness “rare, short-term, and nonrecurring,” made an informal study of what the homeless say they need. The answers: a cheap one-bedroom, a job and bus passes.

Reflecting those priorities, the state-of-the-art approach in solving homelessness has changed in recent decades to a “housing first” model — getting folks into housing first, then addressing their other issues, explains Bruce Frankel, executive director of community-based homeless solutions agency DRC. There’s a new emphasis on case management, not just crisis management. Even DRC has adapted — changing from a drop-in Day Resource Center that gave the homeless a place to go during the day, to a bulked-up case management agency that instead helps people transition to stable housing.

Indeed, various homeless solution pros here are promoting and even building “permanent supportive housing.” It’s called that because it’s designed to help the chronically homeless — those with a disabling condition who are on the streets at least a year — not only get into housing but stay there, with the support of case managers who see to clients’ health, financial, vocational and logistical needs.

In trying to get my arms around what area folks are doing to help the homeless, I’ve been truly amazed and encouraged.

Union Gospel Mission of Tarrant County is building 100 units; Fort Worth Housing Solutions, the public housing authority, has 50 housing vouchers coming online in January (for which the city will provide case management); and the city has set aside $5.6 million to help build 224 units with the help of partners. Presbyterian Night Shelter also has a day shelter, True Worth Place. The Salvation Army is doing what it famously does, only more of it.

These are just the highlights. Then there’s the overarching Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, which really does have its arms around the situation.

I found capable, caring agency after capable, caring agency. It goes on and on. But so does homelessness: some 2,000 in Tarrant County. That’s why we need both the shelters and the strategies to do away with the need for them.

No one has to tell Jeff Guinn the stakes. Few of us blessed with hearth and home this holiday season will know the rigors of homelessness as well as the former Star-Telegram writer-turned-author, who subjected himself to being homeless for a week in 1997 to share the experience with readers.

He got only a bitter taste of the grime, stress and can’t-see-past-today struggle of the streets. He had his shoulder separated in an assault, which a seasoned homeless friend immediately put back in place, if ever so poorly. He wondered where to go to the bathroom. But mostly he felt invisible, like his fellow homeless. He saw many people he knew pass by; only one person recognized him.

The experience not only opened his eyes and brought tears to others’, but inspired the creation of DRC forerunner Day Resource Center. What a compliment for a writer.

For his part, Guinn’s not so much impressed with his accomplishment as this city’s heartwarming response to his reporting. And noting that “my heroes used to be baseball players,” he says his heroes now are those in the trenches helping the homeless. Mine too.

As for Vayvanthong Inthalangsy, he’s no longer invisible. He’s indelible.

The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.