Richard Greene

Homelessness is a crisis in California cities, but Arlington offers a better model

How you can help the homeless?

There is no one-size-fits-all plan that works for helping the homeless. But rather than ignore those living on the streets, use these suggestions to guide your desire to reach out.
Up Next
There is no one-size-fits-all plan that works for helping the homeless. But rather than ignore those living on the streets, use these suggestions to guide your desire to reach out.

While homelessness is at a perilous level in cities across the country, Arlington has found success for more than 30 years in supporting people in crisis. And now, that assistance is expanding significantly.

Tensions are rising among residents described by a Los Angeles city councilwoman in an NPR report on meeting the challenges of 50,000 homeless people there. Meanwhile in San Francisco, that city’s mayor has declared that it is his city’s responsibility to support the homeless in neighborhoods, and residents have brought legal action to curtail those plans.

Stories like these can be found almost anywhere. But, the nonprofit Arlington Life Shelter is assisting those in need without raising such concerns from area residents. Its work demonstrates a way to help transform lives, and its leaders are doing that without local taxpayer funding.

Construction is underway on a 12,000-square-foot, two-story, $5 million expansion of the Division Street facility that will allow the shelter to serve a 40 percent increase from the current 25,000 individual nights provided annually.

While not entirely unique, the Life Shelter’s approach explains their success. Capital Campaign Manager Jim Reeder describes it: “For many people the word ‘homeless’ conjures up images of scraggly middle aged men standing on street corners. Actually, the fastest growing segments of the homeless population are women and children.

“Many citizens reach the critical situation of homelessness simply through a traumatic experience such as loss of job, illness, or domestic dispute. Many reach that condition because they do not have a support structure to help them and need direction, encouragement, and support as they work to get back on their feet.”

Therein lies the difference between support for recovery from crisis and the practice of camping out on city streets and in parks and neighborhoods.

The goal of the Life Shelter is to help individuals integrate back into society and become self-sufficient. It achieves desired outcomes with a small paid staff and over 1,500 volunteers and 3,000 donors who provide everyday support for the facility’s operations.

Applicants for admission must pass a background check and not have a felony conviction of a crime against another person within five years or a conviction of a crime against a child at any time. Admission is free, subject to available space.

While emergency shelter services are provided for up to three nights, the focus is on an employment program designed to help adults get back on their feet. Full participation is required to extend stays up to several weeks.

Adults complete 36 hours of educational classes, children and teens receive 90 hours of tutoring and computer instruction, and residents challenged by addiction complete 27 hours of education and support group meetings.

“We can always do more to help more people,” Reeder says, and to those ends, a Path of Kindness Brick Paver Program is underway. “We want to sell 1,500 bricks to be laid at the shelter’s entrance to allow residents to see how many people support them in their mission to return to self-sufficiency.”

Eight-by-eight-inch bricks are available for $400, and the four-by-eight size go for $250.

The Arlington Life Shelter was launched during my tenure as mayor. While the city was not a principal in the initiative, some residents approached the City Council then with concerns that never materialized.

Arlington’s three decades of success would seem to prove that there is a better way than the struggles in other cities.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor, served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency and lectures at UT Arlington.