My team, from left, Jessica Wickizer, Keri Stitt, Demetria Brown and Christopher Moeder. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

My preconceived notions about doing the youth homeless count were completely wrong

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer
[email protected]

When Promise House asked me to tag along on a Youth Homeless Count, well, I can’t refuse Promise House — even if it would be in February … at 1 a.m. … in downtown Dallas.

Who would we run into?

Would it be safe?

What did I get myself into this time?

Wow. Were my preconceptions wrong.

The weather was perfect. Downtown Dallas at 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning felt perfectly safe. And I met some of the sweetest people.

A small group of us met at Promise House in Oak Cliff at about 12:30 a.m. We loaded the van with a plastic tub of prepackaged goods: shampoo, socks, soap — things that someone living on the street could use.

Then, with fearless leader Demetria Brown, Promise House’s street outreach coordinator, at the helm, we headed out.

Keri Stitt, Promise House’s chief partner relations officer, explained she didn’t really like to call what we were doing a count. Rather, she said, it was a survey.

“It’s the information we collect,” she said, “and how we can intervene.”

Brown said that while we want to find out how many young people are on the street, that wasn’t enough. “We need to figure out how to help them get off the street,” she said.

Stitt said she enjoyed working with homeless youth because they still had hope.

Our first stop downtown was the Erik Jonsson Library. When we saw people hanging out around the library, we parked, each of us grabbed a couple of personal care packages, and we headed over to the main entrance on Young Street where three young men were closely gathered. One was sleeping on a ledge, and another was reluctant to answer any questions. But the third agreed to participate.

He told Brown his age and the ages of the other two young men. They were all between 19 and 22 years old. He answered other questions — about how he ended up on the street, his sexual orientation, where he spends most nights, what he might need and any hopes he had for the future.

Brown recorded the answers on a phone app, and it took about five minutes to complete the survey. We gave each of the young men a personal care package. The one who completed the survey also got a $10 Target gift card.

We moved on.

“Scuse me,” Brown said cheerfully to a couple already asleep, bundled in sleeping bags on the sidewalk in front of the library.

They responded, maybe a little scared. Brown quickly identified herself and told them what we were doing. I worried that her waking them might upset them. But they responded positively. Everyone responded to her that way I learned quickly.

The woman said she was 30 — too old for the count — so we thanked them, gave each a personal care package, said good night and moved on. We repeated that with several more people.

How did she get that response, I asked her.

“Everything I do is from the heart,” Brown explained. “I always greet you with a smile.”

We circled the library on foot. Then we walked several blocks to check the streets surrounding the Stew Pot, the day shelter run by First Presbyterian Church.

We met a few other people camped outside the Stew Pot. All were too old for the survey, but we handed out packages to anyone that wanted one.

Before moving to another section of downtown, we took one more look at the main library entrance. Our group of three young men had grown to four, and the sleeping companion was up and agreed to do a survey.

Stitt interviewed him while Brown surveyed the new member of the group.

I chatted with the 19-year-old who was reluctant to answer questions. He said he had no way to carry the personal care items around, because he didn’t have a backpack. I asked Brown if Promise House had any. She said she thought she could find one and would bring it to him the next night.

I asked him if they spent most nights here, and he said they did.

Stitt learned that the young man she was interviewing had some mental health concerns that he would like help with. She offered to connect him to services.

In the van after leaving these four young men, Stitt said she could make an appointment at Metrocare and drive him to at least a first appointment. Of course, treatment doesn’t happen in one visit, but it would be easier if someone was there, walking him through those first steps.

Our next stop was the Greyhound bus station and the downtown McDonald’s. We parked on the street between the two. Quite a few people were gathered around the DART stop across the street from where we parked, even though DART had stopped running for the night a couple of hours earlier.

One man approached us. He looked young, but said he was in his late 20s. Brown explained what we were doing and asked if he knew of any young people on the street downtown. He suggested we look around West End Station. We told him another team was surveying the West End and El Centro College, so he said he knew of some around the Stew Pot area. We told him we just came from there. He was disappointed he couldn’t help, but we thanked him and I gave him a personal care package.

He said “Bless you” several times, so excited about the package containing simple items — items I don’t even think about but that meant so much to him. He thanked me over and over when all I did was hand him a package.

Why wasn’t there anything more we could do for him?

We walked over to the Greyhound bus station, which is hopping at 2 a.m. Inside, most seats were taken. Outside, some people were milling around while several people were laying on blankets on the sidewalk. Those are the ones Brown approached first.

One young man who was 19 and laying on blankets turned out to not be homeless. He was traveling back home to Midland where he had a job lined up in the oil field.

Another young man had been speaking Spanish fluently to a couple of other guys hanging around the bus station entrance. When we realized English was his first language, Stitt approached him. He was 23 and said he had learned Spanish hanging out of the street. He just picked it up from other people, he explained.

The young man had been homeless since his mother died when he was in 10th grade, and he was kicked out of his house. When Stitt asked him about any goals he might have, he said he’d love to get his GED. When she said she could arrange for him to get into a class, his eyes lit up with hope.

He told her he needed an ID, which he lost. She said she could help him with that, as well.

Stitt took a page from my notepad to write down her name and phone number. The young man said that although he had lost his phone, he could get in touch with her using someone else’s.

Stitt asked him how old his Spanish-speaking friend was. He was also under 24, so the bilingual young man translated the survey questions into Spanish and the responses into English.

We gave each of them DART passes and personal care packages, and Stitt got the young man to promise he’d call her before we moved on.

We walked around the bus station and then around McDonalds. Cars wrapped around the building waiting to order in the drive-thru, and people were out on the street walking, but we didn’t pass anyone we thought was homeless.

We walked around several more blocks, avoiding streets with patrol cars. Brown said the homeless stayed away from those streets that were usually patrolled. Instead, we chose darker streets where it was easier to sleep, away from the glare of lights, away from the gaze of police.

Finally, we returned to the van, wandered around a few more parts of downtown before driving back to Oak Cliff. In the car we talked about those who had needs Stitt and Brown could address, excited that a few small things they could do might make a difference in their lives.

Later in the week, Brown told me she tried to deliver the backpack to the young man at the library. She said the night she went back downtown, no one was there, but she’d try again later in the week.

That backpack might seem like a little thing, but it could make a big difference in that young man’s life. Brown explained that some people will do the survey and others need to build some trust before they’ll open up.

If she can get that one young man a backpack, maybe he’ll begin to trust her enough to open up about other needs he may have. And eventually she might be able to help get him off the street.

“We take a lot for granted,” Brown said. “Doing this job is very humbling.”