Carly Geraci/Staff photographer

AT&T takes on homelessness at its Dallas doorstep with money, manpower

by Melissa Repko, Staff Writer | December 11, 2018

Dallas-based AT&T was looking for a local problem to tackle. It found it just steps from its headquarters, on the streets and sidewalks of downtown Dallas.

The telecom giant announced Tuesday that it’s launching a campaign aimed at reducing homelessness, especially among families and veterans. As part of the effort, AT&T will donate more than half a million dollars to homeless service providers, urge its thousands of employees to volunteer and use company resources, such as technology and job fairs, to fight root causes.

“You can’t step over a homeless person sleeping on the street, go to work, and feel like your work is changing the world,” said John Donovan, chief executive of AT&T Communications. “You’ve got to have compassion for the problem that’s close to home. And working in this building, it’s really local to us here. It’s literally on our doorstep.”

AT&T has about 5,400 employees who work in downtown Dallas and about 16,000 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Its corporate headquarters is within blocks of soup kitchens, homeless shelters and the public library — which all draw homeless people looking for food or a safe place to spend the day.

The campaign, called Believe Dallas, is part of a larger effort by AT&T to address hard-to-solve challenges in major cities across the country. In Chicago, AT&T launched a campaign focused on hiring and training people in neighborhoods hard hit by gun violence. In New York City, it is educating parents and kids about ways to combat cyberbullying and other risk-taking behavior of young people online. It plans to launch similar initiatives in other cities.

AT&T will kick off the campaign Tuesday with an open house at its headquarters where employees can learn more about homeless-service providers and sign up to volunteer. Employees will also put together hygiene kits, such as soap and deodorant, to give to nonprofits.

In Dallas, AT&T will donate $565,000 to nonprofits, homeless shelters and churches. It will work with related initiatives, including megachurch pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes’ Texas Offenders Reentry Initiative, a program that helps former inmates get back into the workforce. AT&T’s donation will help fund a new space for homeless women with a background of trauma, such as domestic abuse and human trafficking, for Dallas nonprofit OurCalling.

Chris Johnson (left) and Carlton Nalley, who are both homeless, carry their belongings after leaving Our Calling in Dallas on Dec. 10, 2018. (Carly Geraci/Staff Photographer)

Donovan, 58, who oversees a business unit that includes pay-TV, mobile phone and internet businesses, said the corporate initiative is rooted in the firsthand experiences of employees. In Chicago, for example, AT&T technicians start their day at garages in neighborhoods with some of the nation’s highest rates of gun violence. He said some employees have been shot. Others have friends, neighbors and family members who have been injured or killed.

He said employees drive by the violence during their workday. They have children in nearby schools and attend church there. “You have a recognition that you’re not only serving a community. You’re in the community,” he said. “And out of that, the local team got together and started to coordinate an effort.”

When AT&T shared internal memos about the Chicago initiative, he said the company heard from employees in other cities and towns who wanted to take on a problem in their communities, too.

In New York City, he said, employees at retail stores heard the worries of parents who gave their children a cell phone at a young age because of their reliance on public transit. As a result, retail employees in the New York area were trained to help parents set up filters and parental controls on children’s devices, regardless of their carrier, and to direct them to a website with tips.

AT&T, the ninth largest company in the country based on revenue, is a major corporate philanthropist, and it has spearheaded other public campaigns. AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign encourages people to pledge that they will avoid texting, posting on social media and other phone-related behaviors that result in distracted driving. Employees are encouraged to volunteer and mentor students through a program called AT&T Aspire. And it has also written big checks to nonprofits, including a $1 million donation to The Trevor Project, a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline for LGBT youth.

AT&T keeps track of the hundreds of thousands of hours that employees spend volunteering at their favorite local charities. Last year, it logged 1.78 million hours through its employee volunteer programs.

When a tornado or a hurricane hits, Donovan said employees have reopened stores and gotten busy “passing out water, hugs, prayers, clothing” and free loaner phones.

But he said the national campaigns, such as Believe Dallas, go a step further by teaming up with frontline organizations and channeling employee efforts toward a primary cause.

Homelessness has become a growing problem in the Dallas area as the region’s population, its real estate values, and its poverty rate increase. The number of homeless people in Dallas and Collin counties rose by 9 percent last year, according to data from an annual homeless census. The census counted more than 4,100 people who were homeless in the two counties last year, but the point-in-time count can miss people who are staying on friends’ couches, sleeping in cars or staying in another place that’s hard to see.

The rise is even sharper for the unsheltered homeless population, people who can’t find an empty bed at a shelter or can’t get one because they lack a proper ID or have a criminal record. It has jumped by 269 percent over the past three years — from 363 people in 2015 to 1,341 people in 2018, according to the census.

A man eats lunch at Our Calling in Dallas on Dec. 10, 2018. (Carly Geraci/Staff Photographer)

Wayne Walker is pastor and executive director of OurCalling, which provides food, clothing and counseling to homeless people who don’t have a place to stay. He said the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the fastest growing region of the country, hasn’t kept up with the needs that come with population growth: more beds at homeless shelters and more affordable housing.

Each month, he said, the nonprofit serves an average of 206 new homeless people who are seeking services.

“It doesn’t take much to push people off that cliff, and people find themselves tumbling into homelessness,” Walker said.

Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago, said he’s been impressed by AT&T’s commitment. He said Donovan visited and spoke to clients at the church’s unemployment center and youth center. Months later, when a graduate of one of its programs was shot and killed in Chicago’s South Side, Donovan called to say that the young man was on his mind and in his prayers.

“It touched me that he cared,” Pfleger said. “I like people who really invest their heart and their emotions into what they do.”

He said he hopes AT&T’s actions challenge other companies to step up and ask “What can we do?”


AT A GLANCE: Believe Dallas

Through donations, corporate resources and volunteering, AT&T wants to reduce the number of homeless individuals in Dallas. It will donate $565,000 to the following local organizations:

  • $150,000 to OurCalling, a Christian-based nonprofit that serves the unsheltered homeless by providing food, clothes, counseling and more, to fund a new Women’s Center that specializes in helping homeless women overcome trauma

  • $125,000 to Downtown Dallas Inc., a public improvement district that promotes economic development and safety in the urban core of Dallas

  • $50,000 to the Communities Foundation of Texas, a professional manager of funds for nonprofits, to help pay for public service announcements to encourage the public to get volunteer with or donate to homeless service providers

  • $30,000 to CitySquare, a nonprofit with a campus in southern Dallas that provides job training, health and education services, to support job training for homeless veterans

  • $30,000 to The Bridge, a large homeless shelter near the Farmers Market in downtown Dallas, to support health programs for homeless veterans

  • $30,000 to Austin Street Center, a homeless shelter in Dallas, to support veterans’ programs and a day program for women

  • $30,000 to Family Gateway, which has an emergency shelter and supportive housing programs that help homeless families and children

  • 30,000 to Dallas Life, a Dallas homeless shelter

  • $30,000 to The Stewpot, which offers a wide range of services from free meals and health care to art programs

  • $30,000 to Union Gospel Mission, a Christian-based organization, to support families and job training

  • $30,000 to Genesis Women’s Shelter, a nonprofit that provides shelter and support for abused women and children fleeing domestic violence

This article was originally published by The Dallas Morning News and FWD>DFW had no influence on the content created.

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