Brandon Wade/Special Contributor

‘The face of homelessness that we don’t see is the young face’: New shelter to provide safe haven for homeless Dallas high school students

by Corbett Smith | December 27, 2019

The Fannie C. Harris Youth Center, soon to be Dallas’ newest homeless shelter, sits adjacent to the fairgrounds of the State Fair of Texas. A step outside the front doors of the facility, an old Dallas ISD elementary school, reveals an impressive view of downtown Dallas.

It’s that image of Dallas — bright lights and big buildings — that captures the imagination of those on a national level, said the shelter’s founding father, Jorge Baldor.

But that glitz and glamour doesn’t truly tell the city’s story.

On any given day, Dallas ISD has around 3,500 homeless students. Most of them don’t live on the street, but instead couch surf at relatives’ or friends’ houses, live week-to-week in motels, or have other temporary arrangements.

More than 100 of the district’s students, though, live unsheltered and unaccompanied.

“On the local level, we need to know who is living here — who are the people who are experiencing this city, and it’s not always just the ones that are in those tall buildings,” Baldor said. “Sometimes they are at street level or sometimes they’re below that, under a bridge or in an abandoned car.”

Two years ago, Baldor helped create a new collaborative effort called After8ToEducate, drawing together four nonprofits and organizations — Dallas ISD, CitySquare, Promise House and Social Venture Partners Dallas — to help high school students and young adults who are living in the shadows.

The nonprofit’s goal was to create a central hub where homeless students and youth could get access to services, educational support and shelter.

In January, that vision will become a reality.

A two-year renovation of Fannie C. Harris Elementary was completed in late December, transforming the upstairs of the 68-year-old building into a 35-bed shelter.

Not long after furniture is delivered in early January, the center will be fully operational, providing a safe haven for unsheltered high school students and young adults.

A fundraising event at the facility in mid-December provided a glimpse of what the center will look like.

Upstairs, rooms on the building’s west side will be set aside for nine beds of transitional housing for 18- to 21-year-olds who are in the process of aging out of the state’s foster care system.

The remaining beds, on the building’s east side, will be for Dallas ISD students ages 14 to 18.

Downstairs, students can gather in a large common area, a conference room or the center’s café. There is also a recording studio, where residents will record a podcast with help from students from DISD’s Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School.

A 24-hour drop-in center adjacent to the shelter opened in June, offering homeless students a place to eat, take a shower and do their laundry.

“This is a pioneering endeavor,” said Charles Wolford, CEO of Promise House, the nonprofit group charged with operating the residential center.

Billy Lane (from left), interim executive director for After8ToEducate; John Siburt, president of City Square; Charles Wolford, CEO of Promise House; and Jorge Baldor, founder of After8ToEducate, at the Fannie C. Harris Youth Center in Dallas, Tuesday, December 17, 2019. The youth center will serve as a 35-bed shelter to DISD students experiencing housing instability. (Brandon Wade / Special Contributor)

After8ToEducate is still trying to raise between $600,000 to $800,000 to fully fund its initial capital campaign, said interim director Billy Lane.

Because the building sat unused for several years — Fannie C. Harris Elementary was shuttered over a decade ago, with DISD using the building for administrative functions until 2013 — there were unforeseen issues during the renovations, Lane said. A completely new HVAC system was needed, as were a new transformer and light pole, plumbing and wiring.

The additional work put the project approximately $1.2 million over its initial $2 million budget, Lane said.

“Those were the things that we didn’t quite foresee,” Lane said. “But the key is, we don’t want to have to turn around in another 12 months and say, ‘OK, kids, we need you to get out because we need to fix something.’ That’s just not working.”

Naming rights for the podcast studio, conference room, common areas, and a reading and learning center are being sold by After8ToEducate to complete the fundraising.

In December, the walls of the still-unpainted bedrooms were lined with inspirational messages written by the shelter’s donors and volunteers.

“My hope for you is … ” read a prompt in one of the bedrooms.

“Be the grown-up you needed,” was one of the responses.

“You discover you’re awesome,” was another.

A vignette written on the wall of a dormitory by a student who had experienced housing instability at the Fannie C. Harris Youth Center in Dallas, Tuesday, December 17, 2019. The youth center will serve as a 35-bed shelter to DISD students who are experiencing housing instability. (Brandon Wade / Special Contributor)

“Too often, the face of homelessness that we don’t see is the young face,” said CitySquare president John Siburt. “Kids have the ability to hide. They couch surf, or get sex trafficked, or they ride the DART train at night, or they find a little cubby next to their school.”

These kids “are full of wealth, and their future is part of our shared future in Dallas.”

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

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