Last week I was in Kansas City doing social/new media work for the All-America City Awards, the 62-year-old civic recognition program of 117-year-old National Civic League. About 700 people from all over the country showed up in Kansas City for the annual confab.
A youth contingent from Dedham, Massachusetts, drove all the way from New England in the van, stopping off along the way to do community service. Dedham was not named one of the 2011 All-America Cities, but their youth delegation really exemplified the spirit of community and civic responsibility at the heart of the award.
It was a tough decision for the jury of civic experts that chose the ten winners. They were in deliberation for several hours, but eventually they narrowed down the 23 finalists to a list of ten. Not being on the jury or being privy to their deliberations, I have no influence over the selection, but over the course of the three-day event I tend to develop personal favorites. Dedham was one of them, and so was Fort Worth, Texas, which did end up on the list of ten winners.
Why Fort Worth? Frankly, I’ve always had a certain fascination for the place, so different and yet so close to Dallas, where I was raised. The Dallas of my youth was a glitzy shopping center of a town of leafy estates, gleaming high rises, exclusive country clubs and famous department stories like Neiman Marcus. Fort Worth was a rail yard town, a grittier, funkier, working class place. Dallas was the Cotton Mart. Forth Worth was Panther Hall and Cowtown Jamboree.
This duality was always a simplistic way of looking at things, and much has changed since those days. Fort Worth today is known for its high tech industries and excellent art museums. It is one of the fastest growing major cities in the country. To judge from its All-America City projects, it is also a city with a beating heart.
And this gets to the other reason I was secretly rooting for Fort Worth was that two of its three All-America City projects were focused on—how shall we put this?—“underserved communities.” For instance, the city has taken a “no wrong door” approach to mental health services, meaning that all the public, private and nonprofit service agencies work together to ensure that people who have mental health needs don’t fall in between the cracks.
Forth Worth has also adopted a similarly comprehensive approach to the homeless problem with “Directions Home,” a successful ten year plan to address the problem of chronic homelessness. The initiative was started by Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, a former state senator who is about to end his eight-year tenure as mayor.
Some mayors like to point to a new sports arena or business park as their legacy. Moncrief has Directions Home. The scion of a famous Texas oil family, Moncrief remembers a visit to skid row Los Angeles and gazing out upon a “sea” of homeless people. It was one of the most emotional moments I’ve had in my 40 years of public service,” recalls the mayor, “seeing that sea of homelessness—of hopelessness.”
Forth Worth, by contrast had a homeless population of 4000. “We could get a rope around that,” said the mayor. Borrowing from the best ideas they encountered on a tour of homeless programs across the country, the task force learned three things, the mayor told me. “Just giving people a house without services doesn’t work,” says Mayor Moncrief. “Providing services without housing doesn’t work, either. Finally, the most important lesson of all, doing nothing doesn’t work.”
The emphasis of the program has been to provide housing with services wrapped around it—social services, law enforcement, health care and employment services. Project WISH, for example, a collaboration of nonprofits, local government, homeless shelters and employers, has trained and placed 650 people into viable jobs at above minimum wages.
Directions Home does seems to be working, as attested by the fact that the chronic homelessness in Fort Worth has been reduced by about 20 percent during the past couple of years, a period of sever economic hardship nationwide.
The ten All-America City Award winners are Kenai, Alaska; Dublin, California; Lakewood, Colorado; Belleville, Illinois; South Bend, Indiana; Scott City, Kansas; Tupelo, Mississippi; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Eden, North Carolina and Fort Worth, Texas
You can read about these community and their civic engagement efforts—and watch some video—on our blog.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.