Here’s what happened after a North Dallas neighborhood said yes to homeless shelter

Ellen Magnis and Na’Tiffany Thomas both know how it feels to walk the tightrope of…

Ellen Magnis and Na’Tiffany Thomas both know how it feels to walk the tightrope of desperation.

Magnis left her Farmers Branch home at 17, married at 18 and, by 23, was a single mother raising two little kids. She was completely alone, without an iota of family or support structure.

At 15, Thomas was kicked out of her home in Shreveport after her mom learned she was pregnant. She and her baby slept in cheap hotels, in the bus station and on the streets before she wound up in Dallas and its own dead ends.

Today, Thomas, now 23 and the mother of two, finds her family safe at last, due in no small part to that other once-hopeless mom, Magnis, whose Family Gateway shelters provide life-changing support to homeless parents and their children.

“These are not other people. These are us,” Magnis told me.

Na'Tiffany Thomas, with her 4-month-old daughter, Natoria, at her apartment at Family...
Na’Tiffany Thomas, with her 4-month-old daughter, Natoria, at her apartment at Family Gateway North, which took over a closed Candlewood Suites. In the Christmas photo with Santa is her 7-year-old son, Natreal.(Anja Schlein)

Thomas and her kids are one of more than 260 families that the nonprofit has housed at its new Far North Dallas shelter since Family Gateway North opened in January 2021 near Preston Road and the Bush Turnpike.

After the city purchased the former Candlewood Suites as part of its overall strategy to help our homeless population, Family Gateway won the contract to provide shelter and wraparound services.

As impressive as Family Gateway’s work is, what’s made me most want to stand up and salute is the way this community, with its District 12 City Council member Cara Mendelsohn leading the charge, has rallied around a population that many other neighborhoods mostly shun.

Here the cry has been not NIMBY but YIMBY — an outcome that shows why Mendelsohn’s model of engagement and transparency needs to be replicated in neighborhoods citywide.

The council member met consistently with residents for more than a year — long before any potential shelter location was suggested — to educate them on the need for homeless services and to hear their concerns.

Mendelsohn noted during an April 13 council discussion that talking to constituents about the big picture allowed them to put their energies into being part of the solution rather than becoming wrapped up in protesting a shelter site.

That big-picture work begins with breaking myths and helping people understand that it’s the lack of a support system that often pushes families into homelessness.

Magnis, Family Gateway’s president and CEO, told me she easily could have wound up in a shelter had she not been able to create a makeshift support structure with another single mother.

Ellen Magnis, president and CEO of Family Gateway, whose shelters provide services for...
Ellen Magnis, president and CEO of Family Gateway, whose shelters provide services for homeless families.

The two helped each other out of the kind of jams that can derail the best intentions. When one of their cars broke down, the other drove them both. When Magnis needed to take a night class, the friend watched her kids.

This helped Magnis hang on to a stable job and, over 10 years, to get a college degree. Six years ago, long married and with her MBA, she took charge at Family Gateway, determined that the organization will ensure that all homeless children and their adult caregivers — whether moms, dads or grandparents — find safe refuge.

“I could just as easily have gone in the other direction,” Magnis said in describing her struggles. “You can withstand all sorts of things if you have the right support.”

Thomas told me much the same: “All these women rooting and advocating for me and my kids. … This is a judge-free zone.”

Thomas was six months pregnant and overwhelmed trying to care for her autistic first-grade son when she found Family Gateway North in November. Her most recent stint of homelessness began after her boyfriend abandoned her the year before.

As we sat in the former hotel room — outfitted with a kitchenette, king-size bed for Thomas and her 7-year-old son and crib for her 4-month-old daughter — she described the cycle of trauma and hard times that upended her life in Shreveport.

Eventually, she went into survival mode and at times stole to make ends meet for herself and her son. “I have a criminal history, but now you cannot pay me to steal,” she said. “That stuff messed up my life.”

Na'Tiffany Thomas plays with her 4-month-old daughter, Natoria, in a former hotel room that...
Na’Tiffany Thomas plays with her 4-month-old daughter, Natoria, in a former hotel room that is now the family’s stepping stone to permanent housing.(Anja Schlein)

The Thomas family will move in the next week or so into permanent housing provided by a Family Gateway partner. Thomas’ first priority is to get child care set up so she can resume working and eventually get her GED.

She said Family Gateway also has helped her with parenting skills and a better understanding of her son’s autism. (About 25% of the shelter’s clients have a family member with a disabling condition.)

As we finished talking, Thomas broke into tears and implored me to tell other homeless families about Family Gateway.

“Get out from under that bridge, put your pride to the side because that’s what I did,” she said. “I’m not the person I used to be.”

Na'Tiffany Thomas receives a piece of pizza from volunteer Tahani Abu-Shamala at Family...
Na’Tiffany Thomas receives a piece of pizza from volunteer Tahani Abu-Shamala at Family Gateway North’s “Stock the Shelves and Spring Carnival” event April 21.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Matt Jacob, District 12′s representative to the citizen homeless commission, says stories like Thomas’ show “there is no us and them.”

“These families find themselves in a position that any of us might,” Jacob told me.

Jacob also serves on the Good Neighbor Task Force, a group put into place to monitor any complaints about Family Gateway North and make sure those are resolved.

The task force includes members who initially were skeptical of a homeless shelter in the neighborhood but now are on board. “We didn’t just give our consent and walk away,” Jacob said. “We are invested every step of the way.”

Jacob also credits Mendelsohn with creating a culture of transparency and feedback that has made Family Gateway North a success.

“This wasn’t thrust upon us,” Jacob said. “You can do a project where people see that every voice does matter.”

City Council member Chad West, who represents north and west Oak Cliff, also pointed to the District 12 model during the April 13 “lessons learned” discussion.

West said he should have better educated his district and asked for input long before the city purchased the crime-ridden Hotel Miramar, on Fort Worth Avenue, for homeless services.

Because communication wasn’t good and West was late to appoint a working group to fully vet residents’ concerns, “neighbors were showing up with pitchforks,” he said.

Ash-Meire Lee jumps after making a bullseye while playing a game at Family Gateway North's...
Ash-Meire Lee jumps after making a bullseye while playing a game at Family Gateway North’s “Stock the Shelves and Spring Carnival” event April 21.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Mendelsohn “had those conversations well in advance so it wasn’t the ‘oh my God, it’s here’ moment we had here,” West said.

Thank goodness West persevered through the social media firestorm. Now with the support of most of the community, the nonprofit CitySquare will provide services for single homeless adults at this 45-room facility.

Two other properties that the City Council has approved for purchase — the former University General Hospital near Kiest Park in Oak Cliff and the TownHouse Suites in southern Dallas near the Duncanville border — are scheduled to be used not as shelters, but for supportive housing.

Christine Crossley, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions, told me that no decisions will be made on how to use those properties until after neighborhood input is gathered.

At Family Gateway North, fundraising is about to begin for a $2.2 million renovation to turn the former hotel’s ground floor into a child care center, after-school program, catering kitchen and counseling space.

Also on the to-do list are outdoor playground areas — for now, the parking lot is the only area where kids can play — and switching out the existing king-size beds with bunk beds so each family member has his or her own place to sleep.

More than 75% of the families that Family Gateway North has housed have since moved to more permanent homes and almost all were still in those new situations six months later.

Jacob’s volunteer work on behalf of District 12 has led him to realize that ending local homelessness will take a lot more than City Hall, elected leaders, caring nonprofits or even the buckets of federal dollars available.

“It’s going to take citizens in every part of our city to want to make this happen,” he said. “The model we used can work everywhere — if everyone is just allowed a voice.”