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Eliminating drug houses one virtual reality experience at a time (Dallas Morning News)

April 13, 2018

Dallas Morning News (online)

Dana Branham, breaking news reporter

A virtual-reality look into a West Dallas neighborhood gave hundreds of young professionals a chance to experience what it's like to live next door to a drug house. 

Goggles and noise-canceling headphones transported attendees of Generation Justice to a West Dallas living room Thursday. The annual event is hosted by Christian ministry organization Advocates for Community Transformation (ACT). 

During the VR experience, actors showcased ACT's mission: Volunteer attorneys team with community advocates to help West and South Dallas residents use the legal system to reduce crime. 

In the six-minute virtual scenario, a woman tells the ACT community advocate and attorney that she’s scared to have her grandchildren spend the night because of crime spilling out from a nearby drug house. She has trouble sleeping and doesn’t feel safe. The advocates promise to help get rid of the drug house through litigation. 

Annie Shaw didn't need to put on the goggles to know what happens. Her West Dallas living room is the one in the scenario, and she said she’s had ACT’s help getting rid of several drug houses in her Victory Gardens neighborhood. 

“A lot of the drug houses, they’ve torn them down. It’s all cleaned up, and the drug people have left the area,” Shaw said of her neighborhood near Hampton Road. 

These days, she said, her neighborhood is a much more comfortable place to live. "Now, we're getting new houses built, so it's excellent," she said. 

ACT, founded in 2009, has worked with more than 120 clients to resolve crime and drug problems, founder Reid Porter said Thursday at the Deep Ellum event. He noted that attendees were standing just a few miles from where ACT is working in South Dallas neighborhoods.

The organization often focuses on eliminating drug houses because they’re likely to invite other types of crime, including prostitution and violence, into a neighborhood, said ACT's vice president of field operations, Elizabeth Wirmani. 

“Our model forces the owner of the property to do what’s right — what they should have been doing all along — which is making that property an asset for the community,” Wirmani said. “That could look like a landlord removing tenants. ... In some circumstances, it does look like demolition.” 

The organization is considering expanding into additional neighborhoods such as Bachman Lake, south Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove, Porter said. 

Shaw encouraged neighbors dealing with crime and drug problems to reach out for help.  

“They’re there to help,” she said of ACT volunteers, “and they’ll do everything they possibly can to help the situation.”  

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