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In Dallas’ Fight Against Homelessness, Finger Pointing Reigns

Following a scathing audit of the city's homeless response system, the head of the nonprofit coordinating service efforts responds.

The city of Dallas is bungling its response to growing homelessness, according to a critical internal audit released this month. City Auditor Craig Kington laid much of the blame on poor municipal oversight of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the nonprofit tasked with distributing money and coordinating relief efforts with the area’s various homeless service agencies.

Bolstered by the audit, which in dry terms describes a homeless response system lacking in “efficiency and effectiveness,” several city councilmembers last week called for a change of leadership at the top of MDHA. Scott Griggs used more lively language than the audit, peppering his language with words like “crisis” and “waste and abuse.”

In its defense, MDHA issued to the mayor and city manager a 9-page piece, part rebuttal and part history. It’s written by CEO Cindy Crain, who not-so-subtly makes the case that she should keep her job and addresses some of the criticisms raised in the acronym-heavy audit.

Chief among them is the agency’s implementation of a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a record keeping database that the audit says is “incomplete,” costing homeless service providers millions of dollars in federal and local funding. This database of the homeless is so important because it helps unlock the governmental money that keeps open the doors at homeless service providers, and because it helps service workers determine who needs what help, whether it’s housing or medical attention or something else. The Bridge, the downtown shelter that twice in 2017 was nearly forced to close after being denied funding contingent upon that documentation of the homeless, blamed “HMIS-related issues beyond our control.” In her response to the audit, Crain pointed a finger back at The Bridge, which was part of MDHA until a 2011 split.

“What I soon learned was that the split was more like a divorce,” Crain writes. “And for whatever reason, data sharing became the custody battle.” In short, Crain says, the staff of The Bridge’s reluctance to participate in the new database–which also relies on data from the Salvation Army and Austin Street Shelter, among other agencies–led to much of the HMIS’s ineffectiveness. (In a way, then, it’s a squabble over data entry preventing more help from reaching Dallas’ more than 1,000 unsheltered homeless, four times the unsheltered population in 2013.)

The audit pins the failures of the HMIS in part on software issues. Not only does the database not address the specific demands of local service providers, the audit contends, it was poorly developed without a bidding process required by federal regulation by a vendor with no experience in the field. Crain says this was a decision by the agency’s board.

In a letter signed by the agency’s board, MDHA denies that it ran “afoul of the federal procurement process.” It promises a more innovative HMIS, “revolutionizing the way the homeless response system interacts with the healthcare system.” Both the letter and Crain’s defense essentially contend that the HMIS needs a little more time to become completely effective. The letter also doubles as a message of support of Crain, who has been head of the agency since 2015, saying that any money lost in government funding was because of things that happened before Crain’s tenure.

So despite some City Councilmembers calling for her head, with no direct way to fire the CEO of the nonprofit, Crain is set to continue to lead Dallas’ homeless response effort heading into 2018. Crain has declined interviews since the release of the audit, referring to her written response, but she sat down with D Magazine for an interview the day before the audit was released.

Discussing the HMIS and the then-upcoming audit, Crain gave a version of what she wrote in her response: “politics” among the homeless service providers have kept the homeless database from being as complete as it should be, but it has been gradually improving, and MDHA is integrating the HMIS within a larger recordkeeping system that includes data from Parkland Hospital and other sources. Crain is pushing a “no empty bed” policy and working to gather more data with the area’s various services.

Here are some more excerpts from our conversation with Crain, edited and condensed for clarity.

On the $20 million in the voter-approved bond package allocated for “homeless assistance:”

I have tried to make the case that it’s housing that we need.

[If I had $20 million tomorrow] I would find three plots of land that the city already has, (and) say, ‘here’s your land, that’s free.’ And leverage tax credits or any mechanisms possible to build housing, build 64 units-plus. You’d want it to be 60-40: 40 percent market rate, 60 percent iterations. But make sure there is a big chunk of zero to 30 percent AMI (Average Median Income), meaning almost 100 percent of the people experiencing homelessness right now. If I pull it, I’d probably find that 3,700 (homeless) folks, they’re all between zero and 30 percent of the average median income. And most of the housing tax credit deals are below 150 percent AMI.

You build that all day long, but you are not going to provide any income. I’ve still got all these homeless people, because zero to 30 percent AMI. So, you’ve got to build that supply of housing. I would build housing that is sliding scale housing. It’s fixed income, so that it’s not 100 percent impoverished. And I would put a big chunk up to zero to 30 percent AMI. If your goal is to try to reduce homelessness. If that’s your objective. I would just leverage it, and say, I’ve got $20 million. Maybe you could get three projects out of that…

We’re going to pay for homelessness one way or the other. Now, you can pay for it through Parkland and police, and code compliance, and Medicaid. You’re gonna pay for it one way or the other. So, I’m suggesting that quality of life might be a moral, ethical factor. That we might say, these people live here, they’ve been here, they’re aging. They have lots of disabilities. If you want to improve the quality of life, it’s 20 years of documentation that says housing people is better bang for your buck and improves the quality of life. Not just for the person who is experiencing (homelessness), but for the people in the neighborhood. It works.

On why housing is so critical:

Obviously, the people who are going to be homeless a long time are the people who come in with a disability, and they’re aging. They have multiple disabilities. Some of them have mental health conditions. Severe mental illness. Some people assume (the homeless) all have severe mental illness, but a lot of that is just really trauma from a survival cycle of 24-hours. They don’t have any income. These people don’t have the marketable skills to make money. And minimum wage is still $7.25 an hour. Some are going to have a background of incarceration.

I know what we don’t do well, because we’re trying to deal with the housing and the medical, and the mental health, and all these crises. I think we need to step back and reexamine our employment readiness, and employment training opportunities for people who are very poor. I think we should look at the community and reanalyze how it’s distributed, where we go, what would make it work. But again, unless you have a house — If you don’t have a place to live, everyone will tell you, ‘once you stabilize.’

Their house doesn’t have to be big. If they get all the basic amenities and respect, they immediately start getting normal sleep, they start being able to get out of the cycle of 24-hour trauma. And the brain settles down. They can start thinking about things. You’re in the right place mentally and emotionally and physically to make decisions.

Addiction is part of it. Which came first, the addiction, the mental illness, or the poverty? I don’t know. Every story is different with the order of those events, but they’ve got them all. Once you’re traumatized, then, the order of the events doesn’t matter anymore.

On the effects of a nuisance crackdown:

It’s a strategy that is used in other communities.

It’s effective, but here’s how it plays out. In Dallas, the big encampments were pretty much in a right-of-way. (The city has) a dog in the hunt. TxDOT says, ‘Man, I’m not dealing with homelessness, you deal with under the bridges. That’s city of Dallas dirt, you deal with it.’ So, they’ve been able to clean up, move everybody out, fence it off, tell TxDOT to possess the area. Now the homeless people, of course they move into adjacent properties. There’s all these weird little wedges of land that you really can’t build anything.

So, there’s a whole task force. You go and you see a little splotch of land, you look it up, you find out who the landowner is, and you cite them out the wazoo for code compliance, tall grass, trash, and whatever. And then, you say, ‘You’re gonna clean it up, and you’re going do this or you’re going to get fined. We’ll put a lien on your property. And I want to see a no trespassing sign up there.’

So then, you see that all over. So (the landowners) go and they hire somebody to mow it down. I mean, they’ve literally been mowing, chopping all the trees down, so that it’s clear, and putting up these little Dollar Store no trespassing (signs). And then, the police don’t even have to give notice, they can just walk up at 7:30 in the morning, take a bulldozer, clean it up, 13 people. And I’m like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I could have…they’re elderly, disabled, beat-up people…

I don’t know (where the homeless go). I’m trying to find them, because it’s cold. When the winter comes, all the leaves fall. Now, you can really see it, because the leaves are gone. So the cover’s gone. You do what you can, try to get them into housing. We’ve housed more unsheltered homeless people in the last year and a half than has probably ever happened in the history of Dallas. I think we’re going to see a reduction in unsheltered homeless. But you see what you do with a nuisance ordinance. (The Bridge might have to) spend more on security than they do case management.

On the concentration of homeless services downtown:

The reality is there are people who want homeless services out of downtown. They want The Bridge gone, they want The Stewpot gone. End of story. They (want to) take something like The Bridge, and distribute it out, Bridge North, Bridge South, whatever. That may not necessarily be a bad thing to distribute it. But how (are we) going to pay for that? There’s enough options on the table, I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody’s going to pitch that idea.

But that doesn’t end homelessness, that just redistributes services in a way that people won’t feel the concentration. And I get it. We’re going to see that play out in the next four months. Which argument wins? Do you want to put your money in housing?

We continue to know so much more about the homeless now, but by the time I do, say, the homeless address in March, I’ll have a lot more data and information. We’ve never had time before to show the trajectory of what’s working and what’s not.

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