On Wednesday, the Dallas City Council was briefed on proposed homeless strategies by Monica Hardman, the managing director of the city’s Office of Homeless Solutions. Most City Council members already had their knickers in a knot having seen part of the proposal earlier in the week, which called for the use of community recreation centers to temporarily house homeless people. That is far from the whole plan.
Homelessness is a complex issue to understand and repair. You don’t see the word “fix” in that sentence because Dallas has not presented a method that would eliminate the condition here. Levels of reduction are the only measurements. The word “problem” isn’t there either, as it denotes how the homed view homelessness, as opposed to the condition of being homeless.
The strategy comes after more than 65 meetings with residents of each council district, city representatives, partners, and stakeholders in the fight against homelessness. Reportedly around 400 people showed up. That’s about six people per meeting, or what Webster’s might call a “piss poor” turnout.
Homeless people are ranked by need from P1 (chronically homeless) to P12 (fell out of housing due to an event, pretty easy to get back into housing). Forty percent of Dallas’ homeless are somewhere between P8 and P12. The business world calls this low-hanging fruit.
The homeless population in Dallas is estimated to have risen by 9 percent over the past year, to about 3,506 people. The number of unsheltered homeless rose by 24 percent in that same time to 1,098. The difference between unsheltered homeless and “regular” homeless? Think of people living in cars or squatting in abandoned buildings versus sleeping on a sidewalk. The reason for the differing rates of growth comes down to a lack of shelter beds and a lack of a strategy to get these people back into housing.
Looking by age and race, the council heard that more than half of the unsheltered homeless were over the age of 45. About 65 percent are black, in a city where about a quarter of the overall population is African American. Addiction and mental health issues certainly put people on the streets, but homelessness is inextricably tied to a simple lack of money.
With that information, let’s move on to the strategy’s four tracks, or parts.
Track 1: Increasing Existing Shelter Capacity
This part calls for increasing capacity at two Dallas homeless shelters (Dallas Life and The Bridge) by up to a combined 150 beds. The $675,000 cost for this would be paid for by discontinuing and reallocating funds from existing encampment funding. In addition to beds, case workers would be supplied to assist with job training, health issues, addiction, etc. City Council favored this section of the plan. Based on their reaction to part two, this could be in part because it helps keep the homeless out of their districts.
Track 2: Temporary Homeless Shelters (the NIMBY trigger)
Section Two outlined the process for using existing community recreation centers as temporary homeless shelters. There would be a total of 25 approved annually, with no more than four operating at any one time. The only exception would be during a weather-related emergency, at which point 10 could be opened for service. Each of the temporary shelters would house no more than 50 people per day.
The idea was unpopular on several fronts, perhaps no better illustrated than by the council members who lamented the loss of late night basketball games or dance classes to turn rec centers into shelters. Sandy Greyson responded, “no, no, no, and no” before questioning whether the community meetings were stacked in favor of this plan. (Does she mean the community meetings virtually no one showed up for?)
Several council members suggested the city evaluate reopening the Timberlawn psychiatric hospital on Samuell Boulevard as a homeless shelter. Timberlawn neighbors were paying attention and messaged City Council member Kevin Felder, whose district includes the old hospital, during the meeting. Felder related their opposition: “We will fight tooth and nail” against turning Timberlawn into a homeless shelter. Other council members suggested refurbishing the Dawson State Jail.
It reeked of NIMBYism. Let’s help the homeless…somewhere else. North Dallas council member Lee Kleinman even wondered whether all these keen programs would entice more homeless people to come to Dallas. Seriously? Sleeping on a gym floor or living in a former jail? If a homeless person comes to Dallas with the intention of becoming a taxpaying citizen, why is that bad, especially now with a labor shortage?
Council member Philip Kingston, of East Dallas and downtown, made strong points that should have gained more traction. He noted that using rec centers throughout the city as temporary shelters would decentralize homelessness. He said that, when dealing with poverty and affordable housing, the city already knows the negative consequences of concentrated poverty. Why then would the city then want to centralize the poorest of the poor? Poverty and homelessness chase money away and create an expanding poverty zone that dries up wealth and investment.
Another reason to decentralize–jobs. If society’s larger goal is to see the homeless back on their feet and productive, they need a job. Is there a business in the Dallas-Fort Worth not looking for help? If sheltered homeless had access to a bed, bathroom, and storage for belongings, how far should they have to travel for work? Earlier in the day City Council heard that “Racially diverse neighborhoods have access to 17 times the number of jobs (40,000+) within a 30-minute public transit commute as majority-black neighborhoods (~2,500).” Remember, a majority of homeless are black. To move the needle, black residents must be able to find work that, unlike them, is scattered throughout the city.
Finally, there’s empathy. How many vegetarians are born after watching a slaughterhouse video on YouTube? How many teaching moments are there in explaining to children their dance class moved because the neighborhood is helping people less fortunate? It’s a whole lot more real than tossing a few coins into a plate on Sunday.
Council member Kevin Felder, of Fair Park and southeast Dallas, offered an option that would preserve some decentralization without ending night programs at some rec centers. He noted that DISD had closed a few schools, and that perhaps those could be repurposed.
Track 3: Master Lease and Landlord Incentives
This is partly easy with quick results – it’s just money. Remember the 40 percent of homeless people classified as P8-P12, who need more of a helping hand than a complete uplift? This part calls for the city to help homeless people secure apartments – assistance with security deposits, rent subsidy, utilities (deposits and bills), and the city taking the risk if a place gets trashed. The parts of this that are cold cash are easy (with cash).
The problem comes when subsidized rent means vouchers. Several council members speculated that Dallas had no voucher backlog because they’d all expired; almost no landlords would take them. The city is still working out its affordable housing policy, which should include a non-discrimination clause for vouchers up to a certain percent of a complex’s units.
Track 4: New Housing Development
This attempts to get with a housing-first strategy by building new purpose-built housing to target homelessness. It differs from off-the-shelf housing in that it also houses services like mental and physical health checks, reeducation, and day centers for children of working parents. It’s also permanent housing for as long as someone would need. I wrote about a similar program in Salt Lake City a few years ago where they reported 10 percent of residents transitioned to normal housing each year. Dallas already has this on a smaller scale in The Cottages at Hickory Crossing, located just south of Deep Ellum. The project provides small residences for 50 of the city’s most chronically homeless, and delivers services to them during the week.
Paying for it all
There’s some serious money required to implement most of this plan. The city would provide some but the lion’s share would be sourced privately. In other municipalities, churches have stepped up to raise money and provide space. There are also federal programs to be tapped and charitable organizations to talk to. Mayor Mike Rawlings said that, with a good plan, we can raise a lot of private funds to move this forward.
At the end of the presentation council members saw the results of a few polling questions from the community meetings. Seventy-seven percent of respondents thought homelessness was a priority for Dallas. One third said they have family or friends who are homeless.
Seventy-eight percent of workers live paycheck-to-paycheck; strong homeless programs may be nearer and dearer than you believe.
Correction: An earlier version of this post said the vacant Timberlawn facility was on Gaston. That’s its former research foundation; the location the council discussed is further east, on Samuell.