Camp Rhonda was originally an encampment in South Dallas. After the city ordered the landowner to displace them, they moved to Pioneer Plaza, right outside City Hall.

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Changing the Narrative Around Homelessness In Dallas

The number of people experiencing homelessness increased 11 percent last year. We won't solve the problem immediately. But we can change how we talk about it.

Even before I moved to Dallas in June 2020, I knew homelessness in the city had risen for years while housing affordability declined. Shortly after my move, I read a story in the Dallas Morning News that quoted Councilman Lee Kleinman advocating for the city to uproot individuals experiencing homelessness from parks and public spaces. So I gave Kleinman a call.

”People should be comfortable,” he told me over the phone. “They should not be accosted. They should feel like they’re safe.”

At first, I couldn’t tell who he was referring to. Surely, it was the most vulnerable group of people in the city, those who are stolen from, those who are at risk of being raped, assaulted, and left for dead almost nightly.

No, he assured me. They’re not his problem; he was focused on residents who might have an interaction in a park with someone who doesn’t have a roof. As I’ve learned after almost a year here, he is not the only person who thinks along those lines.

The number of people in this region who are experiencing homelessness and do not have any form of shelter has increased significantly in the last several years. The most recently publicized count was 1,619, almost a 50 percent increase from 2017 to 2020. It jumped 11 percent from 2019 to 2020. Despite calls to build more housing for people earning well below the area median income, many in the Dallas area are still left without any clear pathway toward permanent housing options and tenant protections. The city has purchased hotels to shelter houseless people during the pandemic, but that comes with rules like curfews and visitation limits.

They also don’t have a path to a livable wage and healthcare benefits to support the stability of that housing. And even many who have housing are at risk of losing it. With the city’s reliance on property taxes and the rising costs of housing due to development and gentrification in rapidly changing communities, many residents could face foreclosure.

As the Dallas Morning News reported in February, the city’s outreach workers have found that most individuals who ask for money on the street are doing so to pay for food and shelter. In that council meeting, Far North Dallas representative Cara Mendelsohn said that the idea that people were asking for money to go toward food, water, and shelter was “fantasyland.” She said she’s had “panhandlers tell me how much they make” and it was more than the $60,000 council members earn each year. City staff could not verify such a claim, saying they could only find “four people experiencing homelessness who pooled the money they received to get a motel room for the night.”

The police chief then told council that the department has not found any sort of connection between individuals experiencing homelessness and violent crime.

When I moved to Dallas, I immediately began to teach my kids about housing and homelessness dynamics in the city. I had an eye toward what can be done to assist those experiencing homelessness. This led to my phone call with Kleinman, a councilman who has stated several times in public meetings that he would like to eliminate encampments and any sign of homelessness in the city. Most shelters have reached or are near capacity, particularly with efforts to control the spread of coronavirus.

Over the 35 minutes we spent on the phone, Kleinman reiterated his perspective, layering in tropes about people experiencing homelessness. He argued that many in the unsheltered homeless population refuse services because they would rather remain unhoused and “make wads of cash on the street.”

Kleinman said he hasn’t actually met someone who’s shown him these wads of cash, though he claimed a staff member had a direct encounter with one such person. One thing he did seem to feel from personal experience is that park trails have been “overrun” by those experiencing homelessness. In a crude attempt to prove that no one wants to confront the population he wishes to displace, he encouraged me to run one of those trails.

Here’s the thing though: I’ve been to these parks. And I’ve gone with my kids. And guess what? My family is fine. My kids and I treat individuals experiencing homelessness just as we would anyone else in the park. And they do the same toward us.

Instead of fear-mongering, I put together some ideas and lessons to teach kids about housing and homelessness. While we sit around and wait for the city to produce 20,000 “affordable” housing units, here’s how you can do the same:

Crowdsource information on childhood early development from schoolteachers in your network and learn about the best ways to teach children new and complex topics. In speaking to early childhood educators across the country, I found that children are fascinated by “haves” and “have nots.” Sometimes, at young ages, they will align themselves with the people who exercise power to limit resources. Meaning, the ones who are in control. It is important to help them grow out of this mindset so that as they mature, so they can develop empathy and become aware of pain, loss, and sadness outside of their own selves.

Collaborate with people working with those experiencing homelessness to understand the complexities of the issue and the structural elements of design and policymaking that make it difficult to secure long-term housing. Several shelters and nonprofit agencies will gladly invite people—including children—to tour their facilities to learn more about the causes of homelessness and the obstacles to alleviate it.

These tours are incredibly informational and turn an abstract concept into reality. Keep in mind that these tours aren’t to showcase or exploit those experiencing homelessness. There are no “beneficiaries” to interview or ogle. There are people going about their lives, obtaining the goods and services they require, and living. Just living.

Connect with people in ways that make sense to them. My kids are experiential learners, so we started with trips around the city. We designed a city with our play blocks that included various formal and informal housing structures. We moved from those experiences to books and conversations based on what we read. One book we found to be exceptional was “A Shelter in Our Car,” written by the author Monica Gunning and illustrated by Elaine Pedlar.

The book tells the story of a young girl, Zettie, and her mother who moved from Jamaica to the states and have recently lost their father. With no stable job and income, they live in an old car that they can’t park overnight in many safe city neighborhoods. They often have to wait hours to relieve themselves and, when not in school, Zettie and another child experiencing homelessness collect items to be exchanged for small change.

It’s an accurate portrayal of life for children experiencing homelessness and was designed in partnership with the Homeless Children’s Network in San Francisco. The words on each page provide new opportunities to engage in high-quality dialogue.

Interestingly though, for my 6-year-old, a wordless book was most striking. “I See You,” by author Michael Genhart and illustrator Joanne Lew-Vriethoff tells the tale of a woman who is experiencing homelessness. She is considered invisible or undesirable by everyone in each page of the book. Without any written words, the pictures depict her unwantedness in the neighborhood of a young boy, the other key protagonist.

Over the course of a year, with seasonal changes apparent in the images, the boy begins to take note of the woman. Finally, at the end of the book, he and his parents approach her at a busy bus stop and give her a blanket, not only acknowledging her, but attempting to provide relief.

Without any words to read, my daughter was drawn to the pictures and the details of each page. The pain of a woman who cannot be seen. The angry faces of those who consider her a nuisance. The choices of some to acknowledge a person’s humanity.

Continue to have these conversations. Like any new concept, it can take time for people to assimilate new perspectives, especially when they have to shift their thinking. At one point, I realized that in our conversations about homelessness, I had neglected to make it clear to my daughter that people who work full time jobs can still struggle to secure long-term housing arrangements.

Our daughter associated homelessness with joblessness. So, we took out a calculator and did a few math exercises. She learned that at the current minimum wage ($7.25 an hour in Texas) a family like ours—with two working adults and two children—would likely struggle to retain housing, even if both parents worked 40 hours a week. She was appalled that people could go to a job every day and not be able to come back to a home. Building on that momentum, I shared my own struggles with finding housing as well as some of the struggles of some of our family members. It was a formative experience for both of us.

We’re not going to end homelessness while we continue to dehumanize the city’s most disadvantaged population. Informal housing settlements will continue to be destroyed with no regard for the rights of people who live their full lives in these spaces. They will pop up again in another park, just as nonprofits that help people experiencing homelessness have explained time and time again. Policy changes require a shift in public opinion, which can only come with education.

Instead, imagine what we could do with a sizable investment in education, awareness, and outreach.

Let me be clear. Education will not solve homelessness. But if I can teach my kids—and you can teach your loved ones, and our schools can teach their students, and our neighborhood associations can facilitate more empathetic discussions—maybe we can learn to understand that homelessness is a humanitarian crisis. If a 6-year-old can learn to connect with a woman at her most vulnerable state, perhaps Lee Kleinman, his City Hall colleagues, and all Dallas residents can, as well.

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