Oh, Give Me a Home Pt. 2

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Dallas’ Mayor has appointed a Commission on Homelessness. Both CitySquare’s CEO, Larry James and I are among some 30 plus practitioners and advocates whose charge is to

1.  Analyze our community’s current system for addressing homelessness.
2.  Compare it to best practices of similar communities.
3.  Deliver a focused set of strategies and recommendations for the City and County to consider going forward.

The objective is to position Dallas among the highest performing and progressive communities in addressing the complex issues involved with homelessness.

CitySquare has had some success in getting homeless people off the streets. From our, 16 story, vertical community called, CityWalk@Akard, to permanent supportive housing programs, to our soon to open Cottages at Hickory Crossing, as well as our “Homeless Outreach Team” (or HOT), we have learned how to get people into housing, get them back home, or reunite them with family.

CitySquare is not alone in its work among the homeless – in fact, we’re not even alone among those non-profits employing the strategy of permanent supportive housing (PSH) to shelter and another chance for homeless citizens. So with homeless advocates and non-profits willing to provide the opportunities for housing and services, why did tent city exist and why does chronic homelessness persist?

While nearly all of the agencies working to house the homeless have similar success stories, their are at least two fundamental barriers to getting more of our neighbors out of the streets. One challenge identifying units to house more of the homeless. In Dallas, real estate is booming. Many apartment managers who gladly accepted our programs in the past, are now turning to the market where they can make more money than the vouchers we provide. We must develop some carrots and sticks, some of which must be financial, that will both induce and some of which will demand that the developers and managers of multi-family housing make room for homeless and low income families. Even we admit that a project like ‘the Cottages’ is not the most efficient or effective way to combat homelessness. Segregating even the formerly homeless into encampments, does provide them with the role models or the environment in which they have the psychic space to do more and better with their lives. An awareness of the value of such strategies  involving more mixed income housing strategies is realized throughout the country…

“Kelly Stewart Nichols, planning and policy manager at the Austin, Texas, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development department, suggests that local governments prefer mixed-income housing to segregation of low-income residents in 100 percent affordable projects, because “policy lessons have taught us that poverty concentration is not ideal.” She notes that many low-income renters are service workers whose jobs are essential to the community—restaurant staff, retail clerks, cashiers, daycare workers, hairdressers, maintenance technicians, and security guards—or disabled and retired people living on Social Security income.

“In high-rent markets such as New York City, Los Angeles, and the District of Columbia, mixed-income projects allow teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other municipal workers to live in the neighborhoods where they work, says developer Mark Weinstein, who set aside 20 percent of Santee Court in downtown Los Angeles for workforce-affordable housing, because, he says, “it was the right thing to do.” Workforce housing, targeted to people earning 80 to 160 percent of area median income (AMI), is the most difficult category of affordable housing to finance because it does not qualify for tax credits.”

If we are going to provide those sleeping on the streets a home, we will have to include creative mixes of financing, including tax credits. We will also have to reallocate revenues, such as fees, abatements and other credits given to other businesses to make up pools of money to provide further rent subsidies to fund the gaps between ordinary subsidies will pay and what market rate rents are in actuality.

Still another obstacle, there is the Not In My Back Yard (or NIMBY) effect. Nearly everyone concedes permanent supportive housing is a great idea, but just not in my neighborhood. I recently sat with one politician, who told me he was unalterably opposed to any PSH program, anywhere in his district, even though he admitted he had a problem with homelessness, in his district!

Many who object to the policy of ‘housing first/PSH’ for the most part, don’t know any homeless people, and many don’t want to. That’s because so many of us, confuse ‘homeless behavior’ with the behavior of these same people once they are housed. Think of yourself, cut off from friends and family, with little if any money, with nowhere to go and no way to get there if you had someplace to go. What would your behavior be like? Now think of all the benefits we who are housed take for granted when we have the privilege of ‘closing out the world’ when we go ‘home’. Still being ‘homeless’ means more than that.

I remember when we started Destination Home, our PSH program, it was the first Thanksgiving fellowship we had with the new residents. There three men I sat down with to eat. I asked them each, how they became homeless. Each one had a story of loss. Two men had daughters that died. One had lost his mother. The bereavement led one to the loss of a job, another to the break-up of a marriage, two lost  their homes. Then  came addiction. Then actual homelessness.

I listened to them and reflected on their circumstances and I realized they were me! I was fresh off of burying our second son. I had experienced crushing losses as a pastor. Yet the difference is, I had family, friends, church members whose love would not let me go. It took all of them plus God, to keep me out of the grips of severe depression and despair. Short of that, these men were me.

The homeless are those who have fallen through frayed social fabric, a social fabric which has to be rewoven intentionally, by those of us who recognize ourselves in them. And who understand that the cost of letting them remain homeless, is a cost too high for us to bear.

What do you think?

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