Dallas’ Homeless Problem is Solvable – if We Ever Decide to Solve it…

I don’t get the tepid reaction to the report of Dallas’ Homeless Commission last week.

Maybe it’s because I wasn’t there (I understand that we weren’t able to provide the full report, including whatever itemized numbers we provided for our solutions), so I was unable to gauge the attitude of the council to the report.  And perhaps because we (or somebody) had said we were coming back with a final report in November. I know that in more than a couple of meeting, I argued for a full on report regarding the solutions – in other words not only provide the report and the numbers  –  but a full estimate an estimate as possible on how much it would cost to fully address homelessness – because I really believe, we may never have an opportunity like this again.

Nonetheless, nothing about the final report in November is going to change: we will still need, about 2100 units of housing, most of which will actually be in apartment complexes considered ‘market rate’. We will need to greatly expand the number of permanent supportive housing (PSH) programs, which should be standardized and coordinated relative to the type of services they deliver. But the council needs to realize that the standardization cannot be addressed through ‘minimal standards’. They need to be committed to radical interventions, which include opportunities that address the physical, mental and social needs of the people in those programs. And the fiscal infrastructure that addresses the housing needs, including programmatic needs, must be a creative packaging of local and federal funding. But that funding will take more than the proposed $3-$9 million. We need to be thinking of addressing at least 25 percent to half of those impacted over the next year to year and a half. And the city, needs to seek to address this by investing in more than housing. Frankly, the problem is as bad as it is now, not only because of the Great Recession, but because the city of Dallas, through successive city councils has done just enough to make sure that all but the poorer sections of our city never saw how bad the problem was.

So time is out for trying to address this issue on the cheap. We need a substantial financial commitment to a population that has never had one from the city before.

Where does the money come from?

  • Delay plans for the deck park, near the zoo for a year, commit some of that funding to solve the homeless problem
  • Explore even more creative uses Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds which should be allocated for affordable housing
  • Reallocate the  uses of all of or portions of some of our fees and taxes, like room rental taxes to address homelessness
  • Use a portion of the upcoming bond package to address homelessness, either for gap funding for developers, or to provide case management services

In other words – TRY SOMETHING! Don’t simply be skeptical and dismiss the prospect of dealing with the problem substantively, out of hand.

When we give our final report in November, we will be approaching the colder months of the year, and the holiday season, when people are feeling more ‘charitable’. There will be plenty of feel good stories about how we are ‘helping’ the homeless. Most of those efforts will be laudable expressions of individual generosity. Some will be groups providing seasonal acts of good will. But I have seldom had anyone call me in spring, during our rainy season, or the dog days of summer, or in September when thoughts turn to the start of school and football games and ask what they can do to help the homeless.

We need entities that are committed all year-long to making sure that homeless citizens have an opportunity to live lives of self-sufficiency and productivity.

Our report says that on any given night, there are as many as 10,000 homeless people sleeping on our city streets. A  Dallas Morning News editorial yesterday, reported several cities – in Texas no less – that have creative ways of dealing with this problem. The fact is, the 10,000 people counted on as homeless in Dallas, represent less than 1 percent of our city’s total population. It’s hard for me to believe that represents an unsolvable problem.

The DMN editorial concludes, “We’re eager to hear more details on how these strategies could be implemented when the commission returns  to the City Council with a final report in November.” That’s an awful mild form of acceptance for the newspaper of record for a ‘can-do’ city. If we are going to address homelessness as the epidemic that it is, it has to be an all hands on deck effort.

I’m counting very few people and institutions, other than those of us who deal with this everyday, who seem to be all in…



Dallas’ Homeless Epidemic…

TZ1-HOMELESS COMMISSION_1470188162918_1790345_ver1.0I wasn’t at Dallas’ City Council briefing yesterday, when the Dallas Homeless Commission gave them the results of our study compiled over the summer. Believe it or not, I was in meetings, trying to build support for a new permanent supportive housing initiative! So, I was relegated to news reports.

Let’s just say, that I am unimpressed with the response of our council…

According to the Dallas Morning News, the range of responses went from calls for more ‘innovative’ responses to calls for the city to ‘own’ the problem…

“Reactions from council members were mixed. Some were critical of the commission’s first presentation, saying the group didn’t try to find new ideas to address homelessness…“If the council doesn’t get serious about this problem … we’ll have this problem perpetually,” council member Lee Kleinman said.”

Here are the facts: The city of Dallas has ignored the ‘new ideas to address homelessness’ for decades. The ideas presented ARE the new ideas to address homelessness based on best practices across the nation. And in response to Lee Kleinman…RIGHT ON! This problem DOES belong to the city of Dallas. If there was no CitySquare, no Austin Street Shelter, no Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, Dallas homeless would still be the problem of the city of Dallas.

The response of Dallas Commission on Homelessness to its charge, was that the city initially invest, $3 million which would house about 600 homeless vets and chronically homeless adults (I DO have a problem with the ask, because its way too low – although, I’ve been assured it’s actually closer to $9 million. Dallas has at least 3800 homeless people. Any proposal that doesn’t include enough money to address the needs of at least 25% to half of them in the next 18 months isn’t realistic…but that’s just me…).

Dallas has doesn’t have a Homeless problem. Dallas has a Homeless epidemic. If we had nearly 4000 citizens, afflicted with any disease…the Zika virus, ebola, pneumonia, that’s just how it would be defined…an epidemic. That’s how we need to see it, an epidemic, one from which most of the people afflicted, will almost certainly die. They will die sicker, and younger, from diseases that are more treatable and/or curable than the rest of our more healthy population.

The difference is they are poorer than the rest of us. That makes it easier for us not to care as much. That makes them easier to ignore and to drag out arguments about what we can and should do about them, and to substitute and confuse our arguments for action. Until we all become incredibly less rich…in ways we can’t even imagine…




Oh, Give Me a Home Pt. 2


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?