Patricia Freeman hopes to have her own apartment by Thanksgiving.
The 65-year-old lives with two dozen other women in a downtown Dallas transitional shelter. Since March, Freeman and a roommate have shared a dorm-style room at The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center, where each has a twin bed and a locker. At the foot of her bed, Freeman stores more than 40 bottles of water to stay hydrated during the summer.
Freeman alternates between using a cane and a walker to get around the campus, which sits about a block from the Dallas Farmers Market. She makes wreaths out of candy and crochets in her spare time. She also takes part in Bible study and looks forward to Friday night bingo.
“But I tell my care manager all the time, ‘I didn’t come here to stay, I came to visit,’” she says. “I just can’t see myself being homeless for the rest of my life.”
Freeman is one of thousands of people experiencing homelessness in Dallas.
Since 2011, the number of people counted as homeless in Dallas and Collin counties has increased nearly every year. This year, 4,570 people were homeless on any given night in the region — a 32% jump since 2011. And despite making up about a quarter of Dallas’ population, Black people, primarily men, continually make up over half of the people served by providers of services to the homeless.
Local homeless-services providers say the demand for their aid, both from residents in and outside the city, is higher than ever because options for shelter and affordable housing over the years have failed to keep up. The homeless were also affected by the pandemic when providers had to shrink shelter bed space to safely accommodate residents and keep them from contracting COVID-19.
Now, the city of Dallas, Dallas County and other partners are betting on a $72 million investment in rapid rehousing, which would provide short-term rental aid for homeless people. Coordinated by the nonprofit Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the program has a goal of providing 12 months of rental subsidies to house more than 2,700 people over two years starting in October.
City officials say the initiative will aid people currently in transitional shelters as well as some living in homeless encampments, estimated as of August to number more than 400 around Dallas. They also say about 100 case managers are being hired to help people once they get into apartments, and MDHA is working with the Greater Dallas Apartment Association to provide incentives to landlords like paying deposit fees to increase housing availability.
The strategy is the latest game plan expected to help put a dent in the numbers of people who are housing insecure in Dallas, a city that has had plans since at least 1994 with aims to end homelessness. Though homeless numbers in Dallas are nowhere near those of New York and the major cities in California, this year’s point-in-time count puts the Dallas-area tally of 4,570 ahead of those in the Houston area (3,055), San Antonio area (1,499) and Austin area (3,160). The Dallas-area count reflects a two-week tally; the other three occurred over one night.
The city hasn’t seen any of those plans come to full fruition due to lack of funding, coordination, affordable housing, equity and political will, local experts say. Lack of buy-in from residents also has derailed some efforts to achieve a more equal distribution of affordable housing options around Dallas.
Questions also surround the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which is recognized by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department as Dallas and Collin counties’ continuum of care or lead agency in their homelessness response. The group has come under fire in recent years over its past management of a system that tracks homelessness and other issues.
Peter Brodsky, chairman of MDHA’s board, told Dallas City Council members during a meeting this month that the organization was trending in the right direction. He said that the board since January is made up of mostly new members and that he didn’t think the rapid rehousing plan would have come together if changes hadn’t been made.
The nonprofit also appointed a new CEO, Joli Robinson, who starts Aug. 30. Robinson was most recently vice president of government affairs and public policy for Dallas Habitat for Humanity and previously spent eight years as the Dallas police community affairs and youth outreach director.
“I have great confidence in the team’s ability to execute now,” Brodsky said during an Aug. 4 council meeting. “It really is a different agency than it was a year ago.”
After falling out with one of her sisters in Houston, Freeman lost her place to stay. During the statewide winter storm in February, she said, a Houston police officer rescued her from freezing alone at a bus stop. She was dropped off at a furniture store that was serving as a temporary shelter when she heard about The Bridge. Then she got help securing a bus ticket 240 miles north to Dallas.
Freeman’s case manager at The Bridge submitted an application for her to get rapid rehousing and she’s still waiting to hear back. Together, they’ve found one-bedroom apartments in Dallas ranging from $900 to $1,300 a month. Freeman is seriously considering trying to get an apartment in Garland or Carrollton.
Freeman, who gets $932 a month from Social Security, recently applied for spousal benefits from Veterans Affairs through her late husband, and she hopes to boost her monthly intake to nearly $2,000 if approved. But she would still be on a fixed income. She has health issues that include a stroke that landed her in the hospital for two weeks in June, and she could be unable to overcome a sharp increase in rent if approved and when her rapid rehousing funding runs out.
“We want to make sure that we’re not putting her in a place that will lead to her being back at The Bridge in a year,” said Amanda Crowe, Freeman’s care manager. She said she hopes to help Freeman for at least the first three months after she leaves The Bridge, taking her to food pantries and doctor appointments and helping her get acclimated to her new neighborhood.
“We want to find something affordable and sustainable in Dallas, which is challenging and easier said than done,” Crowe said.
Less space, growing need
Every week, OurCalling in downtown Dallas receives requests for help from about 100 new people, said Wayne Walker, the homeless-services provider’s executive director. Many are from outside Dallas, and the rest are from the city, he said. Some have been evicted or face other emergency situations.
Counting all the people who are homeless in Dallas is difficult.
Cities like Dallas rely on point-in-time counts, which provide a snapshot census of the homeless population. But those don’t capture everyone, and the figures aren’t specific to Dallas. They include all of Dallas and Collin counties.
The count is overseen by MDHA, which works with more than 80 local governments and other agencies to coordinate the homelessness response in the two counties.
This year’s count, for example, tallied homeless people in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center during the February storm as part of the 3,138 considered sheltered. But local experts say many of those people should have been counted as unsheltered because they had no temporary shelter before and after the few days they stayed in the center.
The city estimates that around 800 people fell into that category and that HUD rules required them to be counted as part of the sheltered homeless population.
Also, local homeless service providers say the number of homeless in the Dallas area is far higher than the point-in-time count suggests.
According to HUD data, the area that covers Dallas and Collin counties reported 9,259 people who used homeless services in 2020, the latest year available. That count is higher than areas that cover Harris County (7,911), Tarrant County (6,174), Bexar County (5,048) and Travis County (3,386).
The data in 2019 showed the Dallas County area (9,383) behind Harris County (10,273), but still ahead of Tarrant County (6,551), Bexar County (6,196) and Travis County (4,706).
The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance has had problems in the past.
In 2017, a city audit found that Dallas lacked oversight of the alliance. Because of that, the city didn’t know that a data system used to track homelessness that the alliance maintained was incomplete. It led to the city losing $1 million in federal grants.
The MDHA does not record homeless numbers specific to Dallas separate from the two-county point-in-time report.
Those counts show the largest jump in the past decade has been in the number of homeless people who are unsheltered — those who sleep in outdoor encampments, in a vehicle or any other place typically not meant for sleeping. There were 243 people counted in 2011 and 1,432 this year. One report released by MDHA showed 1,153 of the 1,452 people unsheltered in the two-county metro area in 2019 were in Dallas.
At OurCalling, more than 75% of the people served by the agency who are unsheltered are Black, Walker said. Most are men, and their average age is late 50s.
The point-in-time figures show that over half of the homeless population every year are Black residents, around 30% are white and about 10% are Hispanic. For Black residents, that is double the broader population.
Ellen Magnis of Family Gateway in Dallas said that up to 80% of the clients her agency serves are Black. The organization provides transitional and temporary housing for families.
She said the drivers of homelessness in Dallas are the same nationally: lack of jobs paying a living wage and health benefits, health care costs and lack of affordable housing.
“And underpinning all of that is decades and decades and decades of racial injustice,” Magnis said.
To serve people without permanent housing, 2,600 beds are spread among the city’s five major emergency shelters at The Bridge, Austin Street Center, Dallas Life Recovery Center, Union Gospel Mission and The Salvation Army.
Still, it’s not enough to meet the needs of the entire population. Hundreds of people are left without access to shelter on any given night.
“That ends up being more people with no place to go,” said David Woody III, president and CEO of The Bridge. He said it’s not uncommon for all 250 spots for people to stay at night to be claimed in the morning.
Advocates say the COVID-19 pandemic has made the demand for shelter space even greater. Safety measures forced providers to cut about 100 beds to allow for social distancing.
Stimulus checks helped some families secure temporary housing, but demand for help increased weeks after, Magnis said. She said that in May, 32 families needed shelter. In June, that number swelled to 60.
“It’s frightening, to be honest, because we know a surge of evictions are coming,” Magnis said, before the federal eviction moratorium, which had been extended to October, was struck down by the Supreme Court on Thursday.
Without addressing core issues such as access to affordable housing, education, employment and health care, homelessness will persist, she said.
“We’ll keep getting better at managing it and rehousing people, but the flow into the system won’t change unless we change these big-system issues,” Magnis said. “All of that has to be fixed or it just keeps feeding the system.”
City’s homelessness plan
City strategies to address homelessness in Dallas go back at least two decades, but it wasn’t until 2017 that officials launched a city office to focus solely on homelessness. When the Office of Homeless Solutions was created, it had a budget of about $10.1 million. The office’s current budget is nearly $12.4 million. In his proposed budget unveiled Aug. 7, City Manager T.C. Broadnax recommends the office’s budget be $11.9 million.
The City Council adopted a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness in 2004. It was meant to address the root causes that lead to people lacking long-term stable housing, such as mental illness and substance addiction.
The decade-long plan included the following goals:
- To create a 24-hour homeless assistance center with $30 million in private money;
- To develop transitional and permanent housing;
- To increase the amount of single-room occupancy units in the city for people with extremely low incomes.
The center became The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center, backed by nearly $27 million in bond money. It opened in 2008 about four blocks from Dallas City Hall. The center provides day and overnight shelter and offers food, health care, laundry and other services to help transition people out of homelessness.
Apart from the shelter, the city was still behind in tackling homelessness. The Office of Homeless Solutions opened in 2017 to coordinate the city’s response to the problem.
“Since then, they’ve had so much political challenges that the political will is not there to make the changes that need to be made and put the effort that needs to be put in,” OurCalling’s Walker said.
In 2017, an audit found the city was delaying payments to The Bridge, leading to the facility almost having to close twice.
The city cannot address homelessness alone, Walker said, but does have an important role to play.
“It’s not their job to fix everything, but it is their job to support other programs in the city that are working hard,” he said.
Money is always the most pressing issue for shelters, said Cara Mendelsohn, a City Council member who was formerly director of Samaritan Inn, a homeless shelter in Collin County. Providing shelter services with mental health care and full programs to help people become self-sufficient is expensive.
“It’s an investment in people, and it pays off long term for our city and nation,” she said.
But existing mental health and addiction services are insufficient to meet those needs, and broader coalitions to address homelessness have failed to help nonprofits meet unserved needs, Mendelsohn said.
“In the last decade, Dallas hasn’t gotten much right when it comes to homelessness,” she said. “And there is plenty of blame to go around.”
What hasn’t worked is approaching homelessness from an “optics level,” such as sweeping homeless camps in plain sight or moving people away from panhandling, said Theresa Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Austin Street Center in South Dallas, which provides overnight shelter and other services.
“It doesn’t address homelessness or the fundamental needs of a person, it just moves them out of sight,” she said.
Christine Crossley, Dallas’ homeless solutions office director, said the city is working on the problem.
Since 2018, the office’s strategy to address homelessness has been to increase shelter capacity, help establish inclement weather shelters, provide rental assistance and landlord incentives to increase housing access, and provide funding for permanent supportive housing targeting the chronically homeless, elderly, disabled, families and young adults.
The results have been mixed.
Recently, the city used $10 million in coronavirus relief money to buy three hotels to provide a combination of overnight shelter, transitional and permanent supportive housing. The St. Jude Center Park Central in North Dallas will provide 180 more beds, Hotel Miramar in Kessler Stevens will have 40 units and the Candlewood Suites in Far North Dallas will have 50 rooms.
The city is also using $6 million from $20 million of voter-approved bond money to renovate the hotels. The 2017 bond money was pitched to voters as going toward building permanent, supportive housing for the homeless.
Crossley, who took over as director in March, said the city has helped 300 people secure homes through its rapid rehousing program between October and August.
Crossley also noted that more than 3,300 people were temporarily housed at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center downtown last summer and over 1,800 people stayed there during the February winter storm.
But in November, the City Council approved changing the city code requiring faith-based nonprofits, churches and other houses of worship get permits to provide temporary shelter when freezing or hot weather advisories are issued. As of August, no groups have applied to the city for permits.
But several homelessness advocates say the city must step up to provide better infrastructure to end poverty, increase its shelter bed count, find more affordable housing dedicated to the homeless and foster more buy-in from residents to support those housing projects.
“There has to be more political will,” Walker said. “Until then, nothing will really change.”
OurCalling, Walker’s group, is a faith-based organization but isn’t eligible to apply for an inclement weather shelter permit because the rule excludes groups in Dallas’ central business district.
OurCalling took in homeless people overnight during several freezing nights in the winter anyway, Walker said.
“It was either do that or let people freeze to death,” he said.
‘I can go further’
Sitting on a couch holding her infant son in a one-bedroom apartment in Far East Dallas, Roshell Johnson says she still can’t believe the unit is hers.
Johnson and her son, Masiah, moved into the second-floor home in July via a rapid rehousing program through Family Gateway. At 36, it’s Johnson’s first apartment. The agency provided her and her son with furniture and food and will pay all of her $825 monthly rent for the first three months. They’ll pay for half the next three months and then she will have to cover the rest afterward.
Johnson had been homeless in San Antonio on and off since she was 16 after dropping out of high school. She spent the next two decades staying with friends, in hotels and under bridges when she couldn’t stay at her mother’s house. She prostituted to make ends meet and said she used cocaine and marijuana to numb the pain of her reality.
In February, eight months pregnant and unsure how she’d be able to survive with her newborn, she called a woman who’d been doing outreach work for a Dallas-based Christian ministry who routinely came to the hotel where Johnson had been staying. For months, the woman had been bringing Johnson plates of food, groceries, prayers and a request that Johnson come with her to Dallas to turn her life around.
Johnson was taken to Nexus Recovery Center, a Dallas-based substance abuse treatment facility for women. She gave birth in March. She then applied for and was accepted into transitional housing with Family Gateway in April and later applied for help finding an apartment for her and her son.
“God willing, I find something,” said Johnson, who dreams of one day working full time at Family Gateway helping other women. “It’s still a struggle, but I’ve come so far and believe I can go further.”
Note: This article is part of our State of the City project, in which The Dallas Morning News explores the most critical issues facing our communities. Find more topics in coming days as we examine the issue of homelessness.
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