After a years-long battle, faith-based nonprofits, churches and other houses of worship can apply to the city to provide temporary overnight shelter for Dallas' homeless during inclement weather.
There’s just one catch: They can’t be in or near downtown.
The City Council voted late Wednesday to approve the changes, which will let such organizations shelter the homeless when cold or hot weather advisories are issued. Groups that want to help the homeless must apply for permits and be vetted by City Hall.
The new rules exclude organizations around the central business district because some council members argued that resources to help the homeless already exist downtown.
The city had prohibited overnight homeless shelters from operating within a thousand feet of a church.
“It’s a huge win for the city. It’s a huge win for our shelters and communities,” said Chad West, a council member who leads the city’s housing and homelessness committee. “But most importantly, it’s a huge win for our most vulnerable neighbors.”
Under the new rules, inclement weather is defined as an overnight temperature of 36 degrees or below or when there is any amount of freezing rain or ice or 2 inches or more of snow. Groups and churches may also open their shelters if the temperature reaches or exceeds 90 degrees between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
It’s unclear how many houses of worship and nonprofits will apply for permits. The city is expected to launch the application process before Thanksgiving.
Permits will be good for up to two years.
West, who represents north Oak Cliff and the Bishops Arts District, said his committee would reevaluate the policy in spring.
Council members — in a last-minute change — decided that organizations in and near the central business district would be ineligible for the permits.
Council members who pushed for the change — against the wishes of their peers who helped craft the new policy — said it was time for groups in outlying neighborhoods, not just downtown, to help the homeless.
“The point isn’t to punish anybody,” said council member Adam Bazaldua. “The buffer is an acknowledgment of where the resources already exist.”
After helping with this year’s count of homeless people, he said, he realized that the problem is citywide. He said the city and its partners must rethink how they provide services directly to the homeless in the neighborhoods where they live.
Among the organizations that already provide year-round homeless shelters downtown are Dallas Life and The Bridge.
The city will continue to use the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and other city properties, such as the downtown library, to house homeless people during inclement weather.
Despite the exclusion of downtown nonprofits and churches, council members who developed the new permit process celebrated the hard-fought win.
Council member Cara Mendelsohn, who represents Far North Dallas and serves on the committee that wrote the policy, said she was thrilled that it passed. But she stressed that while the change decriminalizes the charity of churches, the city still must lead on providing for the homeless.
“I don’t think it is perfect, but it went through an extensive review that improved the ordinance to allow faith communities a safe and easy way to fulfill their mission to serve the homeless," she said in a statement. "It’s important to note this ordinance doesn’t remove the city’s responsibility to provide inclement weather sheltering as needed.”
Last November, Mendelsohn pushed for the city to offer temporary shelter at the convention center during a cold snap.
Homelessness has long vexed the leaders of the city, which has struggled with creating affordable housing, mental health care and other services for people working low-income jobs.
Earlier this year, 4,471 people in the Dallas area were counted during the annual nationwide census of homelessness. That was 1.4% lower than the count in 2019. However, advocates suggest the data is drastically underreported and imprecise.
Wayne Walker, executive director and pastor of OurCalling, a faith-based homeless outreach center south of downtown, is one of the community leaders who pushed for the change.
He began fighting for the council to update its rules after he received a ticket for operating an overnight shelter at his center off of South Cesar Chavez Boulevard.
He supported the new overnight proposal until the council established the geographical boundary that would prohibit him from opening his doors at night.
“When I read my Bible, Jesus summarizes it best when he said to love God and love your neighbors," he said. “When your elected officials make these sorts of rules, it makes it really challenging to know where our responsibility lies. We have no question who has the ultimate authority."
Despite being ticketed in 2017, Walker has continued to open his center during bad weather. That’s likely to continue this winter, he said.
“We intend — when it freezes — to make sure our friends have a warm space to go," he said. “And when the city does not have enough space, we’ll have to do the right thing.”
Walker said he was worried that churches shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic wouldn’t step up the way Bazaldua hopes. He estimated that at least 1,000 more beds would be needed across the city this winter.
Bazaldua said he was thankful for the work done by Walker and OurCalling. And he said he hoped that Walker would work with other nonprofits and churches throughout the city to raise money and establish protocols to provide enough beds.
“There is a huge need around this city,” he said.