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Staying in homeless encampments is not an option

Our city strategy needs compassion to address homelessness, but also enforcement.

Just about anywhere you go in Dallas, you can find a homeless encampment. City staff members say there are approximately 400 encampments, and last year, they cleared seven.

The Dallas City Council has allocated record-breaking amounts of money to this issue, sometimes in ways I do not agree with, and we’ve had no decrease in homelessness. The annual Point-in-Time count, a homeless census mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is coming soon. Unfortunately, it is an unreliable one-night snapshot of those whom volunteers happen to find in a four-hour search, highly dependent on the weather and the number of volunteers. Any Dallasite can look and know homelessness has increased all over the city without reading the results of the Point-in-Time count, which is usually reported in the spring.

I have a long history of working for, with and on behalf of people experiencing homelessness, both as a volunteer and professional staff. I’ve served as the vice chair of the Dallas Citizen Homeless Commission, Mayor’s Task Force on Ending Homelessness, and the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance’s Leadership Committee and their Youth Task Force. I have chaired the Collin County Homeless commission, been a staff director at a homeless shelter, and spoke at this year’s Texas Homeless Network conference. I successfully brought a homeless shelter to Far North Dallas’ District 12. This is an issue I have worked on as a volunteer and professional, and I care about it deeply.

As a City Council member, I have served on the Housing and Homelessness Committee of the City Council since I was elected in 2019. After just a few months in office, I forced the hand of the city manager to provide inclement weather sheltering as a city service for the first time. I coined the term “compassion plus enforcement” as a city strategy to address homelessness in Dallas.

Dallas staff members have done a great job with compassion. Outreach teams have connected with the homeless and offered services. They have provided port-a-potties at large encampments to improve the health of the people living there and nearby residents. They have done a good job with our inclement weather sheltering. They have gotten some people off the streets, but not enough.

What has been missing is the enforcement part of that phrase. Staff members have allowed the homeless to dictate if they will leave an encampment, and seems to have forgotten that staying encamped is not an option. It is dangerous, unsanitary, unsightly, harmful to business and against state law.

A new operation plan is desperately needed before our beloved city becomes Austin, Portland, or Los Angeles. The plan should provide the outreach, options and enforcement needed.

For outreach, the contact should be made in a friendly, helpful manner, explaining that staying isn’t possible, and presenting the available options, with assistance to make the option chosen happen immediately and with compassion. The first option available to people experiencing homelessness is an emergency shelter. Dallas should provide emergency shelter to anyone willing to come inside, away from the elements, drug dealers and crime that plagues homeless communities. If the homeless do not want to go to an emergency shelter, in-patient mental health care and addiction recovery beds should be offered, as appropriate. Dallas should verify and provide family reunification assistance if people have a family member or friend willing to take them in.

If the person rejects all these options, there are two remaining options available. One is to leave Dallas for a different city, the other is to be taken to the City Detention Center, which is our misdemeanor overnight jail. At the detention center, a person spends the night, then has the option to work with a homeless diversion team member from the city attorney’s office to make a plan to secure shelter options and services. The person still may not accept help and could just walk out the door and repeat this process over and over. After several visits to the detention center, maybe people will accept the help they obviously need or decide Dallas is not a place to remain encamped.

The cries of criminalization of the homeless have already begun as the council sought to protect the safety of people standing or sitting in the median. Nobody wants to criminalize poverty. But how is it compassionate to leave the homeless outside? Some animal groups won’t even allow you to adopt a pet that will live outside. All emergency shelters in Dallas provide meals, showers, clothing and daily support services. There are an array of shelters, all working diligently to help homeless residents regain their independence.

Some people become homeless through a series of unfortunate events, others spiral into it through generational poverty or trauma, or tragedy. No matter the cause, Dallas should step up to help people by rejecting homeless encampments as acceptable and requiring shelter, in-patient care, detention, or caring assistance to connect with family or friends who will open their home.

Continued efforts to develop workforce programs and affordable housing and new efforts to bring single-room occupancy housing; ensure released prisoners arriving in Dallas have the preparation, skills and papers needed to work; address needs of recent migrants so that they are not left on the streets; and a focus on drug dealers who prey on the homeless are vital in a successful strategy to significantly reduce homelessness.

Compassion and enforcement should continue as the guiding principles in addressing homelessness, but both are needed in equal doses. Dallas must do better to serve and assist the homeless, ensuring a clean, safe, high quality of life for all.

Cara Mendelsohn is a Dallas council member for District 12. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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