A row of cots lined up inside the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, which opens its doors to shelter the homeless on the coldest nights of the year. Photo courtesy of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.
We’ve written a few words here exploring Dallas’ challenges in caring for the homeless. The city currently has $20 million in bond funding at the ready for permanent, supportive housing. It wants to add 1,000 units. But peel back the layers, and you reveal the tangle of bureaucracy, NIMBYism, City Council disputes, and funding shortfalls that could easily derail a good idea.
Today, the Texas Tribune jumps into the discussion with a dive into the divergent paths developing in Houston and here in Dallas. Houston has a homeless problem that has traditionally dwarfed Dallas’ in visibility and sheer volume. But that appears to be changing. Dallas’ unsheltered homeless population is up 725 percent during the last 10 years to 1,452, according to yearly Point-in-Time counts. Meanwhile, Houston’s unsheltered population has fallen significantly while its total homeless population has fallen 53 percent since 2011. (To get a feel for the shift, I’d encourage you to find your way to the first chart in the story.)
The Tribune attributes Houston’s shift to its designation as a “priority community” by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has over the last eight years put an even larger ocean between the amount of HUD homelessness funds reaching the respective cities. Houston got $38.2 million in 2018, up an amazing $18 million since 2008. During the same 10-year span, Dallas’ pull grew just $3 million to $16.5 million overall.
But there’s more to the story. According to the Trib, Dallas is held back by its form of government, the weak role of the mayor putting an emphasis on building consensus around the horseshoe instead of unilateral decision making. The region’s homeless housing experts will tell you how difficult that is. Plus, Dallas has seen quickly accelerating housing costs alongside stagnant growth in homeless services. It’s become a regional problem. (Apologies for the use of the M word in the quotes below.)
“Our homelessness numbers reflect the increase in housing costs across the Metroplex,” said Daniel Roby, CEO of the Austin Street Center, one of the biggest shelters in the city.
He remembers coming to the center as a volunteer when he was 7 years old. At that time, suburban powerhouse Plano was practically grasslands. Now he says that he gets homeless people in the center from that city or other suburbs even farther out.
“Our Metroplex is massive compared to what it was then,” he said. “But we have not grown our social service infrastructure. For the most part, we have the same number of beds now that we had then. Maybe we’ve added a few hundred beds, but our Metroplex has grown 10 times over.”
Our growing homeless problem is a housing problem. In June, the Office of Homeless Solutions issued a request to gather information from developers on prospective, permanent homeless housing projects. The city wants to use the bond money to pay for developers who think outside the box, stretching the limited available dollars. It won’t be easy. Responses are due August 15, with Council consideration scheduled for November.