Dallas’ $6.5 million prescription for helping people leave homelessness: An empty hospital
The City of Dallas will buy a defunct hospital in South Oak Cliff to provide housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.
The city council voted Wednesday to spend $6.5 million in voter-approved bond funds to purchase the hospital, which has sat unused since 2014 when the Houston-based University General Health System declared bankruptcy.
The city has been using pandemic relief funds to buy old hotels and other properties around the city to create more homeless housing. It’s part of a major regional effort to house more than 2,700 people experiencing homelessness by 2023, fueled by a massive infusion federal aid during the pandemic.
The city will purchase the 12-acre property from its current owners, a nonprofit called the Dallas Southwest Osteopathic Physicians. Tax documents list a number of local physicians on the board for the organization.
The hospital is on Hampton Road near Kiest Park and Jimmie Tyler Brashear Elementary School.
The site is expected to be used to create permanent supportive housing, which is a combination of long-term housing with services that help people stabilize their lives and avoid falling back into homelessness.
It will not provide emergency shelter services, she said.
“This allows us to create that stable housing for those individuals who are able to move from shelter to housing, which clears up more space for those individuals who need to be in a shelter environment,” said Kimberly Tolbert from the city manager’s office.
Tolbert said the hospital could potentially be home to other services and facilities to help people experiencing homelessness, as well, including medical care.
All but one council member voted to approve the purchase after nearly two hours of discussion.
The debate exposed a tension between concerns over racial equity in the city’s housing decisions and the council’s efforts to ensure that all parts of the city shoulder some responsibility for addressing the unmet needs of people experiencing homelessness.
Darryl Baker, a community activist with the housing-focused group Fair Share for All Dallas, said neighbors felt blindsided because there was no opportunity to have a say in what happens to the old hospital.
He said the city has too often put lower-income housing in the majority Black and Latino southern sector without adequate community consultation.
“The city does not have a good track record in this particular arena, especially in our part of town,” Baker said.
Carolyn King Arnold, the lone council member to oppose the sale, said she was “insulted” that the city did not do more to inform residents about plans to turn the hospital into homeless housing before the council voted on it.
“This is not the proper use for a community that has been begging for equity,” she said. “This would not be equity in the north.”
T.C. Broadnax, the city manager, challenged that idea. The city has been buying properties to convert into homeless housing throughout the city, with a charge to build homeless services in every city council district.
In 2020, the city used COVID-19 relief funds to repurpose a rundown hotel near I-635 and Central Expressway to house homeless people needing to quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus. It eventually opened 180 rooms for transitional and long-term housing for people experiencing protracted homelessness.
Broadnax said it is a standard practice for the city to negotiate real estate deals in private, only making the terms of the purchase public after they are fully settled and the city council can vote on them.
A big 'opportunity'
The city is using bond funds approved by voters in 2017 to “fund transitional and permanent supportive housing to target chronic homelessness, rapid rehousing for the elderly, disabled and families with children and day centers for seamless wrap-around services.”
Kimberly Tolbert, his chief of staff, said the city will do community engagement to help identify exactly how the city would best be used to serve people experiencing homelessness after the purchase is made.
King Arnold argued that, by buying the land with those bond funds, the city was limiting the property’s potential uses without consulting anybody in the community. She said she was “stunned,” and that she was concerned it would limit future economic development in the area.
But Council member Chad West said building homeless services in a neighborhood does not need to conflict with efforts to improve quality of life.
His North Oak Cliff district is home to a motel the city bought last year to convert into homeless housing. He pointed to a new grocery store now slated to open nearby.
“It’s not stopping or hurting commercial development in our area,” West said.
With the massive federal funding at its disposal, as well as millions in local bond funds, council member Adam Bazaldua said the city faces a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “actually impact and mitigate homelessness” instead of treating the problem with “Band-Aids.”
To do that, he said, the city would need to overcome stigma about homeless people and welcome them as neighbors rather than view them as a burden or threat to home values.
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