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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Here are some of the challenges and opportunities facing Dallas’s response to homelessness

A woman in a purple poncho stands in a field with the city of Dallas in the background.
Christopher Connelly
/
KERA News
"A lot of people out here have given up, and they don't know what else to do," said Teresa Weed, who is unhoused. She says people who are homeless need solutions that fit their needs and to be empowered to decide what's best for them.

Homelessness has been a major focus in Dallas this year. Mayor Eric Johnson is calling for more help for people without permanent housing, promising a new task force and new solutions. And the region’s homeless services sector is mobilizing in new ways, fueled by major federal spending.

The region is midway through a two-year push to house about 2,700 people experiencing homelessness using short-term rapid rehousing funds. That’s also driving stronger cohesion between organizations and agencies that serve people experiencing homelessness. People who work in this arena say that could provide a stronger foundation for longer-term solutions.

At the same time, the number of people considered chronically homeless nearly doubled, according to the latest census of the region’s homeless population. A chronic shortage of both emergency shelter beds and long-term housing for the most vulnerable continues to stress the system. And rent hikes and inflation are depleting savings and gobbling up earnings, pushing more and more people toward the edge.

As the year ends, One Crisis Away reporter Christopher Connelly sat down to talk with KERA’s Bekah Morr about a few of the challenges and opportunities in Dallas’ response to homelessness.

The Dallas Real Time Rapid Rehousing initiative was launched with a lot of excitement in 2021. A year in, how is it going?

In a lot of ways, it’s going well. There are about more than 1,300 individuals who have gotten into housing who were previously unhoused. Nine encampments have been closed through that effort, moving the residents out of tents and into homes of their own.

But there’s also a struggle to find enough rental homes for everyone enrolled in the program. There are about 700 people right now who are enrolled in the program — they have all their paperwork in order and are ready to move in — but who still waiting for housing. It’s taking about three months, on average, to find people a place to stay.

Now, there’s a campaign underway to find hundreds of apartments over the next couple months by getting landlords to buy in through persuasion and cash incentives.

The DRTRR program pays for a year of housing and connects people with caseworkers and services. And the hope is that most people will get the support and stability they need to be able to stay housed on their own when that year is up.

But this program is also using rapid rehousing to help people who are chronically homeless. That’s not the typical population served by rapid rehousing. For some people, it may be a stop gap as agencies in the region try to bring more long-term housing options online.

What does Dallas need in terms of long-term care for people who aren’t able to support themselves?

Christine Crossley, director of the Dallas Office of Homeless Solutions, said the share of people considered chronically homeless nearly doubled, largely due to the pandemic.

“We've had a 93% increase into chronic homelessness…And a lot of that is because during COVID pathways to housing slowed down, so they aged into that category. And so now they need a lot more help,” Crossley said.

The longer people are homeless, Crossley said, the more trauma they’re likely to experience. Health challenges worsen. Substance abuse can become more common.

The solution, she said, is permanent supportive housing, which is a model that combines long-term housing and wrap-around care for people.

The challenge is that permanent supportive housing beds across the city are pretty much all full.

Dallas has bought up a handful of buildings to convert into permanent supportive housing but it’s not clear exactly when they’ll be available. At least one of those sites has proven controversial with nearby residents.

Even if all of those projects work out, the region will still be in need of hundreds more permanent supportive housing beds, Crossley said. So there’s a working group trying to find more options and the regional coordinating agency, Housing Forward, is applying for federal funds to build more permanent supportive housing.

Wayne Walker, who runs the group OurCalling, announced a separate plan this year to build a community in Ellis County that can provide intensive, long-term care and housing for people.

What other challenges are facing homeless services in Dallas?

In addition to a shortage of long-term housing options, Dallas also lacks a sufficient number of emergency shelter beds, Walker said. Only about 50 new shelter beds have been added in the last dozen or so years, he points out. That’s as Dallas’ homeless population has increased by the hundreds.

“One of the challenges we have in Dallas is our shelters are full and they run full 99% of the time… So we don't have adequate space, although obviously we don't want to put all the money into shelters because we want to get people into housing,” he said.

A man in orange pants sleeps on a red sleeping bag next to camping chairs and trash and clothing under an overpass.
Jacob Wells
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KERA News
A 2022 census of homelessness in Dallas and Collin Counties found 4,410 people without permanent housing. That was a reduction from 2021, though the number of people who were unsheltered had increased.

Another challenge, more broadly, is trust. A lot of people experiencing homelessness — especially those who’ve been outside a long time — are often skeptical of these interventions.

Teresa Weed, who is unhoused and sleeps outside, said a lot of people seem more interested in moving homeless people away from street corners and neighborhoods than actually helping unhoused people improve their lives.

“They don’t want to see us. If they wanted to see us, they’d be out here, [asking] ‘Hey, what’s up. You okay?’” she said. “Do we really know that you really care for us? All I see is [homeless people] being shuffled around.”

Weed said people experiencing homelessness need to be empowered to decide what's best for them.

Leaders in this arena are well-aware that a lot of trust that needs to be built.

“There's a phrase I love. It’s ‘moving at the speed of trust,’ it takes a lot of trust building. It takes convincing individuals that there is housing on the other end,” said Joli Angel Robinson, who heads Housing Forward, the umbrella organization for homeless response in Dallas and Collin Counties.

What else is on the horizon with regards to homelessness in Dallas?

There’s more attention now on reducing homelessness by stopping it in the first place. This is called diversion, or prevention. It’s a priority in the Biden Administration’s latest plan to fight homelessness.

There’s been some promising work done locally around catching people before they lose their housing and getting them the help that they need so they can stay housed, Robinson said. That could be helping sign up for assistance programs, or even just helping people think through what kind of options they have to get through a crisis.

“The investment to keep people housed is way better and goes a much longer way than an investment on the back end once families or individuals have become homeless. And now to get them housed …that is that is a much harder lift,” Robinson said.

This may be particularly valuable now, as inflation and rent hikes have been eating away at the money people were able to save up over the pandemic and gobbling up a greater share of earnings.

Daniel Roby, who runs Austin Street Center, said there’s kind of a lag between economic stressors and when people actually end up homeless.

“First they struggle. Then they try to make ends meet. Then they get creative and stay with a friend. And then, before you know it, they've got literally no place to go,” he said. “And we see that every day as people come into the shelter, shell-shocked, never believing that they would walk in to a shelter and need help.”

It seems Dallas is at a crucial moment when it comes to homelessness as the year wraps up. There’s hope because of massive this federal aid, and a system that’s more closely knitted together better than before. But there’s also some trepidation about what’s coming down the road.

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher at cconnelly@kera.org.You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

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Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.