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To Curb Homelessness In Dallas, CitySquare Employs 'Housing First' And Respect

The Cottages at Hickory Crossing are designed to house people experiencing homelessness deemed the costliest to Dallas County.

In the city of Dallas, 23 percent of residents live under the poverty line — that's higher than the national average.

CitySquare is a nonprofit that's been fighting poverty in Dallas for 30 years. It offers job training, food, health care — and housing units.

Larry James, longtime CEO of CitySquare, recently talked with Krys Boyd on KERA’s Think about how they're trying to reduce homelessness with a "housing first" approach.

Interview Highlights

On the organization’s “housing first” method

Rather than putting someone in a transitional situation where they have to have the ax over their head worried about when their time’s going to run out or how quickly they’ll perform to meet the program’s standards, “housing first” says “No, no, no. If you’re homeless, you’re housing ready.”

You may not even know it yourself because of the way you’ve been conditioned to think. But we believe you’re ready for housing and we’ll put you in housing and then we go to work on your dreams as you define them — not some flaming hoop that we’ve created for you to jump through, but who are you and who do you want to become. And now we assume the position of concierge/coach and we’re holding you accountable as you direct for the realization of your own dreams.

On securing donor support for the “housing first” idea

Careful and frank conversation about the research that’s available; some of that’s education and sometimes, a bit tedious education at that. The experience of 511 N. Akard and more recently, the Cottages, and also the over 400 units from other sources...just our experience has demonstrated that for about 90 percent of the people this is exactly what’s necessary.

Credit Courtesy of CitySquare
Larry James joined CitySquare in 1994.

Seven to 10 percent need something else. And that then beckons us to become advocates for mental health services. Texas is in woeful shape when it comes to allocations of funding for mental health services. And many of the people we work with, who are the most difficult and the most expensive, need some things that we don’t have the ability to offer.

On referring to CitySquare beneficiaries as “customers”

People are to us not clients; they’re neighbors. And we choose to run our operations that benefit our neighbors in such a way that we respect them. Respect is maybe the most important, fundamental, bedrock principle that we embrace and employ to be with people in their need. For me, to accord some level of respect to someone who has more problems than I can imagine is transformative and almost magical.

I can walk through our grocery store and just stop shoppers and ask them, “Are we treating you right? How do you feel about our store?” Even though it’s not really a store. It changes the entire conversation. And I’m not there giving away help. I’m there backfilling for a system that doesn’t work for millions of people in this country. And so I need to be the representative that brings the best forward. I’m so entitled it’s unbelievable. I think people are entitled to receive my respect.

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

More from Think

James also made the case for leadership that puts an organization’s customers and employees first. He offered insights from his successes — and failures — at the helm of CitySquare. Listen to the entire Think interview and download the podcast.

James’ new book on the subject is called, “House Rules: Insights for Innovative Leaders.”