A Place of Their Own

Tom Dunning's homeless task force learns an old lesson: If at first you don't succeed, try again.

Twelve years later, Miami's plan is recognized as a national model by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Homelessness Trust has added 769 emergency beds, 1,483 transitional beds and 1,444 permanent beds. The city's pair of homeless assistance centers (one on the outskirts of the downtown district, another 30 miles away at the former Homestead Air Force Base) serve almost 5,000 people every year. It enjoys an 80 percent success rate in getting its clients into jobs and housing. A census taken in December 2003 found only 941 homeless people in Miami and 250 in downtown. Partly because of all this, the downtown area is in the midst of a construction boom. The business community, which has contributed more than $50 million to the effort in the past decade, is getting a return on its investment.

Bernard L. Weinstein and Terry L. Clower, two Ph.D.s who work for the University of North Texas' Center for Economic Development and Research, noted all of this when they put together a report for the Central Citizens Association, Improving Services to Dallas' Homeless: A Key to Downtown Revitalization, last April. From their study of Miami's approach, Weinstein and Clower found that Kareem is right: "Involvement by the business community is imperative," they wrote. Dunning and his task force have already taken this into account.

"The city council does not have money at this point identified, socked away or from a zoning program that we could use for SROs," Councilwoman Lois Finkelman, a member of the task force, says. "There is a real need for the private sector to get involved in the establishment of SROs, and to do so in a timely fashion. That's got to be part of the solution, because there isn't any way that the public sector, the city or the county or the state, is going to be able to provide the kind of SRO housing numbers that we need."

Sporty doesn't want to lead the homeless camp where he lives. He wants to leave it behind.
Hal Samples
Sporty doesn't want to lead the homeless camp where he lives. He wants to leave it behind.
Tom Dunning's second effort to guide the city to a solution for chronic homelessness resembled his first--only this time things were worse.
Mark Graham
Tom Dunning's second effort to guide the city to a solution for chronic homelessness resembled his first--only this time things were worse.

The key phrase there is "timely fashion," because the tab is already staggering. Near the end of their report, Weinstein and Clower deliver the bad news: "Total spending on homeless programs by all of Dallas' service providers--public, nonprofits and faith-based--likely exceeds $50 million per year. That is equivalent to about $10,000 per year for each of Dallas' homeless persons." It gets worse. If Dallas were to implement something similar to the Miami-Dade County Community Homeless Plan, the figure rises to $11,500 per person, per year. Given what Dunning is talking about proposing, it probably will.

"The goal would be over this 10-year period that we could add maybe 1,000 SROs, which would substantially reduce the number of the chronic homeless," Dunning says. "And if we have a low-demand shelter and a place where people can go to get job training, a place where the feeders can bring food, a place that they can feel safe to go whether they sleep outside [under a pavilion] or they sleep inside, that they'd at least have a place to go and that would get them into the counseling services. A place where people can go and see a doctor, can get counseling, can maybe see somebody from the Texas Employment Commission, a place where they can wash their clothes, take a shower, use restroom facilities."

It sounds expensive, and it will be. But the Miami model actually saves money in the long run, because the current rate to keep a homeless person on the street doesn't incorporate the expenses incurred by the city while the person is there. This includes lower property values in the southern half of downtown, where more of the homeless people are, but, as MDHA's Honey says, it's much larger than that.

"There is the cost to community hospitals, the cost of services to them," she says. "The cost in jails, the police officers, the ambulances. There is a lot of costs of city services that are going into providing services to somebody that, if they were in housing, they wouldn't have the problem to begin with. If they were in housing where they were safe, where they knew where they were going to sleep every night, they knew where their food was coming from, et cetera, and they were in the same place day after day so that they could keep their appointments with their doctors, keep on their medication--they're going to have a much more stable population."

And, the thinking goes, a much more stable downtown comes along with it. It's all part of the same quilt, as James says.

"[Councilwoman] Veletta Lill taught me something that I thought was really smart," he begins. "There again, most things that are smart are obvious. She said the difference between Dallas and New York is there's nobody on the streets in Dallas except the homeless. You know, in New York City, everybody's on the streets, so they blend. It's sort of a chicken-or-egg thing: 'When're you gonna get people back on the streets in Dallas? When're you gonna get rid of the homeless?' Well, maybe when you get the homeless off the sidewalks into living domiciles and help them to be more productive, quote-unquote 'normal' folk, and then you can bring in economic development at the upper end and the middle section and the lower end, then you begin to develop a community live on the streets." He stops and smiles.

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