More than a year after a group of Dallas churches and outreach groups began organizing a system for offering shelter to homeless people on nights when it's too cold to be outdoors, the Dallas City Council considered the latest version of a plan to allow those groups to do the work they're already doing.
During a council briefing Wednesday, Monica Hardman, director of the city of Dallas' Office of Homeless Solutions, said her office will work with city attorneys and other officials on a proposed update to the city's zoning ordinance that would allow churches and other groups to serve as temporary shelters during inclement weather.
Meanwhile, the Citizens Homeless Commission will solicit proposals from groups that are interested in operating emergency homeless shelters.
The updated zoning ordinance would create a special category for temporary inclement weather shelters. Any interested group, including houses of worship, would be able to apply for the zoning permit. City officials would make sure those groups complied with health and safety requirements before issuing the permit, Hardman said.
The change would need to be approved by a number of committees, followed by the full council, before taking effect. City officials expect that process could take four to six months.
At issue is the fact that Dallas has no comprehensive plan for providing shelter to homeless people when it's too cold or too hot to spend the night outdoors. The city's emergency shelters are mostly full on most nights, meaning people who ordinarily sleep outdoors are left with nowhere to go during bad weather.
The city's zoning laws prohibit homeless shelters from operating within 1,000 feet of churches, schools or residential areas, meaning churches themselves are barred from serving as emergency shelters. After several homeless people died outdoors during a cold snap in the winter of 2017-2018, a group of churches, including OurCalling and Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, began ignoring the zoning restrictions and opening their doors to homeless people on cold nights.
The churches operated in coordination with the city's homeless outreach organizations and with the tacit approval of city officials. But in February 2018, when a neighbor filed a zoning complaint against OurCalling, city officials issued the church a citation.
The plan presented Wednesday is a reworked version of a plan offered last month by the Citizens Homeless Commission. Under the previous version of the plan, the city would have sought proposals for emergency homeless shelters, but churches would have been barred from allowing people to stay in their buildings overnight. During an April 17 meeting, the council sent that proposal back to the commission, telling commissioners to come up with a plan that would allow houses of worship to participate.
During Wednesday's meeting, Rickey Callahan, council member for District 5, said he'd hoped the city would be able to find a way to allow the churches to continue to open their doors on cold nights without "hyper-regulating." Changing zoning laws could lead to a morass of paperwork and red tape, making it more difficult for churches and other groups to help some of the city's most vulnerable people.
"They're caring hearts," Callahan said. "They just want to help people when they need to be helped for a limited period of time."
The Rev. Rachel Baughman, pastor of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, said the zoning ordinance change isn't ideal. She would have preferred to see the council change city ordinances to allow churches to serve as emergency shelters without the application process.
Still, she said, the proposal is better than the previous version, which would have barred churches from doing that work at all.
"It's better than the alternative," Baughman said. "It's better than what we were looking at before."