Black people make up less than one-fifth of Dallas' population but are the majority of the city's homeless, according to a new study that found low-paying jobs, criminal records and a shortage of affordable housing contributed to keeping people homeless.
Regina Cannon, chief equity and impact officer at The Center for Social Innovation, delivered the report to the City Council's Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee on Monday. The center helped draft the report, which Cannon said found Dallas has a systemic problem in housing and homelessness.
“This is not just about people’s poor personal choices or decisions because every single one of us — every single one of us — have made bad decisions in our lives, wish that we could change some of the choices that we’ve made,” Cannon said.
The center launched Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities (SPARC) in 2016 in response to the overrepresentation of people of color in the nation’s homeless population. The city’s report was created in partnership with the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. About 4,500 people in Dallas experienced some form of homelessness in January 2020, according to the alliance, which conducts the annual count of Dallas and Collin counties' homeless populations.
The report analyzes data from 2011-2016 to compare demographics of people experiencing homelessness with people in poverty and the general public. It also looked at racial and ethnic disparities in where people lived before becoming homeless and where they ended up afterward, all of which is influenced by race and ethnicity. The report included testimony from some of the people surveyed.
“The demographics alone are shocking — the vast and disproportionate number of people of color in the homeless population in Dallas is a testament to the historic and persistent structural racism that exists in this country,” the report read.
Black people make up 18.7% of the city's population, 30.7% of those living in deep poverty and 66.7% of people experiencing homelessness. White people make up 63.2% of the general population in Dallas, but are slightly underrepresented in groups living in deep poverty, at 49.5%, and “drastically” underrepresented in populations experiencing homelessness, at 29.8%.
What led people into homelessness usually included network impoverishment — meaning it wasn’t just their living in poverty themselves, but everyone they knew as well. Family destabilization, domestic violence and health were also factors.
People interviewed reported experiences of domestic violence, particularly women. Additionally, people reported instability and trauma related to mental health and substance abuse. General health issues were also contributing factors.
“I’ve been homeless off and on for maybe like five years,” one respondent said. “I used to work before my knees really got bad, see right now I need knee replacements for both of my knees, so it's hard to hold a job …”
The person said finding a job usually wasn’t difficult, but now that they have trouble lifting heavy objects, holding onto one is hard. The jobs, though, didn't pay enough to cover both rent and other essentials, like food and clothes.
When it came to barriers to exiting homelessness, people said they find it hard to find a job that pays enough in a city that's short on quality affordable housing. Criminal records can keep them out of housing, and navigating government assistance programs is difficult.
“I wasn't able to use that [Dallas housing] voucher because every place that I went to turned me down, because of the one felony that I have, which I went to prison for on my record,” a respondent said.
Another respondent believed there was some discrimination in who received housing vouchers. Council member Casey Thomas, chair of the housing and homelessness committee, requested a racial equity audit of the comprehensive housing policy.
“A homeless response system should be built around making sure that people always know where to go to get help,” Cannon said.
To help Dallas tackle its homelessness problem, the report recommends promoting ongoing anti-racism training for homeless service providers, increasing affordable housing availability and finding ways to meet the health and behavioral health needs of communities of color.