President and CEO of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance Mike Faenza said as much yesterday: He knows he's "at risk of looking like Don Quixote" here, but he really, really believes Dallas can end its chronic homelessness problem by 2015. Which is why earlier today he did his best to convince the city council's Housing Committee that with the help of the city, the county and behavioral health system NorthSTAR, it's an achievable goal. What's not clear, at least not yet, is if the council can be sold on his dream too.
"This is a new era in a process we've been going through for quite some time," Faenza said. "I'm convinced, through rational thinking, that this is not just a cliche." Back in 2005, he said, virtually every major city came up with some kind of 10-year plan to alleviate chronic homelessness. And, he said, "the city of Dallas and MDHA in many ways, surprisingly, given the stress on Health and Human Services, leads the pack."
Faenza said retention rates at six months in the permanent supportive housing the city already has -- how many people are still housed and stable at that point -- is a bit higher than even what the Department of Housing and Urban Development counts as successful. They say a 77 percent success rate at six months is a good outcome, while some Dallas Housing Authority-MDHA projects report a success rate of around 80 percent.
Furthermore, Faenza said, MDHA studied 1,300 or so of the 2,067 supportive housing units currently in existence in Dallas and said they found "very little negative feedback" from their neighbors. He said that nationally, studies have linked supportive housing to serious drops in incarceration and substance abuse rates in communities, although, he added, "I wish we had better cost data to prove up the value of permanent supportive housing to you."
"I understand there's a stigma that surrounds people with mental illness and homelessness," Faenza said. "I understand there's been push-back and concerns about developing housing." But at MDHA, he added, "although we hear lots of complaints about homelessness ... we rarely, if ever, hear any complaints about the impact of permanent supportive housing."
And for all these reasons, Faenza said, MDHA wants the city's help with the 2,600 new units that will have to be created by 2015. Today's "unmet need" is 1,800 units, but MDHA projects that over the next four years the number of disabled homeless people who need housing will increase by 800, bringing the total to 2,600.
Said Faenza, part of the problem that creates both new disabled homeless people and the lack of housing to help them is that there's no "prevention strategy" to keep people from ending up on the street in the first place.
"Homelessness has been a problem that's virtually intractable in every major city," he said. What's needed is "strategy and focus across multiple government entities. ... The city cannot do this itself." By "carefully tracking" the status of NorthSTAR clients, as well as clients of other mental health agencies such as LifeNet, Dallas Metrocare and CitySquare to make sure they don't fall through the cracks, they can reduce the overall need for new housing.
But it'll still be needed, Faenza said, which is why MDHA wants the city to "commit to be a partner in at least one permanent supportive housing project or new construction project per year" for the next four years. He suggested some of the money for that could come from emergency solution grants, which the Housing Committee apparently has around $400,000 in, rather than asking the city to dip into its general fund.
Council member Carolyn Davis, who chairs the committee, promised they would sit down with staff and look at "short-term and long-term" strategies before bringing the issue back to the full council. And Scott Griggs commented that they want to avoid another situation like Cliff Manor, where $180,000 in state budget cuts left the city scrambling to find money to make sure those people didn't end up homeless once again.
But a little while later, Dwaine Caraway questioned why all those other cities around Dallas aren't on the hook for some of this whole homelessness thing.
"I want to hold discussions as to how we can end homelessness," your former mayor said while drawing busily on a legal pad. "I'm not the best artist in the world," he said, holding up what looked like a large blotch surrounded by a series of small blotches. Blotch the largest represented Dallas, he said, the "big kahuna," with smaller cities all around it -- Garland, DeSoto, Cedar Hill, etc.
"We're taking on their burden," Caraway said. They're building homes and shopping centers, he said, but "they're not building a Bridge. All their don't-wants come to Dallas and become our responsibility. ... Dallas and Dallas alone should not bear the cost of what other municipalities should do." He wants the mayors of these other cities brought to the table, he said, "to make sure each mayor understands they need to share the responsibility."
Faenza said that actually, MDHA has had meetings with reps from Garland already, and will meet with higher-ups from Frisco and McKinney next week. Afterward, out in the City Hall lobby, he told us he believes the city will ultimately agree to partner with MDHA on new units. "It's just hard to convince people we can make a difference in a social problem like this."
"If we focus," Faenza told the committee members a little earlier, "something remarkable can happen in this community."