“Immediately, when we get someone into shelter, the first step is figuring out their exit strategy,” Magnis said. For Family Gateway’s clients, it typically takes about one to two years of housing, plus transitional services, to reach that point, she explained.
There are several reasons behind growing homelessness in Dallas. On June 26, the Texas Workforce commission ended the $300 weekly payments tacked onto standard unemployment benefits in response to the pandemic. Then some two weeks ago, the commission also cut off access to expanded federal unemployment benefits.
Slashing the financial support for unemployed Texans also came as the nationwide ban on evictions ended on Aug. 26. (Dallas County eviction courts have defied the federal moratorium and moved forward with eviction proceedings throughout the more than 12 months the eviction ban was in place.)
As a result, Dallas County is enduring a crisis within a crisis: The county already had the highest rate of homelessness of any metro area in Texas before the pandemic, which only got worse as the pandemic wore on. Now, the combination of lost unemployment cash and a return to pre-pandemic eviction policies threatens to deepen the problem even more.
A new way to avoid homelessness is possibly just around the corner, though. On Oct. 1, applications will open for a new collaborative initiative between the Dallas Housing Authority, Dallas County, the city of Dallas and several other North Texas agencies to provide homeless people with housing vouchers and specialized case management services.
The Dallas Real-Time Rapid Rehousing initiative aims to get 2,700 homeless people into permanent housing within two years.
More than 700 vouchers will go towards providing families, domestic violence victims and people with chronic health issues with a year’s worth of subsidized rent. The remaining 2,000-some vouchers will go to chronically homeless people.
Voucher recipients are required to participate in services like counseling and employment skills training designed to help them rent independently after one-year voucher expires. The $72 million initiative is funded by federal Housing and Urban Development dollars, contributions from participating public agencies and private donations.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson has praised the initiative’s focus on helping homeless people move toward stability.
“Too many people, particularly African Americans, experience homelessness in our city and in our region,” Johnson recently told The Dallas Morning News. “This problem has been growing for many years, and it is clear that we have to act now to address the myriad causes of homelessness and implement short-term and long-term solutions that provide people with stability and pathways to better lives."
Still, some have doubts about how effective transitional services and temporary housing vouchers will be. City Council member Cara Mendelsohn told the Morning News in August that she thought more of the funds should go toward building more affordable housing.
“We’ll have nothing to show for this plan in three years, in five years or 10 years, because we’ll have spent it all on rent instead of spending it and investing it in structures that could last decades,” Mendelsohn said.
As the Dallas-area housing market boomed in recent years, rent prices soared while wages for low- and middle-income workers remained stagnant.
“There’s got to be a mobilization of funds around immediate relief. But there also has to be resources dedicated to increasing affordable housing stock and addressing homelessness through availability of units." -John Siburt, CitySquare
As a result, “there was an increase in episodes of homelessness for low-income working people who aren't traditionally chronically homeless but found themselves being priced out of housing, or experiencing crisis in a way that caused them an episode of homelessness," said John Siburt, CEO of CitySquare, a Dallas-based affordable housing nonprofit.
Both CitySquare and Family Gateway received around $3 million each through a separate emergency grant to convert defunct hotels in the Dallas area into rapid-rehousing facilities for homeless residents. Like the new initiative, both facilities aim to help those living on the streets reach a point where they no longer need their services.
Without adding more affordable housing, critics say, the fundamental premise of the rapid rehousing plan will fail.
Magnis and Siburt agree that Dallas needs to expand its affordable housing stock.
Siburt thinks nonprofits and public services ought to respond with both emergency relief and long-term solutions.
“There’s got to be a mobilization of funds around immediate relief," he said. "But there also has to be resources dedicated to increasing affordable housing stock and addressing homelessness through availability of units. We’ve got to figure out how to fund both interventions.”