Longform

A Place of Their Own

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"Not all those people are nuts or abusing drugs or all that stuff," Kareem says. "Some people can go to work. If you look at those [MDHA] surveys, you'll see that most people who filled them out--or the ones that I've seen--say that they lost a job. Didn't say that they were abusing drugs or anything else. They were just people who lost jobs, and you ask them what do they want that they're not getting, you'll see that most of it is employment and housing. There's a perception out there that homeless people are the scum of the earth. That's not necessarily true. Or, that's the small percentage they get to see...People go through their lives every day and don't cause a problem. They're not factored into the equation."

Unlike most of the people out here, Kareem is aware of all the previous plans to alleviate the homeless problem, including the report from Dunning's commission in 1990. The knowledge frustrates him. He's also read all the reports that state the homeless population is responsible for downtown's lack of a pulse. This frustrates him more. He wonders if someone decided not to spend $250,000 at Neiman Marcus because a homeless person asked for a quarter.

"Don't tell me that it's causing some great catastrophic impact on the city, and you're giving it lip service," Kareem says. "You can't have it both ways. Hell, if you don't want homeless people downtown, get the ones who are employable employed. Where is the Chamber of Commerce in all of this? Aren't they the ones that are supposed to be into commerce and economic development? I would think that if you gave a guy a job in the suburbs, hell, he wouldn't be downtown impeding Neiman Marcus' business or whomever the heck else. Just apply some logic to this."

That's what Miami did. The greater Miami area is roughly the same size as Dallas, and so is its homeless population. Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the two cities approached the needs of their homeless communities in much the same way. That changed in 1993, when Miami adopted the Miami-Dade County Community Homeless Plan--a wide-ranging approach involving the city and county, existing service providers and, most important, the business sector--and formed the Miami-Dade Homelessness Trust to facilitate it.

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."

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.

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Zac Crain
Contact: Zac Crain

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