A citizens subcommittee tasked with finding short-term help for homeless people in Dallas struggled Thursday to work out a plan for what to do with those people when it's dangerously cold outside.
Ultimately, the Citizens Homeless Commission's short-term solutions committee settled on a plan to solicit proposals from groups that are interested in operating emergency homeless shelters, while seeking a change in city zoning laws that would allow such shelters to operate in more locations.
The proposal is a modified version of a plan the commission submitted to Dallas City Council earlier this year. Under the original plan, the city would have sought requests for proposals from groups that were qualified to run an emergency shelter — but only those that would be allowed to do so under current zoning restrictions. During a contentious meeting, the council sent the plan back to the commission and instructed them to come up with a different solution.
At issue is the fact that Dallas, unlike many other cities, doesn't have a comprehensive plan for housing unsheltered homeless people on cold nights. A number of permanent homeless shelters operate in the city, but they're mostly full every night. That leaves people who ordinarily sleep outdoors without a safe place to go on nights when it's too dangerous to be on the street.
As written, the city's zoning restrictions bar homeless shelters from operating within 1,000 feet of a number of locations, including churches, schools and residences. Those restrictions wipe out most possible locations in the city — including churches, which are, by definition, within 1,000 feet of themselves.
A number of Dallas churches, including Oak Lawn United Methodist Church and OurCalling, have ignored that regulation and opened their doors to homeless people on cold nights, largely without incident. The city's zoning enforcement department cited OurCalling for violating the ordinance in February 2018.
During the meeting, the Rev. Rachel Baughman, pastor of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, told the council that they'd have "one hell of a fight" on their hands if they didn't allow churches to take in the most vulnerable people in their neighborhoods on nights when they could die outside.
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During Thursday's meeting, Tanya Ragan, the committee's chairwoman, offered the plan as a possible way to move forward toward a solution while the city works out all the details of the plan. By requesting proposals from any group that's interested and qualified to operate a shelter, including churches, the city could get a better idea of what resources are available while officials work to loosen the 1,000-foot requirement.
Committee member Chase Headley said he had no problem in principle with churches offering shelter to homeless people on cold nights, but he said he worried that most churches aren't equipped for that work. Whatever sites the city selects should be able to provide adequate services, he said.
"It can be a gym, it can be a church, I just want them to be qualified and for people to be safe," he said.
The proposal will go before a May 2 emergency meeting of the commission. If it's approved there, it is expected to go before the City Council on May 15.