Andrew Duffey, 31, sat outside Dallas City Hall in the sweltering heat on Wednesday and smoked a cigarette. He was mulling over the city council meeting that he just witnessed, one of an estimated 200 homeless men and women who attended that morning.
They arrived with hopes of speaking to Mayor Mike Rawlings about housing, jobs and mistreatment in local shelters. Duffey, like the rest, left disappointed and somewhat duped. “For the most part that was a waste of time,” Duffey said, who is an electrician who lives in a tent near downtown.
The mass migration to city hall Wednesday morning was the result of a flyer posted around shelters, on tents and at various other resources that the homeless often use. The flyer screamed, “HOMELESS MEETING IN MAYOR’S OFFICE.”
It was distributed by James Dunn, a homeless man himself and a regular voice at city hall regarding the obstacles the Dallas homeless face. He recently founded the Dignity Homeless Action Network to mobilize the area's homeless community to work together, educate each other about their options and stand up for themselves cohesively.
The result was a line of homeless in the flag room giving their names and information to city caseworkers, primarily in the hopes of getting signed up for the Housing Choice Voucher Program, formerly known as Section 8.
Members of City Council listened to a few homeless speakers from the assembled group. Their thoughts would be forwarded to the Dallas Commission on Homelessness. The 36-member ad hoc commission, made up of council members, homeless service providers and other community leaders, is studying “innovative approaches to such topics as homelessness prevention and discharge planning, street outreach, health and supportive services, shelters, housing, and financing to supportive housing,” according to its website. The commission was founded a week after the city shut down Tent City under Interstate 45 in late April.
The commission’s stated objective is to make Dallas one of the most progressive cities when it comes to stemming the national homelessness crisis. “A large part of our success,” they write on their website, “will depend on how well we listen. We want to hear what issues you face and what solutions you propose.”
So far, they’ve presented preliminary information to the council, like this community engagement report. They plan on addressing the myriad issues that come with the Section 8 housing voucher program as well.
Many homeless think nothing will change.
“The meeting went like shit, like it always does,” said Jason Parks, who’s been homeless on and off for the past ten years. He and his wife had applied for Section 8 housing vouchers a year and a half ago, and were only just notified that the list they’d been on was closed after he called CitySquare recently to inquire about it, Parks said.
“These people downtown don't want us here, but they’re not gonna get rid of us,” Parks said. “They know that so they keep these City Council meetings going about that and then give us the runaround like they did today. They made us sign a paper, give them our information, now where’s that information gonna go? On your desk like it did the last time? How long is it gonna sit on your desk this time?”
This isn’t the first time the city has created some sort of coalition saying it's getting serious about fighting long-term obstacles facing Dallas' homeless citizens. In 2003, then Mayor Laura Miller created a task force to end chronic homelessness in Dallas over a period of ten years. It was in response to former President George W. Bush officially starting the federal campaign calling for cities to reduce their homeless numbers over a 10-year period. Cities across the nation vowed to answer his challenge, including Dallas.
The same year the task force was created, Dallas voters approved a $3 million bond referendum to plan for the first city-backed day shelter and homeless assistance center. Five years and $25 million dollars later (raised through public and private means), The Bridge Homeless Recovery Center opened its doors.
The opening was a centerpiece of the city’s new Homeless Task Force, headed by Mike Rawlings before he became mayor. But soon after the new center’s opening, the task force fizzled out. Many of the strategic tactics aimed at building permanent housing units fell by the wayside.
In 2008, Rawlings had become the Dallas’ homeless czar and proposed that the city build 700 homes for chronically homeless within five years. That hasn’t happened.
“I don’t know how many units have been built since, but it’s not anywhere near 700, I can tell you that,” said Sam Merten, chief operating officer at The Bridge.
The city's new commission is made up of multiple sub-committees working on various facets of the homeless problem, including community engagement and shelter issues. They meet weekly and are currently gathering information to present a more formal plan of action to the council in November.
Right now, the city’s recommendation is to spend $1 million out of the general revenue fund for outreach and apartment locators who will find landlords who accept vouchers. “We’re looking at the big picture first,” said Rev. Bob Sweeney, executive director of Dallas Life and representative for District 2 on the commission.
Merten says that’s a drop in the bucket. “We need more than 2000 units like yesterday,” said Merten. "I would tell you that at this point given what we’re seeing, a million dollars is not really gonna do hardly anything to move a needle on this issue.”
The commission appears to be setting itself up for lack of action from the get-go, he said. “It doesn't really have the ability to act because it all comes down to money,” said Merten. “The question here is more does the city council, does Dallas County, the state of Texas, whatever, do they not only have the political will to do something about this, but on top of it, are they ready to incorporate it into their budgets?”
“They're saying they want the commission to come back in November with a more formalized plan, but at that time the budget’s already gonna be cooked,” Merten continued. “To think that that commitment is gonna magically turn highway underpasses into green spaces where no one is living is just uninformed.”
Dallas' effort pales when compared what other cities are spending on the issue of homelessness, Merten said. Last year San Francisco spent over a quarter of a billion dollars on combating homelessness. New York City has dedicated billions to building affordable housing alone.
“Things are only gonna get worse if we don't start to make similar financial commitments,” Merten said. “I'm not saying the city of Dallas needs to pull billions out from the couch cushions. but there’s just too big of a gap. We’ve done very little since opening The Bridge and we do a great job here of connecting people into housing, but it’s a struggle when there’s such a limited supply.”
There are more than 10,000 homeless people in Dallas, according to the Commission on Homelessness. 3,700 of those people are children. The rest are chronically homeless and/or veterans. “Unless you really start to invest in some longer term solutions it’s not gonna get better,” Merten said. “For us, that’s housing. The quicker we can do that the better and hopefully that’s gonna be the bulk of what is discussed in November.” Last year, The Bridge put 364 homeless people into permanent housing, Merten said.
For those on the street, it's sounds like another empty promise. “Every time we ask someone for help out here ... they say they’ll give us housing and health care,” said Terry Moses, a homeless man who went to City Hall Wednesday and left unimpressed. “All I want to see is results.”
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