Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Texas, many shelters that serve Dallas’ homeless population have shut their doors, diverting their clients to hotels or motels as they did when faced with overflow before the pandemic.
Those who are sleeping in shelters or motel rooms are subject to stringent social distancing regulations, as homelessness advocates, shelter administrators and direct practitioners scramble to adjust to the latest developments in the coronavirus.
“This changed everything,” says John Little, director of street outreach for the nonprofit Metro Relief. “It’s hard to do homeless outreach when you’re not supposed to be around people.”
Little's primary stomping grounds are northeast Dallas and Garland, where he builds relationships with homeless people, always with an eye on ending that experience.
Even now, as Dallas County's tally of confirmed infections climbs day after day, Little fields plenty of opposition from people who would rather remain in an encampment. The younger people want to remain with their significant others. The older folks want to remain with their spouses. Most shelters will separate husbands and wives, never mind boyfriends and girlfriends. Little has met many people who detest that rule, but others have graver complaints about homeless shelters.
“Some people liken it to prison,” Little says. “They don’t want to be told when to eat, when to sleep, when to get up. Even now, they don’t want to go.”
Earlier this year, during his annual State of Homelessness address, Carl Falconer, president and CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, included a note of foreboding. Falconer shared statistics revealing that there were at least 6,000 students in Dallas and Collin counties in families that are “doubled up” in homes with other families.
“At least they were still housed,” the Observer reported him saying at the time, “but the reality is that they're one emergency, one car breakdown or one medical emergency away from being homeless or losing their temporary situation.”
That emergency has now come, but Falconer and his colleagues were not prepared for a crisis of this magnitude. His nonprofit tends to focus on longer-term solutions, he said. But the pandemic put his staff in emergency response mode, he said.
Falconer says many key parts of the homelessness experience have not changed.
“When you’re homeless, staying healthy is a concern you have every day,” he says. “Whether it’s the flu, pneumonia, TB or COVID-19, people are always worried about their health when they’re homeless.”
Yet when the primary directive from state and federal officials is to remain at home, what do you do when you have no home?
Ellen Magnis, president and CEO of the family-focused emergency shelter Family Gateway, says the onslaught of the virus left her staff and clients fearful.
“That was the biggest challenge,” she says. “Everybody was fearful. ‘Is it coming into the shelter? Are we doing what we can?’ That’s all anyone wanted to know.”
Practitioners on her team and Falconer’s staff ramped up their screening efforts, trying to determine who had symptoms and isolating those who were symptomatic by placing them in secluded housing. For most shelters in the North Texas area, that means a nearby motel. But Family Gateway remains open and has even maintained its programming.
Magnis’ shelter permits entire families to stay together, even if the family has a male child over 14 — a common restriction that often discourages families from seeking residence at a homeless shelter. Younger children take classes at Family Gateway, and so far, the pandemic hasn’t stopped them.
“Our staff are standing in hallways, and the kids and their families are allowed to approach the door frame to ask questions,” Magnis says. She’s not as worried about her shelter’s residents as she is about the families who are staying at hotels — a number that the data indicates is on the rise.
Family Gateway’s most recent homelessness data reveals a 10% uptick in families staying in hotels for the long term, and a 27% dip in families being able to divert. Diversion, a recently developed homelessness strategy, is the act of diverting a family or individual from falling into long-term homelessness — staying at a shelter beyond the frequently practiced 14 days, for example — and instead finding a housing solution such as staying with a family member.
New research shows people who benefit from diversion avoid long-term homelessness.
Before the pandemic, diversion was easier. If a person who had recently become homeless had a relative in another state, a service provider could buy a plane ticket and send the person to stay with that relative. Now that travel is discouraged, support networks like family members are harder to access. The diversion data reveals an even more troubling trend: more people with fewer options could be falling into homelessness for the first time.
That’s the possibility that keeps Daniel Roby up at night. Roby, CEO at Austin Street Center, is a boisterous, passionate practitioner who is grateful that his shelter has yet to have a confirmed positive case of COVID-19. But he knows that it could come any moment, and he points to the shelter Dallas Life as the nightmare scenario that haunts him every day. In mid-April, Dallas Life was closed and evacuated after COVID-19 swept through the building. After the outbreak was detected, 38 people tested positive for the coronavirus, and Dallas county’s health director posited that as many as 200 of the shelter's clients and staff members could have been exposed.
“How do we maintain commitment to providing shelter and ending homelessness, while making sure we don’t get a single positive case?” Roby says, summarizing his team’s greatest challenge and asking the question aloud all at once. “As soon as there’s one case, regardless of the policies and procedures we have in place, it’ll be hard to keep that case from spreading.”
Roby’s team is also interviewing people experiencing homelessness in an effort to track who is moving around the most. He shares Magnis’ interest in data, but acknowledges that his team’s primary goals are short-term: Namely, how do they keep their feet under them?
“You’re riding a bike, and the coronavirus is like someone throwing a stick in your spokes,” he says. “I can’t think of one thing that hasn’t changed for us.”
His case managers — personnel primarily concerned with moving people out of homelessness — have taken on a litany of additional responsibilities, as has everyone on Roby's staff.
“We have people in hotels who are in their 70s, medically fragile, and we don’t want them out and about,” Roby says. “So I have case managers driving meals out to them every day.”
As a street team director, Little is familiar with tasks like these and the daily steps one must take to forge trust.
“We have to build relationships before we get to the truth about what’s going on,” Little says. “To do that, I find out what their needs are. We take someone to lunch. We let them pick where they eat. We’ve built some pretty good relationships sitting and eating with someone, or helping them with their laundry.”
So many of Little's clients don’t think they matter. They often have no one in their life who shows them that they matter, so that’s part of his job: To show them that someone — even a relative stranger — cares about what happens to them beyond tomorrow.
“A lot of people who are homeless are thinking about how to survive the next hour or the next day,” Little says. “We’re looking at how to survive the next year.”
Little is now far more involved in the logistics of housing than he was before the pandemic. When the job gets stressful — as it often does — his mind wanders back to a relationship he built years ago with a woman who was homeless.
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“She had horrific stories about what had happened to her,” he says. “She’d been beaten up, tied up, had gas thrown on her. And she had nowhere to turn.”
Soon after the woman attempted suicide, Little befriended her and began accompanying her on errands. On one drive, he realized that he might have been the first person to show an interest in what next year — let alone tomorrow — looked like for the woman.
He watched her eyes in the rear view mirror move from the road outside to the men in front to, finally, the floor. She asked the question that broke his heart, the question that no one had ever answered for her.
“Why did you pick me?”