City Hall

Wiped Off the Map: Homeless Feel Lost in the Shuffle Waiting For Housing Assistance

Justin Thomas, Danielle Hollowell and Caitlin Sowell sit outside Moni Food Mart with Hollowell's dogs.
Justin Thomas, Danielle Hollowell and Caitlin Sowell sit outside Moni Food Mart with Hollowell's dogs. Jacob Vaughn
On a hot day in early November, Justin Thomas, Caitlin Sowell and Danielle Hollowell sat outside the Moni Food Mart at the corner of Marsh Lane and Rosemeade Parkway in northern Dallas. Two young pit bulls named Bruce and Buddy Holly lay beside them. The three are homeless and living in tents at a nearby encampment, but they’re trying to change that.

About three months earlier, they had heard that homeless organizations would be signing people up for housing assistance in a nearby church parking lot. They went and filled out some paperwork with the organizations to see what help they could get. It was their impression that they were getting on the list for the R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative, a regional program meant to rehouse and provide services for 2,700 people.

They were still on the streets months later when the Observer published a story about how the initiative was nearly halfway to its goal. Hollowell reached out to the Observer to say there didn’t seem to be anything rapid about rapid rehousing. In hers, Thomas’ and Sowell’s experience, the process was slow and unorganized.

If the program was working so well, why wasn’t it working for them?

The answer is complicated, largely because the program deals with people — homeless people who have assorted issues that put them on the streets, landlords who don’t want to take housing vouchers for various reasons and advocates who are constantly strapped for time and resources.

For all the hope that this and other rapid rehousing programs have engendered, they’ve also left some feeling lost in the shuffle.

Before she was homeless, Hollowell, 36, had been sharing a unit at the Elan at Bluffview Apartments in Dallas with a roommate. Hollowell paid for her portion of the rent by working for delivery services like DoorDash, but the roommate, she said, was secretly pocketing the rent money and relying on the eviction moratorium in place during the COVID-19 pandemic to avoid getting kicked out of their apartment.

When the moratorium ended in July 2021, her roommate was prepared to move, but Hollowell wasn’t. That’s when she started living in her car, making deliveries to earn money when she could, but not enough to pay for a new place. Then her car broke down, and she started living in Dallas homeless encampments. To make matters worse, Hollowell said, she later fell down a flight of stairs, injuring her leg and tailbone. She said her injuries and the pain she experiences every time she walks has kept her from finding a new job.

She eventually ended up in a camp in northern Dallas with Sowell, 34, and Thomas, 42. All three have had to move to other camps during months they’ve been homeless — because an area started to feel too dangerous or the city did one of its periodic sweeps to tear down the camps.

The trio signed up for housing assistance through the local “continuum of care,” the description for a group of organizations that make up the homeless response system for Dallas and Collin counties. Housing Forward, formerly called Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, is the lead organization for the response system, which includes agencies that shelter the homeless and provide services such as counseling and job training to try to get them back on their feet. It’s all paid for through private donations, cities, counties and the federal government. Some of that money goes toward rapid rehousing.

“The end goal is self-sustainability, but it looks different for everyone." – Joli Robinson, Housing Forward

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The term rapid rehousing gets tossed around frequently but it generally refers to quickly providing short- to long-term rental assistance and other services for homeless families and individuals. There are federal, state and local rapid rehousing programs. The city rolled out a new program in 2021, the Dallas R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative.

Thomas, Sowell and Hollowell said they’ve been waiting since September when they applied for housing assistance and learned a year might pass before they get homes.

“There’s no help, really, other than a little goody bag once every other week coming from CitySquare,” Hollowell said. CitySquare is a local nonprofit that offers job training, health care, food and housing for the homeless. “I mean, they try to come out here and keep faith, but there’s a whole bunch of us out here that get no help.”

Hollowell isn’t sure what the long wait is about. “They haven’t told us anything other than we’re on the list,” Hollowell said.

Applications for the Dallas R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative opened in October 2021 with a goal of moving 2,700 homeless people into permanent housing within two years through the use of housing vouchers distributed by partnering organizations and local governments. More than 700 vouchers would go toward providing families, domestic violence victims and people with chronic health issues a year’s worth of subsidized rent. The rest would go to people considered chronically homeless.

To date, more than 1,400 people have been housed through the program. According to KERA, nine homeless encampments have been shut down through the program, and their residents have since been housed. Nearly 700 others are enrolled in the program, waiting for housing that isn’t there because too few apartment complexes are participating in the program. That’s why a campaign was launched to get more landlords on board. The campaign includes cash incentives for landlords willing to house people in the program.

It’s a $72 million initiative paid for primarily by federal COVID-19 relief funds that’s gotten praise from the likes of Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson.

“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,” Johnson told The Dallas Morning News when the program began.

But this and other programs may not be as quick as the name suggests. Joli Robinson, the CEO of Housing Forward, said it’s better to think of rapid rehousing in the context of the whole homeless response system. People are supposed to get connected to resources that best suit their circumstances. They can link up to these resources through access points — a shelter, for example.

From there, individuals get assessed for their needs to see what kind of assistance may work best for them. One of those resources is rapid rehousing, but it’s not right for everyone. Maybe an emergency housing voucher is a better resource. Homeless military veterans might be better served by a veterans assistance program.

Both emergency housing vouchers and rapid rehousing subsidies are offered for apartment complexes throughout the city, Robinson said. But some of those eligible for the help may need to live in a certain part of town to make it to work every day. Maybe they have mobility issues and need to be on the first floor instead of the third. These are some factors taken into account when finding a unit with an emergency voucher or through the R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative, which also provides help furnishing some clients’ new homes.

Every situation is different, so the process can take between 80 and 90 days, which is about how long Thomas, Sowell and Hollowell have been waiting.

Throughout someone’s time in the R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative, their case worker is supposed to help them become self-sufficient. “The end goal is self-sustainability, but it looks different for everyone,” Robinson said. To one individual, it may look like moving in with friends or family. For another, it may look like finding a steady job.

Mismatching clients with services can have bad consequences. Local homeless advocate Lisa Marshall has seen it herself. She’s been working with a woman who was enrolled in a different rapid rehousing program operated by Dallas’ Office of Homeless Solutions and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Emergency Solutions Grant Program. This grant money can go to nonprofit organizations and local governments to provide services for the homeless. Some of that money went into a Dallas rapid rehousing program that offered subsidized rent for up to a year.

The idea was that people in this program would either pick up the rent payments incrementally or fully at the end of the program. But the woman Marshall was working with ended up needing more permanent assistance than the program offered because mental health issues and drug addiction have prevented her from getting and holding onto a job. That didn’t change the fact that, per the program, she’d need to start picking up the rent payments in September. She couldn’t. Now, she’s about $3,000 behind on rent and is being taken to eviction court.

As it turned out for Thomas, Sowell and Hollowell, the R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative was the right resource for only one of them, according to Housing Forward. For privacy reasons, the organization said it couldn’t identify who had been chosen for rapid rehousing. The other two need more permanent supportive housing, something the program doesn’t provide.

“I mean, they try to come out here and keep faith, but there’s a whole bunch of us out here that get no help.” – Danielle Hollowell, Dallas homeless resident

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Since becoming homeless, the three say they’ve been on the run from the city and its homeless encampment sweeps. Thomas has been on the streets the longest. “I’ve been on and off the streets since 2007,” Thomas said. “Due to a divorce for the most part, I’ve been in and out of shelters.”

He served about a year in jail for theft and said he’s been on the straight and narrow since his release in 2016, but his criminal record has made landing a job and getting back on his feet tough.

“I don’t have a job, so I donate plasma to try to help make ends meet,” Thomas said. “I’ve twice panhandled to help out, but that’s the extent of it. I don’t have any other income. I’ve tried to get in on housing to actually get a place to stay, and it’s been a tedious process.”

His criminal record has dogged him as he tries to find work.

“I haven’t been to jail in six years, but yet it’s still hard to be able to find somebody who’s willing to give me a chance. And that’s all I need,” Thomas said. “That’s all I want, is for somebody to give me a chance to get back into working, and I could probably get myself out of this situation. But, it’s not working out the way I would hope for it to be.

“All these jobs that are available, you see all these signs that are saying hiring, but you go in there and once they do a background check or whatever, they tell me they can’t employ me. I’ve even been honest with them. … Nobody is willing to help me out. That’s really my biggest obstacle.”

Dallas’ frequent sweeps of homeless encampments haven’t made his search any easier. He was living in an encampment last year that was targeted by the city. He wasn’t there when the city came to remove the camp, so he lost all of his identification.

“The Office of Homeless Solutions, they come out here and we’re already out here with everything that we have,” Thomas said. “And they come out here and wipe our camps out, bring bulldozers, and all that stuff — just take everything. Then we have to turn around and reacquire everything. They don’t give us enough time to get everything else. Ten minutes to get everything we could and get out before they brought the bulldozer in. They say they’re trying to help us, but they’re really not.”

Thomas said he was visiting his probation officer when the city swept the camp where he was living.

“They didn’t give him any time,” Hollowell said. “No one was able to help him because they were all in fear of their own camps getting demolished. He lost every single thing, including his Social Security card and ID, which he had to go get replaced.”

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Hollowell doesn't want to lose her dogs, which might be necessary for securing housing.
Jacob Vaughn
After that, Hollowell offered to let Thomas stay with her and her boyfriend, Ken McKee, in their tent. Hollowell said she knows several homeless communities that avoid seeking help because they’re afraid of losing all their belongings to the city’s sweeps.

“I can think of at least six communities of homeless people where [the Office of Homeless Solutions] is not even involved because they have to stay hidden or they come and just bulldoze everything. How are they getting help? They’re not,” Hollowell said. “They’re literally subsisting off of what they can acquire, and panhandling, and scrapping metal or whatever ways they’ve figured out how to make money. Then, we get ostracized for doing it because that’s the only way we can support ourselves.”

She said the only time the city comes out is to sweep them up. “And the only interactions we have is with [the Office of Homeless Solutions] bulldozing things, or the cops,” Hollowell said. “Like, when we went up there to get on the rapid rehousing list, it was supposed to be Homeless Solutions, CitySquare and Metrocare, and the first people that came up to us and physically talked to us was the Dallas Police Department, telling us we had to move.

“No one wants to be accosted. They’re trying to come to the realization that they do need the help, but then they’re dealing with angry cops.”

The Office of Homeless Solutions says it doesn’t conduct homeless encampment sweeps. The office refers to what it does as homeless encampment resolutions. It’s all the same to the homeless. The city will generally give a three-day notice to camp residents before coming in and clearing away an encampment. Throughout that time, the city tries to get the residents connected to services. But, it could take time to see the benefits of those services and there could be barriers along the way.

“It’s infuriating.” – Caitlin Sowell, Dallas homeless resident

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A major barrier for Hollowell has been her pets, Bruce and Buddy Holly. “Because I have animals, they’re not willing to really help me other than to send me to The Bridge, and they have to be in a kennel,” she said. “I don’t have kennels to put them in.”

Hollowell said only a couple of shelters allow animals, but they won’t take pitbulls.

“I’m not going to give up these dogs,” Hollowell said. “I rescued these dogs. … It’d be like asking to get rid of your kids. So, I’m stuck here.”

Hollowell said members of her camp have been hit by cars in recent months. The drivers didn’t always stop. A hit and run killed Hollowell’s boyfriend, Ken McKee. “Then, my boyfriend Ken, he died two weeks ago,” Hollowell said, starting to cry. “It wasn’t even in the news at all. I just feel like that’s unfair. Five people have been hit in two months, one of which that died. Didn’t even warrant a news report. I mean, he was a decorated Marine.”

Across the street from the Moni Food Mart is a memorial for McKee. It’s a white cross surrounded by yellow and white flowers. A blue ribbon holds a small American flag at the top of the cross. It reads, “RIP Ken. 10/13/22.” That was the day someone hit McKee with their car. He died three days later on Oct. 16.

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A memorial cross for Ken McKee who was struck in a hit-and-run accident.
Jacob Vaughn
DPD is investigating the hit and run but doesn’t have much to go on outside a blurry photo from a nearby surveillance camera of the car it says hit McKee.

McKee, who served as a corporal in the U.S. Marines during the Gulf War, was buried in the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery in November.

“Not even a report,” Hollowell said, wiping tears from her face. “But you hear about all the other hit and runs in the area. But not ours.” A short article covering the fatal hit-and-run was published by The Dallas Morning News two days after McKee died.

Two other members of the camp got hit by cars, she said. One was put in a wheelchair. Another had to get stitches in the back of their head, Hollowell said.

Sowell said she moved to the northern Dallas camp because there were a lot of shootings near the last place she was staying, a camp off Central Expressway.

Sowell said she has lupus and was put on a priority list for housing, but she has waited the same amount of time as Thomas and Hollowell. “My wallet got stolen,” she said. “I can’t even get a hotel without my ID, and I don’t have anywhere to have it mailed to, so it’s just really difficult.”

She said many organizations that provide services to the homeless, like local nonprofit and shelter OurCalling, are too far away to help.

Hollowell chimed in, “Not all the homeless people live in downtown.”

Sowell responded: “Yeah, go figure. We don’t actually live under bridges.”

Sowell said she’s avoided shelters for the most part since becoming homeless. She was recommended for a year-long program where she’d need to stay in a shelter and wouldn’t be allowed to talk to her boyfriend, she said.

“They’re not really couples friendly on the homeless front,” Howell said. “They want you to be single or married. You can’t be in a serious, long relationship and not be married for them to help you because they will not treat you like a couple.”

The way the three see the situation, unless you have children, a mental illness or drug addiction, no one wants to help you. “Hurry up and die or hurry up and wait — one of the two,” Hollowell said.

“It’s infuriating,” Sowell said.

Back at their camp, deep behind trees in a wooded area in northern Dallas, several tents are set up. Hollowell estimates some 40–50 people live there. The three have theirs around the same spot, along with a firepit to keep warm and cook when they need to. Black tarp is wrapped around their little part of the camp so they have a bit more protection from the elements. Their wet clothes hang up to dry behind them.

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Caitlin Sowell has avoided shelters because she prefers to talk with her boyfriend. Shelters prefer helping out single people or families, she says.
Jacob Vaughn
“There’s a whole, like I said, at least 40–50 people who live in this however-many-acre park,” Hollowell said. “They just bounce from camp to camp to camp because they get tired of them taking their camps. We’re running out of forest to hide in, to the point where we’re dealing with flash-flooding creeks and stuff so they can’t get down to the camps so they can’t bulldoze everything. That’s where we’re at now.”

In the meantime the trio wait for assistance that might not come.

Robinson said the effectiveness of the rapid rehousing program is still a bit uncertain. It will soon be a year since the R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative placed clients in housing, and the program will then be able to determine how those clients have fared.

Robinson said she knows of at least two or three who have moved on to self-sustainability. “We’re just in the beginning phases of looking at the people that were originally placed, [and] what does it look like right now,” she said. “But we are so far seeing really great rates of people remaining housed even through the 12 months.”

But she said she also knows some people in the program won’t be ready to support themselves when their assistance runs out. Robinson said Housing Forward is working on a plan for them. Without one, they could end up back on the streets.

“That is not our system’s desire in any way,” Robinson said. “I can’t say that 100% of people are going to move to self-sufficiency, but we do not want to be in the business of turning people back out into homelessness. I’m telling you, it is all hands on deck if and when it appears to be something like that.”

In January, Thomas, Sowell and Hollowell said they were still homeless and waiting for housing assistance. Inclement weather shelters were opened in Dallas during December’s freezing temperatures, but the trio opted to stay in their tents. Recently, they had to move to other camps in the area. Thomas recently had his camp swept up again by the city, losing all of his belongings besides his ID and Social Security card. He said he may move into an apartment with his girlfriend in the near future. But life hasn’t changed much for him, Sowell and Hollowell since November. “Same thing,” Hollowell said. “Still waiting.”
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn

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