The number of homeless people in a city on any given night varies, and is difficult to measure. Most cities perform random periodic counts to determine the number and demographic of homeless individuals. In Dallas, counts over the last 10 years indicate that the general population is going up, but the demographic is shifting. Look around, and you might see more women, kids and down-on-their-luck families.
According to a report by Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, the number of chronically homeless individuals is down about 65 percent, and the number of people sleeping outside or in abandoned buildings on a regular basis is down 49 percent. "Chronically homeless" means men and women with debilitating mental illness, substance dependency or other disability who are homeless for over a year.
Michael Faenza, president of MDHA, says that's likely because homeless advocacy groups have typically focused their efforts on providing housing for this group. "Our number one priority is the chronically homeless," he says. "People with mental illness and substance disorder that need permanent support services initially need to be in stable housing. And if you have severe mental illness or recurring challenges with illness, you're at risk for all kinds of challenges."
At the same time, the total number of people who are homeless is up by 11.5 percent from 2013, and the number of homeless families increased 60 percent in just the last few years. But perhaps the most shocking number provided by the MDHA is the 108 percent increase of unaccompanied homeless kids, which includes runaways.
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Part of that has to do with better counting methods: Dallas ISD's push to identify homeless students, with initiatives such as the Homeless Education Program, has dramatically increased the number of kids that schools identify as homeless.
"One of the things, in my view, that is central to addressing homelessness is children and families. There are a lot of single mothers with kids that have often been through multiple problems, a lot of trauma and stress," says Faenza. "If you interview 10 homeless women at The Bridge [homeless services center], 8 out of 10 will tell you they have kids who aren't with them. I think that's one of the biggest unsolved tragedies in Dallas. And for the children in foster care, 40 to 50 percent would be back with parents if housing were available."
Faenza says the biggest challenge remains providing housing for everyone in need. "The Dallas Housing Authority does a good job, and is in many ways the sole bastion for people waiting for housing. But they have 20,000 on their waiting list, and they cut off the list at 20,000," he says.
"The biggest factor in preventing and ending general homelessness is providing housing that is accessible to the working poor and to lowest-income people," he continues. "Dallas has a big gap in affordable housing, especially for very poor people."