The number of murders in Dallas is on track to surpass 200 for the second year in a row, and the pandemic's economic damage threatens to drive many more renters from their homes. Affordable housing in the city is already in short supply.
No wonder then that Dallas City Council member Chad West is warning that homelessness could lead to a public safety crisis.
“Why do I say ‘public safety crisis?’ Because I believe public safety begins with the home, and too many people in Dallas either don’t have one or they are one personal crisis away from losing it,” the chairman of the councils' housing and homelessness solutions committee said at a news conference Thursday.
Even without the threat of mass evictions caused by job losses during the pandemic, homelessness and housing were already two of the most daunting issues facing Dallas. Just last year, about 3,700 people in the city experienced homelessness, according to Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. About 1,100 of those were unsheltered.
“We know that business drives the economy, but the economy doesn’t always bring everyone along with it,” West said.
One of his top budget priorities is to support a mobile response unit to work alongside the Dallas Police Department in responding to calls about homeless people.
When the police answer a complaint about the homeless now, several uniformed officers might show up, and the homeless person might end up in a jail cell for the night. West said he is not sure this is an appropriate use of officers' time or the best way to have a lasting effect on homelessness. Instead, he would like to see a response that will help homeless individuals find shelter and services.
“I’m really hoping to see OHS [office of homeless solutions] work directly with DPD on this, and get DPD kind of out of their silo to work with OHS to find an appropriate response for homelessness calls and maybe redirect resources accordingly,” West said.
West said he is also seeking the city's help in funding a joint effort with builders to find transit-oriented development areas to fulfill a 1,000-unit affordable housing challenge. The OHS wants all of these units permitted by this time next year.
In 2018, the council passed Dallas’ first comprehensive housing policy. In this year’s budget, OHS is looking to get more funding to hire staff to administer and market the policy's existing programs.
West said they also want to fund initiatives that can fast track the permit process for mixed-income housing projects. David Noguera, the director of housing and neighborhood revitalization, said he hopes through streamlining these processes they can deliver additional units to the city.
The OHS also set the goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of the year. As of July 31, 49 veterans have been housed by Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, and 54 have been housed by the city. More than 300 veterans still need housing.
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“Ending veterans' homelessness is a great priority for us,” said Kevin Oden, interim director of OHS. Their ideal homelessness response would coordinate access into their system easily for chronic and new homeless individuals and have sufficient capacity for permanent, supportive, transitional and rapid rehousing functions.
West said there have been strides toward improvement since October. The city has confirmed the production of 2,626 affordable homes.
But, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and the public sector can’t do it all, said Linda McMahon, president and CEO of The Real Estate Council. This is why the council has created the first privately financed and managed affordable housing fund through an investment by JP Morgan Chase. McMahon also said she was informed this week that AT&T will kick in a second investment for the housing fund.
"We are planning on deploying millions of dollars in these communities that desperately need housing,” McMahon said.