For more than a year, Dallas officials and others have struggled to come up with a plan for offering shelter to homeless people on nights when it's too cold to sleep outdoors.
It's a problem many other communities have already solved.
Across the region and nationwide, other cities offer examples of how to find space to house people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets and under highway overpasses on nights when it's too dangerous to do so. In Houston, Austin and Oklahoma City, churches, homeless shelters and other organizations open up extra space for people to sleep on those nights.
In Oklahoma City, six homeless shelters have agreed to open up extra space in their buildings for people to sleep on cots on nights when forecasters predict the temperature will drop below freezing. If that space ever fills up — it never has yet — one of the shelters will open its gym to allow more people to sleep there.
Dan Straughan, executive director of the nonprofit Homeless Alliance, said Oklahoma City's inclement weather housing plan started as an informal arrangement among the directors of city agencies that worked with homeless people. Each knew about how much space all the other organizations had, and anyone who was out of space knew where to send people who needed a warm place to sleep.
Then, in a brutally cold few weeks during the winter of 2017-2018, eight homeless people died in Oklahoma City, Straughan said. Some of them died of exposure. Others died in abandoned homes where they were squatting when fires they started for warmth spread to the entire building.
After those deaths, agency chiefs decided they needed to do a better job of coordinating the plan So all six agencies agreed on a single set of criteria for when they would keep their doors open overnight, and they identified space for 300 people to spend the night. Then they enlisted city officials' help in getting details about the plan to the broader community and to other agencies like the Oklahoma City Police Department, the local ambulance authority and the public library system.
Since Oklahoma City implemented the plan, they haven't seen a homeless person die from cold weather, Straughan said, although it's difficult to know if that's because of the plan or because last winter was fairly mild in Oklahoma City, as it was in Dallas.
Any city looking to put together a cold weather shelter plan needs to make sure all of its big, general-purpose homeless shelters are involved, Straughan said. That kind of plan will only succeed if all those agencies are willing to talk to each other.
David Woody, director of The Bridge, a Dallas-based homeless shelter, said similar conversations are already happening here. The same cold snap that left eight homeless people dead in Oklahoma City in the winter of 2017-2018 also killed four homeless people in Dallas. After those deaths, a coalition of churches, including Oak Lawn United Methodist Church and OurCalling, met with Woody and other homeless advocates to talk about what they could do to prevent more people from dying on the street.
After meeting with advocates, those churches began opening their doors to homeless people on nights when it was too cold to stay outdoors. Woody said having space available in the churches has been important, because it gives him and the city's other shelters a place to send people on cold nights when the permanent shelters are full.
"If I'm maxed out, I've got to have someone else to go to," he said.
Important or not, it's against the city's zoning laws for churches to offer overnight shelter to homeless people. In February 2018, the city's zoning enforcement department cited OurCalling for a violation. Since then, city officials have been struggling to come up with a workable cold weather shelter plan.
One factor that makes implementing any cold weather plan in Dallas County a challenge is the massive amount of highway infrastructure, Woody said. Homeless people are spread out all across the county, tucked up under highway overpasses, making it harder for outreach workers to find them, he said.
Part of the reason Dallas hasn't seen a broader response to the issue may be the weather itself, Woody said. Although the city certainly has its cold nights during the winter, it doesn't usually see cold snaps that last for a week or more.
"It doesn't last long enough that there's a groundswell of groups that actually see themselves as working together," he said.
Even as city policymakers work out details of a cold weather shelter plan, Woody said it's critical that churches, agencies and officials continue to work together to keep people from dying outdoors on winter nights.
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