The Dallas City Council approved the ordinance in November. It allows faith-based organizations and churches to obtain permits as shelters when temperatures fall below 36 degrees between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 a.m.
The ministry worked with the city and other groups to place up to 300 individuals in hotel rooms over the weekend. Homeless individuals were picked up by the city from OurCalling's facility to be taken to one of the hotels, which were funded from Friday night until Tuesday night. But that wasn't enough.
Wayne Walker, the ministry’s executive director and pastor, says they had no choice but to disobey the ordinance. The city provided about 150 hotel rooms. In partnership with other agencies, OurCalling helped pay for another 150 rooms. “It’s a very expensive process.” Every 150 hotel rooms cost about $10,000 a night, he said, and the rooms often go quickly.
OurCalling expected the hotels to be over capacity by Sunday, so they kept their doors open. “There’s no other alternative to keep people out of freezing weather but to keep our doors open,” he said.
“It’s either we keep our doors open and help people survive this freezing temperature, or we close it and go home,” Walker says. “We’re not doing this to grandstand. We’re doing this because we have no options and we really want to care for our neighbors and love them well.”
Walker said people began trickling into their facility Sunday night. They had one of the NFL playoff games on, and beef stew and cornbread was cooking in the kitchen. OurCalling usually requires temperatures to fall to 32 degrees or lower before they start welcoming people in for the night. However, because of precipitation on Sunday, Walker said they were more lenient about their opening temperature.
OurCalling hasn't been issued a fine for opening its doors during inclement weather, though staying open is costly enough. Providing shelter for people overnight costs the ministry about $5,000 per night. This pays for staff, security and meals.
OurCalling has been helping people experiencing homelessness for over a decade. Walker, as well as his wife, have been working with Dallas’ homeless population for twice that amount of time.
Walker says Dallas has the largest homeless population of any city in the southern part of the U.S. OurCalling serves about 10,000 people a year. “We always have more needing shelter than we have shelter beds available,” Walker says. "That's always the case. ... Every six months I think they put a new Starbucks on every corner, but we haven't put in a new shelter bed anywhere in this county in 10 years."
COVID-19 has made housing these individuals more challenging because shelters have to space out their beds for social distancing. As many face eviction, more people need services and at the same time, fewer services are available, Walker says.
A big obstacle has also been testing for COVID-19. Shelters require that a person experiencing homelessness test negative for the virus before they can be taken in. It often takes two-three days to get results. However, OurCalling will soon be able to do rapid testing for the virus and get people in shelters quicker. The ministry will be the official testing site for people experiencing homelessness, Walker says.
If people want to help, Walker says they can download OurCalling's phone app to help report homeless individuals who need help, as well as find ways to volunteer and be part of the solution.