Kevin Stuart had once accepted his homelessness as a fact of life. He even preferred it. On the streets, he could do meth without worrying about work. So, unless the weather was bad, he had no reason to go to a shelter.
In 2019, though, he decided enough was enough. He wanted his life back, but getting back on the straight and narrow meant he'd need resilience. He recalled two months he spent in a shelter. There, the staff eventually told him they needed to reassess his priority status, a fact that frustrated him. "I threw my hands up," he told the Observer. "And that's how a lot of people get lost, by saying 'Fooey' instead of fighting."
Back on the streets, he lost his ID, something many shelters require for entry. His belongings were stolen. He eventually ended up at Camp Rhonda, the homeless encampment Dallas recently forced to clear out.
The homeless and advocates agree that shelters aren't end destinations. The often crowded facilities help those living in the streets start the long, sometimes grueling journey back inside. But many unsheltered people distrust the system and fear losing their independence, facts that can keep them out of shelters.
The transition already wasn't an easy process to start, but the pandemic has made it even more difficult. Every shelter requires individuals to have a negative COVID-19 test. Early in the pandemic, the tests that were available meant that process could take a few days.
Recently, however, the local nonprofit OurCalling received rapid tests that only take a few minutes. The homeless go to OurCalling’s facility for the rapid tests and then are directed to the right shelter for them. Soon, the shelters will have their own rapid tests to make this step easier and quicker. A list of local shelters can be found here.
With a negative COVID-19 test, the shelter then screens a person to make sure they won’t render the environment unsafe. They’re screened for drugs, alcohol and weapons. Sometimes shelters require an ID for entry. Other times it’s required after.
Assuming you pass the screening, you can then enter a shelter where you’ll get to bathe, eat, sleep and exist in a collective setting with people you’ve likely never met. It’s not comfortable, to say the least.
“A homeless shelter is not an easy place to be because you’re taking a whole lot of people dealing with a broad range of mental illness, drug addiction, grief, job loss, etc. and putting them all together,” City Council member Chad West said. “It’s a recipe for hardship.” West used to chair the housing and homelessness solutions committee.
“But at the same time, being housed by one of our homeless service providers in Dallas gives these individuals the best chance to get help — treatment for mental illness or drug addiction, job training, regular meals and contact with someone who sees them and can recognize the issues they face,” West said.
To have a chance, though, you have to give up some freedoms. Drugs and alcohol aren’t allowed, and you can’t smoke a cigarette whenever you want.
“It’s easy for me to say ‘I’d rather sleep in a shelter than not drink and smoke when I want to,’ but it’s a harder decision to make when that may be the only comfort tools you have during the day,” Wayne Walker, founder of OurCalling, told the Observer.
Ryan Ahmadian, an organizer with Dallas Stops Evictions, a local nonprofit, said it’s the fear of this loss of autonomy, freedom and self-determination that deters many from entering the shelter system.
“They have to not only give up personal belongings but also give into the restrictions put in place, such as when you can go, when you can come, visiting hours, smoking hours,” he said. “It essentially makes them feel like a prisoner and that somebody’s in control of their day-to-day schedule and day-to-day life, when they’ve done nothing wrong. All they’re doing is trying to get back into housing and get on their feet.”
Ahmadian said that the shelters also break up families. This could happen if people are sent to gendered shelters. People usually cannot bring their pets either.
Catherine Cuellar, a city spokesperson, says "substance abuse, weapons, behavioral health and other challenges" are common among the "resistant homeless clients" the city serves.
Such barriers "make them unwilling and unlikely to seek case management or shelter because they wouldn't be allowed to enter in that condition or with that paraphernalia for the health and safety of other guests," Cuellar added.
When Charles Scott, a homeless person in Dallas, gets offered a shelter bed or a hotel room paid for by the city, he’s never quite sure if he should take them up on it. “I don’t want to go nowhere no bullshit is, where you’re locked in the room, can’t go smoke a cigarette, can’t leave the property,” he said.
Those who can escape homelessness on their own are usually going through a brief rough patch. “A lot of times, people need a little bit of support and they’re off and running by themselves,” Daniel Roby, CEO of the local shelter Austin Street Center, said.
For those people, putting up with discomfort and the shelter's rules may not be a big ask. But others spend months trying to transition out of shelters.
Around the time the city issued a citation to Johnny Aguinaga, the property owner of embattled Camp Rhonda, some of the residents there were offered a stay at local hotels by Office of Homelessness Solutions staff.
Some took the offer. Others preferred Camp Rhonda, not just because it allowed them to maintain autonomy, but because they’d lost trust in the system that's supposed to help them.
“They’ve gone through this process one too many times,” Ahmadian said. “They’ve been into the hotel and instead of getting put into housing, like they’re promised, they just get thrown into the shelters.”
For Roby, keeping people inspired is key. "It's not just about having a meal, it's not just about having a bed," he said. "It's really about having hope that something different is possible for their life. It can be a depressing experience to have so many barriers stacked against you and walk through those one at a time and keep going."
Even if every homeless person felt ready to go through that process, there wouldn’t be enough shelters or affordable homes to put them in.
According to the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, 3,722 persons were reported experiencing homeless in 2019, of which 1,153 were unsheltered. The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance is the lead agency in charge of the homeless response systems in Dallas and Collin counties. The alliance is in charge of, among other things, an annual census of the counties' homeless populations.
Last year, the count found that after years of increases, Dallas saw fewer people experiencing homelessness. It also found the city's efforts were successful in moving those people from one place to another, but not getting them off the streets and into housing.
A huge part of the problem is capacity, OurCalling's Walker said. Before the pandemic, there were 2,000 shelter beds available in Dallas, according to the city's website. Social distancing protocols at shelters have made less available. “We haven’t added any significant shelter space since The Bridge opened, and that’s 11 years ago,” he said.
Meanwhile, there’s the need for a space that serves more vulnerable homeless individuals – those who need respite or hospice care, or people with greater healthcare needs. Getting more space often meets resistance, whether that space means shelters or affordable housing.
OurCalling is raising $12.6 million to buy a facility to turn into permanent housing with wrap-around services for the city’s homeless. Individuals at the facility would receive full food service, medical and mental health treatment, counseling, job training and other services. Raising the money won’t be the hardest part. Nor will operating the facility. “The biggest challenge we’re gonna have is, politically, everybody fighting to not have it in their council district,” Walker said.
Across the street from their current shelter, Austin Street Center plans on opening up another facility, a new space that would add another 100 beds to the system. Roby said it took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to gather support from the neighborhood and the city.
Others feel they can't wait for that support. They feel it needs to be demanded. And until the demand is met, activists like Ahmadian intend to fill in the gaps. That's what they've tried to do with places like Camp Rhonda. When the campsite got shut down, activists used funds raised by Feed the People Mutual Aid to put the residents up in a hotel.
But Walker said the shelters are doing everything they can for the people they serve. He doesn't believe in helping maintain homeless encampments. He used to be the kind of person who brought supplies to homeless camps. But he's since come to believe that taking people off the street is a better strategy to ending homelessness than giving people the means to be more comfortable on the street. He also said, though, that the problem has gotten so big, everyone needs to be part of the solution.
“When we live in a city that needs thousands of beds, the question is not ‘Why isn’t the city doing more?’" he said. "The question is ‘Why isn’t everyone participating with this?’”
For his part, Kevin Stuart still wants to make the transition to life indoors. “I’ve had backpacks stolen, wallets stolen," he said. "Now I have to go get my ID all over again, I have the frustration of having to deal with my Social Security card."
But he knows how trying the process can be. “All these things we want right now, but all [everyone's] gotta understand that with that want is a process," he said, "and I have to go through the process.”
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