Six Dallas social services organizations are teaming up with the county hospital and jail to help some of their most frequent users: the homeless. Newly hired caseworkers will find them housing, which will get them off the street and out of taxpayer-subsidized emergency rooms and jails, according to the initiative's organizers.
Beginning April 1, caseworkers will be strategically placed across the city in institutions frequented by the homeless, including Parkland Memorial Hospital's Emergency Department, the Dallas County Jail and various nonprofits. They will identify heavy users of these services and fast-track them into housing. It's based on a national model called Frequent Users Systems Engagement (FUSE) that's already being implemented in dozens of cities across the country.
The program will cost nearly $750,000 a year and is initially funded by grants from Texas Instruments and the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas. Participating organizations — Parkland, Dallas County, Austin Street Center, CitySquare, Salvation Army, The Bridge and Homeward Bound — will pay half the salary of their caseworkers.
"We'd like to end chronic homelessness," said Ashley Brundage, senior vice president of community impact at United Way. But she acknowledged that this isn't likely to happen soon. In the meantime, the program's goal is to serve 300 people a year and get a quarter of those into permanent supportive housing.
To do that, caseworkers will add clients to a waiting list kept by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. People who are homeless are notoriously hard to locate, so caseworkers will have access to a countywide database that keeps track of clients as they move through the system. That way, they'll be able to quickly locate a person off the list once housing becomes available.
Still, this won't solve the problem that there are more homeless people than available housing. “There’s definitely a bottleneck," Brundage said.
But now, at least, there's a faster way to get the system's heaviest users off the streets.
The program could save the county money, Brundage said. It costs, at minimum, $70 a day for a homeless person to sleep in jail. It costs about half that amount to send them to CitySquare's housing assistance program, which provides not only shelter but also various counseling services.
People experiencing homelessness are frequent targets for the cops. Business owners don’t like them loitering outside their shops, neighbors don’t like them setting up tents in vacant lots and the city doesn’t like them panhandling along roadways.
So they fill up jails. This has led to efforts to divert low-risk offenders away from the criminal justice system and instead get them help like housing assistance, substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling.
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot has promised to stop prosecuting criminal trespass cases and is spearheading an effort to launch a new "deflection center" where cops in the South Central precinct can bring minor offenders instead of jail. It's scheduled to open this spring.
But this new initiative will operate systemwide and will focus on housing. It's the brainchild of Michael Laughlin, who used to run diversion programs for the Dallas County Criminal Justice Department, and Edd Eason, vice president of health and housing at CitySquare.
Laughlin wanted to replicate FUSE in Dallas, and Eason knew a thing or two about the challenges of housing the homeless. Mainly that it's hard to get landlords to accept a new tenant with a lengthy arrest record.
"When case managers go to work on housing these individuals, they run into these roadblocks. And so they just go on to the next person," Eason said.
In 2016, CitySquare decided to build its own housing to take people no landlords wanted. They built a community of tiny homes and opened them up to 50 of the city's most at-risk population: the chronically homeless who were struggling with mental illness, substance abuse and lengthy arrest records.
In some ways, it worked. Over time, the number of hospital visits went down. But the strategy also had drawbacks. Residents — many of whom had open cases against them — were spending so much time in jail that it was difficult to develop a supportive community. Jail bookings weren't dropping as expected.
"That was a wonderful experiment and we all learned it is not a good idea to put all these folks in one facility, but we got to now do better. That's why everybody's excited about [this new initiative]," Eason said.
Now, caseworkers will leverage the nonprofits relationships with landlords to distribute clients across the city. Eason likens it to mixed-income housing development.
FUSE, he believes, is the right strategy going forward — not a surprise, considering that he wrote the grant. But so does Daniel Roby, CEO of Austin Street Center.
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"It's a big deal," Roby said. He is particularly encouraged that all the organizations are contributing funds which, he hopes, will help keep everyone accountable.
"We're each financially invested, but we're also recipients as well," he said.
Brundage has spent the last 15 years tackling issues related to homelessness in Dallas, and she calls this initiative a "big step forward."
"To see United Way take a lead role in a collaboration like this is exciting," she said. "It’s going to make a deep impact on chronic homelessness."