With one phone call and about three hours, the local nonprofit ministry OurCalling was able to secure and set up the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center to temporarily house hundreds of the city’s homeless as a heavy snowstorm pounded Texas.
Usually when subfreezing weather hits Dallas, OurCalling risks the threat of fines from the city sheltering the unhoused, something they’re prohibited from doing. The nonprofit was recently supplied with 6,000 rapid COVID-19 tests to help get people into shelters faster. But the shelters filled up quickly as Dallas' cold weather intensified.
Last week, OurCalling executive director and pastor Wayne Walker told the city they didn’t have any more room and neither did the shelters. So, he offered up his staff and services to prepare the convention center, which is located downtown at 650 S Griffin St.
“We’ve been working nonstop, 24 hours a day since then,” Walker said.
He said some 300 people have already come to the convention center, more are coming by the hour and they expect a significant increase in the next few days. Though they’re successfully providing shelter, Walker said he’s still not sure how it’s all going to work out.
“It’s kind of a worst case scenario in some ways, trying to figure out how to staff this thing, trying to figure out how to afford this thing,” Walker said. “We need all the community support we can get right now.”
He said OurCalling is spending around $15,000-$20,000 a day. The efforts at the convention center are being paid for by Walker's organization and the city.
The last time the city opened up the convention center to unhoused people happened last year after the coronavirus pandemic broke out. It was opened from March to August 2020.
As power outages rolled through the state, those at the convention center were spared electricity blackouts. However, the weather prevented some OurCalling volunteers from making it to the center. Others had trouble making it back home.
“Our staff are even slim because some of them can’t get out of their home, some of them can’t drive here,” Walker said. “So we’ve rented rooms at the Omni for our staff to stay up here for running 24 hour shifts, so they can sleep a little bit between shifts.”
OurCalling has 30-40 volunteers working the convention center around the clock.
Despite the struggles and uncertainties, Walker is glad his organization and others like it can offer help. “It’s been a great opportunity to flex muscles that we’ve been working on toning all year,” he said.
Austin Street Center, a local shelter, is running their shelter, managing about 130 people they have set up in a hotel and helping transport people to the convention center. The Salvation Army is running its facility and helping prepare meals. Additionally, the Stewpot and Oak Lawn United Methodist Church are helping bring some of the food to the convention center.
But even when the current weather emergency ends, the homeless population and organizations that work with them will have plenty of storms to weather.
With the shelters at capacity, Walker worries there will be nowhere else to send the individuals who are currently at the convention center.
Walker said, “There’s no available housing in Dallas. There’s no rooms to move them into. There’s no money for a hotel for all these folks. There are no shelter beds. There is no alternative.”
The problem keeps growing by the day, he said.
Before the pandemic, he estimates that his nonprofit saw around 30 new people a week. The pandemic has sent that number soaring to 150, and the freezing weather has added to it.
For the time being, Walker said keeping the convention center open to homeless population is the only option. But it lacks dignity. He measures his homeless response by asking himself whether his mother would find the accommodations acceptable.
“Would your mom wanna sleep in a bed like that? Would your mom call that clean? Would your mom eat that food? Would your mom wear those clothes?” Walker asks himself.
Needless to say, he wouldn’t want him mom sleeping on a cot in the convention center.
“These individuals need housing, and I don’t think we can wait on the city and city council to provide it. Every citizen in Dallas needs to respond,” Walker said. “Every family in Dallas needs to financially support an individual who’s struggling on the street, not by giving cash out their window, but strategically partnering with a nonprofit that can help them get off the streets permanently.”
OurCalling has had a free app (found here) for years that helps people donate and volunteer to put a dent in homelessness. Walker said if people are looking for a more strategic way to get involved and help, their app is a good place to start.
For now, the convention center expects to remain open to the homeless population as long as temperatures remain below freezing. Unhoused individuals can enter through the loading dock, where an entire exhibit hall is being used to accommodate social distancing and other safety measures. They’re allowed to stay day or night and will be fed breakfast, lunch and dinner while there.
Daniel Roby, Austin Street Center's CEO, said Dallas has made great strides recently toward helping the homeless. But he said the city “has so far to go in making sure we have an adequate number of affordable housing and supportive housing for those who need it.”
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