The official story of homelessness in Dallas over the past decade has generally been a positive one. According to the annual census that the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance conducts each January with the twin goals of measuring the scope of the problem and remaining eligible for some $17 million in annual HUD funding, the homeless population is down significantly from 2004 thanks in large part to a thirteen-fold increase in the number of people living in permanent supportive housing units and a heavy preference for homeless when distributing housing vouchers.
The progress can be seen in the trend in the dip in the number of chronically homeless, i.e., anyone who's been homeless for a year straight, has experienced four episodes of homelessness in three years or has a disability:
Despite the recent uptick and the failure to achieve the city's ambitious goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2014, there has been clear progress. But according to Cindy Crain, who became MDHA's executive director last spring, the picture probably isn't as rosy as the graph above makes it appear. The 2016 homeless census is scheduled to take place tonight, with hundreds of volunteers fanning out across Dallas County in search of the unhoused. Crain is expecting the numbers to jump significantly.
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This prediction doesn't require a sophisticated understanding of the economic and social forces that contribute to homelessness or knowledge of the precise size and shape of Dallas' affordable housing shortage, though Crain, as head of the umbrella agency for Dallas homeless services, has both. She needed only to do a head count at Tent City, the sprawling encampment beneath Interstate 45 in South Dallas that has a current population just north of 230, adjust for the the number of homeless sleeping in sidewalks, cars, vacant buildings and numerous smaller encampments (e.g., the one in the Cedars where a resident was recently murdered), and it becomes clear that the official 2015 count of 363 "unsheltered homeless" is far, far too low.
Crain says MDHA has been systematically under-counting homelessness for years. She's not accusing her predecessors at the agency of anything nefarious, but she says previous homeless censuses have had too few volunteers and they were inefficiently deployed. "What we did before is a lot of volunteers went to the shelters and interviewed people," Crain says. Organizers dispatched the volunteers to whatever encampments they were aware of, but there wasn't an exhaustive effort to search out undiscovered hangouts. Not only did the "known location count" strategy reproduce a lot of information shelters could easily have provided themselves, it failed to capture the true breadth of the unsheltered homeless problem.
This year, MDHA has doubled its roster of volunteers, jumping from 287 last year to 548 signed up as of Thursday morning. They will be escorted by 98 police officers and there will be 50 additional volunteers handling paperwork. The counters will fan out throughout the county on routes MDHA has mapped out using GIS software, counting not only encampments but also looking under bridges, in parks, inside vehicles and inside any 24/7 facilities where the homeless may be sheltering from the cold.
"I think it's going to be far more accurate," Crain says of this year's count. She has an estimate in mind of how high this year's tally will jump, but she's saving any numbers for the State of the Homeless address in March. "We all put our number in a hat, but that's just between me and my staff," she says.