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The Necessary Futility of Dallas' Annual Homeless Count

Jont'e Ross pulls onto the LBJ Freeway entrance ramp and accelerates past the glowing Sport City Toyota parking lot. Just before it's time to merge, Ross veers right instead of left and brings his lumbering Ford pickup to a stop in a broad ribbon of grass running beneath hulking transmission lines. A Dallas Police Department squad car pulls up behind him, disgorging two cops and Daniel Roby, the executive director of the Austin Street Center, one of Dallas' largest homeless shelters. The four of them step gingerly around a mud-filled crater and pick their way into a dense thicket of stunted trees and brush that parallels the power lines.

Inside, as Ross expected, they found ample evidence of human habitation. A dozen or more shopping carts, emblazoned with the markings of various retailers, were piled high with stuff. Here and there between them were piles of bedding. But there were no people. The makeshift beds were all empty and repeated calls of greeting were met with silence. Maybe they're loitering inside a gas station, or else they've panhandled enough for a motel room to escape the night's biting winds and mid-30s temperatures. Ross doesn't think the 15 people he estimates typically camp here have moved, but their absence on this particular night means they probably won't be counted as part of Dallas' homeless census.

The homeless count is an annual event, a prerequisite for the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance to access about $17 million per year in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD gives MDHA and sibling organizations (Continuum of Care Lead Agencies in HUD parlance) across the country a 10-day window in late January to enumerate their homeless on the general premise that if communities like Dallas are to reach their longstanding goals of ending chronic homelessness, they must understand the size and contours of the issue. MDHA conducted its count on Thursday night, dispatching several hundred volunteers from City Hall to all corners of the city, where they quizzed whatever homeless people they found on criminal history, drug and alcohol use, mental health issues, duration of homelessness, and so on.

Most groups of volunteers were given designated routes, but Ross was operating as something of a freelancer. He's a nine-month veteran of DPD's Crisis Intervention Unit, which makes him more of a social worker than a cop. He spends his days searching out and talking with the unsheltered homeless, trying to nudge them into services. He knows a lot of nooks and crannies that didn't make it onto MDHA's official maps. Roby, who's led Austin Street for almost a year, was tagging along to help with the count. The cops, one of them still jittery from pulling his gun on a suspect in a Pep Boys robbery earlier in the evening, were there just in case.

The trip to the LBJ encampment wasn't entirely fruitless. A minute after merging back onto LBJ, Ross took the first exit and spotted a panhandler standing where the exit ramp met Centerville Road. He was wiry and middle-aged, with shoulder-length dirty blond hair. He approached the truck with a mix of hope and suspicion, which increased when he spotted the DPD beanie on Ross' head, but he relaxed when Ross made it clear that he wasn't going to arrest him or shoo him off the corner and seemed almost eager to answer his questions. He was just trying to get $10, which, he explained, was what some associates charged to let him stay in their motel room.

The next stop, a vacated campsite in an abandoned railroad bed, was also a dud, though Roby did take down the information from a homeless man he encountered at a nearby gas station. After that, Roby piled into Ross' truck and they set off for a large encampment — more a Tent Town than a Tent City — along some railroad tracks near Mockingbird Lane and Interstate 35. They had to leave their police escort in the Northwest Patrol Division but Ross planned to connect with an officer he knew in Northwest Dallas. He wasn't going to venture into the camp, which is known as a nexus of drugs and prostitution, without a cop.

The officer told Ross that she was busy accompanying a particularly eager group of volunteers. This group hadn't been content to limit themselves to the predetermined route but were instead scouring the entire area for homeless, something that the cop, her call routed through Ross' truck speakers, sounded less than enthusiastic about. She suggested they reconnect later. To kill time, Ross showed Roby to an underpass where homeless makeshift structures hewn from a motley assortment of wooden pallets, wire, blankets, plastic tubes, and more had been tucked into a cranny between the bottom of the highway and a concrete shelf, like ramshackle cliff dwellings. The one man they found had already been counted, so Ross drove to a concrete drainage pipe beneath a bridge in a depopulated industrial area. As with the first camp there were signs of human habitation, including a wad of blankets stuffed several feet inside the pipe and, not quite as deep, a half-full cologne bottle, but the owner was nowhere to be found.

The exercise seemed almost hopelessly random. On a warmer night, they might have tallied 15 or 20 homeless by this point. Instead, they'd counted two. This randomness is baked into the model of the homeless count. A one-night census is fine for canvassing shelters and OK for big, established, visible encampments like Tent City, but there's no good way to fully capture the number of unsheltered homeless, because any given day might find them in a motel room or striking camp.

That doesn't mean that the homeless count doesn't yield useful information. In March, MDHA executive director Cindy Crain will deliver her annual State of the Homeless address, which will be filled with important details gleaned from the count. But much more powerful and granular data can be gleaned by tracking the various interactions between the homeless and the myriad social service and housing agencies that serve them. Currently, the system is hopelessly fragmented, with information siloed in each of the dozens of agencies that serve the homeless.

"We have a huge data gap," Crain said in a mid-January interview. She convinced Austin Street to switch to a computer system that will be run by Parkland Hospital and allow case notes and client histories to be accessed immediately by every other shelter and service agency, but so far that's the only one. "We had 12 data systems. Now we have 11," Crain says.

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Roby says that agencies are naturally hesitant to open up their books. For one, the main benefit of improving data collection — i.e., increasing HUD funding — will bypass them since most of them are privately funded nonprofits that don't receive HUD funding. It could also invite increased scrutiny as outside parties poke around in case histories and discover, for example, that someone's been staying in a shelter for 10 years without transitioning into housing. All that said, Roby says better data will help Dallas more effectively serve — and ultimately house — the homeless. The switch, he says, was the right thing to do.

Ross calls the cop once, then again, but she doesn't answer. He does find another panhandler standing on a median who agrees to talk in the parking lot of a nearby gas station. He readily gave his legal name and date of birth but balked when asked for his nickname. Pressed, he says that people call him "Plumber" on account of his former trade, which he had to give up because of his criminal history, which barred him from being licensed by the state.

Midway through the interview Plumber nods to a gaunt figure in a cheap polyester suit striding across the parking lot, whom he identifies as "Silly Billy." Ross recognizes him as the inhabitant of the concrete drainage pipe, and Roby gets out of the truck and follows him inside. Silly Billy insists on filling out the form himself, which Roby comes to regret. Frequent disquisitions — on Jesus, on staggering income inequality, on the awfulness of homeless shelters — slow the process considerably, and his answers are sometimes unhelpful. For instance, he ignores the check boxes for race and instead just scrawls "HUMAN BEING." By the time he leaves, Roby has given the man the socks off his feet and bought him a snack and a bottle of chocolate milk.

Ross gives the cop one last call as midnight approaches. After failing to get an answer, he abandons plans to visit the encampment, leaving several more homeless who will go uncounted. Of course, there's always next year.

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