To Solve Homelessness, Maybe Dallas Just Needs to Try Harder

On Tuesday evening, Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance president and CEO Cindy Crain — with an assist from former homeless czar/current Mayor Mike Rawlings — delivered some bad news in her second annual "State of the Homeless Address." As we predicted two months ago, the homeless count in Dallas and Collin counties has spiked, jumping 24 percent over the last year.

Now, does that mean the homeless population jumped by 24 percent? Hardly. The official figure, which MDHA has to report to the federal government to qualify for some $17 million in annual funding, comes from a one-night homeless census conducted each year in late January. There's really no way to tell whether the figure in any given year represents an actual change in the number of people without homes or just fluctuations in volunteers' abilities to count them. Maybe a bunch of homeless were sheltering from the cold in motels or on friends couches. Maybe they were in a nook volunteers didn't think to look in. Maybe organizers did a better (or, given the wild-goose-chase nature of the census, a slightly less awful) job of conducting the count. So maybe the jump isn't so much an increase in number so much as an increase in accuracy, albeit not one so radical that the census can even come close to capturing the true size of Dallas' homeless population.

Methodology aside, the homeless census underscores an important point, which also happens to be the central lesson of Tent City: There are many, many homeless people in Dallas.

There are lots of reasons for this, from deep structural poverty to a godawful mental healthcare system to how ex-felons are permanently locked out of society, but homeless advocates and service providers pretty much all agree that the most immediate reason there are so many homeless people in Dallas right now is an acute shortage of affordable housing. Dallas' booming housing market has squeezed tenants. In the market's middle and upper rungs, this means that renters are paying more or living in a shabbier place. On the lower end, it often means families and individuals are squeezed out entirely.

The solution to homelessness, then, is to build more affordable housing, which is simple but expensive. The $6.8 million, 50-unit Cottages at Hickory Crossing, which The Guardian just wrote about for its focus on housing the hardest cases, is just the tip of the iceberg. “From a long-term standpoint, we are talking about tens of millions of dollars,” Rawlings said on Tuesday. “But it's a very great return on investment because these homeless people are costing us money as we speak.”

Iain De Jong, a consultant who has worked with cities around the world to craft more effective responses to homelessness, disagrees. "Quite honestly, I call bullshit."

We talked a few weeks ago, so De Jong wasn't calling bullshit on Rawlings per se. He was calling bullshit on the premise upon which Rawlings' statement was based. "I do not in any way buy the claim that there's not enough affordable housing in Dallas," De Jong said.

De Jong has a pretty good feel for the city's homeless problem. Crain brought him in as a consultant in the months following her move from the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition to MDHA about a year ago to help implement VI-SPDAT, which is a mouthful of an acronym (it stands for "Vulnerability Index & Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool" and has the not-quite-mellifluous pronunciation "vee eye spid dat") but is, in essence, just a scorecard that measures the awfulness of a homeless person's circumstances. The more awful the person's life, based on this questionnaire, the higher his or her score. The higher the score, the quicker the person is moved into housing. So an HIV-positive crack addict with an arrest warrant who's been sleeping on the street for a decade gets higher priority than the hard-luck house painter who was laid off and fell behind on his rent.

One reason Dallas is implementing the tool is that HUD requires jurisdictions to have a formal way of prioritizing the distribution of permanent supportive housing, transitional housing and other federally funded initiatives. Another reason is that Dallas' old way of prioritizing cases, which involved case managers with the various homeless service agencies sweet-talking housing providers into taking their client over someone else's, wasn't terribly effective or rational. Crain is also working to persuade  something like a dozen of the biggest shelters and service providers, which together interact with the vast majority of Dallas' homeless population, to share information and adopt a citywide case management system.

The lack of coordination and lack of formal assessments are symptoms of what De Jong views as Dallas' wrongheaded approach to tackling homelessness. Here, the homeless typically have to clear a lot of barriers to access shelter and other services — abstaining from drinking, abiding by an absurdly early curfew, remaining separate from boyfriends or girlfriends. They get ticketed and arrested for minor offenses like sleeping in public. The dominant opinion is still that some homeless are deserving of help while others are not. "We create these structures that have one set of rules and laws for people who are housed and completely different expectations for people who are homeless," De Jong says.

De Jong advocates a housing-first policy: house the homeless first, deal with mental health, substance abuse, or other issues later. Rhetorically, this is what Dallas has been pushing since 2004, when it vowed to end chronic homelessness within a decade. But in De Jong's view, there hasn't been nearly enough follow-through, partly because of an over-reliance on private service providers with high barriers and partly because of ineffective coordination. Mostly, though, De Jong says that Dallas hasn't been nearly aggressive enough in finding housing for homeless people.

For De Jong, that's the main takeaway from Utah, which famously reduced chronic homelessness by 91 percent and did so without a massive investment in housing. That is to say, the state did build additional housing but, according to Mother Jones, 90 percent of the funding came from the feds through low-income housing tax credits of the type that Dallas and other jurisdictions compete for anyway. The bigger factor, though, was commitment. Getting the chronically homeless into housing is labor-intensive. Outreach workers have to search them out, figure out what types of services they need, talk them into accepting those services, badger landlords into accepting a homeless tenant, and follow up to make sure they stay housed. As Tent City can attest, Dallas has done poorly on that measure.

De Jong sees signs that the paradigm here is changing. He thinks the adoption of VI-SPDAT and the focus on better coordination are good first steps. Crain has also been astoundingly forthright about her failure to do adequate outreach at Tent City and pledged to do better. Even that has proved challenging, however. When Dallas announced just over a month ago that Tent City will come down in early May, Crain was working to persuade local service providers to lend 10 full-time case managers to find housing for as many residents as possible. As of Tuesday, there were just four working part-time.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson