Dallas City Councilmember Cara Mendelsohn has said the City government needs to increase its ”enforcement” of policies related to homelessness and vagrancy.
While the Office of Homeless Solutions has boasted about shutting down nine homeless encampments throughout the City, Mendelsohn wrote in an op-ed for The Dallas Morning News that City staff members say there are approximately 400 encampments in Dallas.
Mendelsohn has long advocated for a ”compassion plus enforcement” approach to homelessness.
”Dallas staff members have done a great job with compassion,” Mendelsohn wrote, citing examples such as the porta-potty initiative and inclement weather sheltering.
”What has been missing is the enforcement part of that phrase,” she continued. ”Staff members have allowed the homeless to dictate if they will leave an encampment, and seems to have forgotten that staying encamped is not an option. It is dangerous, unsanitary, unsightly, harmful to business and against state law.”
“A new operation plan is desperately needed before our beloved city becomes Austin, Portland, or Los Angeles,” the council member said. ”The plan should provide the outreach, options and enforcement needed.”
Mendelsohn said that the first option made available to homeless people should be an emergency shelter. If they do not want to go to an emergency shelter, they should be offered mental health and addiction recovery beds and help to connect with a friend or family member willing to take them in, she asserted.
However, Mendelsohn said that if a person rejects the above options, his only remaining paths of action should be leaving Dallas altogether or being taken to the City Detention Center — the misdemeanor overnight jail.
She said the detention center will provide homeless detainees with the opportunity to work with a homeless diversion team member from the city attorney’s office to connect them with services and shelter options.
“The person still may not accept help and could just walk out the door and repeat this process over and over,” Mendelsohn wrote. “After several visits to the detention center, maybe people will accept the help they obviously need or decide Dallas is not a place to remain encamped.”
Mendelsohn noted that people have already accused the City of criminalizing homelessness following the passing of an ordinance that prohibited people from standing or sitting on medians. The council member argued, however, that allowing people to live outside is not truly compassionate.
“Compassion and enforcement should continue as the guiding principles in addressing homelessness, but both are needed in equal doses,” Mendelsohn concluded. “Dallas must do better to serve and assist the homeless, ensuring a clean, safe, high quality of life for all.”
The Dallas Express repeatedly reached out to Mendelsohn and her office for additional comment but received no response.
Mendelsohn’s op-ed comes as the City of Dallas has reached critical levels of homelessness and vagrancy. According to polling conducted by The Dallas Express, the majority of Dallasites view homelessness, vagrancy, and panhandling as “serious problems.”
The op-ed was shared on Twitter by Councilmember Adam Bazaldua with the caption: ”What a short-sighted look at what our city should be doing to better help people experience [sic] homelessness!”
”We cannot speak out of both sides of our mouths by saying that we should address our unsheltered population with compassion but criminalize them, while uprooting them from all of their personal belongings, if they refuse any services we have to offer,” Bazaldua tweeted.
“Instead of looking at solutions that more help the NIMBY [not in my backyard] crowd who are inconvenienced by their existence, we should be having the real conversations surrounding our need for more resources to address the mental health and substance abuse needs of our unsheltered.”
”Mitigating homelessness cannot and will not be done without restoring the quality of life & DIGNITY to those who are experiencing homelessness,” he continued.
“Shuffling these persons around, in & out of jail, constantly making them sift through trash to reclaim their belongings, and telling them that their trajectory in our city is less important than those residents who are housed around the corner, does NOT restore anyone’s dignity. It’s insulting, embarrassing as a city and down right inhumane!”
Prior to writing her op-ed, Mendelsohn tweeted a photograph of a homeless encampment underneath a bridge, saying, ”There are people & groups posting homeless encampment sites from across @CityOfDallas.”
”The photos are shocking and look like LA & San Francisco,” she said. ”We must fund additional shelter space until we can help people return to housing. Taking over Dallas streets & parks is not an option.”
Mendelsohn shared an example of an encampment in District 12 on land owned by the City behind a fire station. She said the encampment is littered with needles and feces. The encampment has also allegedly resulted in an increase in local burglaries.
The vagrants encamped there panhandle during the day and refuse to go to shelters, according to Mendelsohn.
”Residents have reported the site repeatedly to 311 and their service request is closed immediately, but nothing is done,” she tweeted. ”I’ve talked to staff and they say they won’t do anything unless they have housing to place them in. Not shelter, an apartment.”
One approach that the City has yet to try is something akin to Haven for Hope in San Antonio — a “one-stop shop” model that aims to provide support for the homeless in a single, contained geographic location.
Polling conducted by The Dallas Express suggests that a majority of Dallas residents support this type of solution.