Dallas Officials Spar Over Homelessness Programs

Homeless push a basket of items
Homeless push a basket of items | Image by KOKH

Days after a federal liaison told Dallas officials that their efforts to reduce homelessness were making a difference, a debate about the accuracy of that assessment spilled into another committee meeting.

“What we’re looking at is addressing … individuals that are on the street, under our bridges, in our creeks, and who are on our sidewalks and alleys, to [get them into] long-term, sustainable housing,” explained Council Member Jesse Moreno (District 2) told board members of the Dallas Area Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness Local Government Corporation (DAPEH) on Thursday.

While not a member of the DAPEH board, Moreno chairs the Housing & Homelessness Solutions Committee.

“What I want to work on in challenging staff is addressing … that transitional piece [of housing] with those wraparound services, with public safety in mind, with mental-health wraparound services,” said Moreno.

Providing transitional housing, or short-term shelter, before homeless people are placed in permanent housing has been a part of the City’s multi-layered approach to reducing street-level homelessness.

“We know that in the City of Dallas, we are faced with about a 90% vacancy rate, meaning it’s very expensive to get units … and to build new units takes time and dollars,” Moreno explained. “And, so, the idea is to have this sanctioned transitional housing model that encourages people who are struggling with housing to have a place to go in the interim while they’re waiting for sustainable housing, rather than continuing to allow people suffering on our streets, on our sidewalks.”

Polling by DX indicates that roughly 75% of Dallas voters think homelessness, vagrancy, and aggressive panhandling are “major” local problems. Residents also registered their support for the “one-stop-shop” homeless services model used by Haven for Hope in San Antonio. The model has been credited with a 77% reduction in unsheltered homelessness in the city’s downtown area.

Some Dallas officials, including Council Member Cara Mendelsohn (District 12), have repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the federal Point-in-Time count. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses this count to collect data on the number of people experiencing homelessness on a given day at least every other year, but critics argue that it does not provide an accurate picture of such data.

A Continuum of Care must complete point-in-time and housing inventory counts at least biannually. However, the Point-in-Time count does not necessarily include data on the number of people experiencing homelessness who are temporarily living in shelters, hotels, or with friends or relatives.

Mendelsohn called Dallas “an incredible partner in the Continuum of Care.”

“You can see why it’s important for us to continue to have this dialogue and update,” Mendelsohn said. “And it appears there’s a pivot that’s happening as council members have become overwhelmed with increasing homelessness complaints. … And it’s not just one place in the City. It’s everywhere.”

Mendelsohn noted that the latest Point-in-Time count, which indicated homelessness was actually going down in the Dallas area, did not appear to match up with what residents see day to day.

“[The latest Point-in-Time count] is a story of progress,” Mendelsohn said. “That is not the reality of what we’re seeing [and] hearing in our own streets that we drive every day from our own communities over and over and over again. The truth is the data is based on a Point-in-Time count that is highly inaccurate from volunteers that get 30 minutes’ worth of training, maybe get a map. But the map may or may not actually show the very likely places of encampments, and [they’re] impacted by weather [and] by the number of volunteers.”

Housing Forward CEO Sarah Kahn said during a State of Homelessness Address on April 30 at the Winspear Opera House that an estimated 3,718 people experienced homelessness every night in Dallas and Collin counties in 2024, a 19% decrease in overall homelessness and a 24% drop in unsheltered homelessness since 2021.

DAPEH member Dr. Fred Cerise of District 9 cited the most recent Point-in-Time count to recognize Housing Forward’s work.

“But I have seen the progress that’s been made with Housing Foward and … with just the last Point-in-Time estimate in the progress that’s been made. I know a lot of that has been made because we’ve been able to direct our disparate efforts and focus … in a more coordinated fashion,” said Cerise.

Housing Forward is the lead organization of the All Neighbors Coalition, a collective of more than 140 organizations that provide support and resources for individuals experiencing homelessness.

A discussion on alternative strategies for addressing homelessness spurred disagreement among officials at the meeting.

“So, it really sounds like what you’re talking about is a little bit of a departure from what has been happening, which is a 100% housing for Housing First model,” Mendelsohn said. “Can you help explain … how it’s not diverting resources away from what’s already been showing that it’s working? Because how are you going to pay for it, then?”

Moreno said that has not been determined.

“That’s still something that’s being … looked at,” Moreno said. “And I’ve said this many times. This is not a diversion of funds from Housing Forward. This is about alternatives. This is going to be something that’s going to have to be driven by our partners, by our business community, by the philanthropy side, by nonprofits to come up with that funding and not necessarily from the City of Dallas.”

Mendelsohn challenged Moreno’s line of thinking.

“The State of the Homeless address this week was just shouting all kinds of great data that says that what we’re doing is working,” she said. “The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness is recognizing Dallas because what we’re doing is working. When you talk about going out and raising money, additional dollars from philanthropy, or telling nonprofits that they’ve got to find the money to do something different, that’s taking away resources from what’s working.”

The Dallas Express reported in April that Rachel Wilson, the federal team lead embedded with the Dallas Office of Homeless Solutions, and some City officials disagreed during a committee meeting on whether federal, state, and local taxpayer money could best be used to build temporary housing or permanent shelter — or both.

“You know, we know that there’s so many different subpopulations within homelessness — people who have just lost their job a week, two weeks ago [and] people who are chronically homeless and who have been on our streets for years,” Moreno explained. “[They are] struggling with substance abuse, mental health, or are seeking a refuge from a domestic violence situation. … We can’t have a one-solution-fits-all.”

Mendelsohn appeared to favor the Housing First model.

“What the evidence says is moving people off the streets into a permanent housing solution is what works best,” she said. “There’s been a lot of research put behind that, and we’re seeing the results of that here in Dallas, where we move people from those encampments, from under bridges … into permanent housing versus putting them into some sort of tiny home or sanctioned encampment, which is a temporary solution.”

Advocates should also consider how they would “even get folks to move into those sanctioned encampments or tiny homes,” Mendelsohn added. “We certainly cannot force anybody to go somewhere that they don’t want to be.”

Moreno said that building “tiny home” communities for people experiencing homelessness is one possibility.

“We’re looking at a variety of options. What I can tell you is the cities that we’ve toured have 100% occupancy. They have much success in getting individuals into this temporary housing. And the success rate when they do … go into permanent supportive housing is much higher,” said Moreno.

Note: This article was updated on May 8, 2024, at 9:12 p.m. to correct the erroneous attribution of statements to Celeste Arista Glover, the DAPEH board member for District 8.

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