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Experts Disagree Over What Drives Homelessness in Dallas

Homeless woman | Image by Keep Srdjan Randjelovic/Shutterstock
Homeless woman | Image by Keep Srdjan Randjelovic/Shutterstock

While many stakeholders are interested in reducing homelessness in Dallas, authorities on the subject differ in opinion as to what causes someone to become homeless in the state’s third-largest city and what it will take to change the status quo.

“I would say that, largely, it’s an economics problem,” claimed Christine Crossley, director of the Dallas Office of Homeless Solutions. “Inflation, high rate of rent, and inability to find a home are a lot of things that will affect you. It’s almost like a game of [musical] chairs. There are always going to be fewer chairs than people. The strongest and smartest in the room are going to get that chair.”

“They may be sick for a long time, injured on the job or laid off, or are working two or three jobs and can’t afford rent, their car payment, or to pay for daycare,” Crossley added. “This is largely economics. Once you are on the street, the longer the trauma is going to compound.”

A similar opinion was offered by the head of Housing Forward, the lead organization of the All Neighbors Coalition, a nonprofit working to reduce homelessness in Dallas County and Collin County.

During the State of Homelessness Address on April 30, Housing Forward CEO Sarah Kahn said, “We’re seeing a situation where, as housing is becoming more and more unaffordable, people are experiencing homelessness and often getting trapped. In the shadows of one of the best arts districts in America, there are people who are literally living in tents, storing their belongings in shopping carts, and keeping warm around a fire pit.”

Still, many have identified issues beyond economics that end up landing people on the street.

Author, journalist, and policy expert Michael Shellenberger asserted in a recent post on X that homelessness is not caused by poverty and the rising cost of housing — a narrative he claims has been pushed by mainstream media.

“Poverty has declined steadily for decades as homelessness got worse,” he wrote. “And people priced out of their housing for reasons unrelated to addiction or untreated mental illness find another place to live. They don’t pitch a tent on the dirtiest and most dangerous sidewalks in America.”

“The reason the problem grew so much worse is that a handful of well-financed ideological activists persuaded cities and states to incentivize homelessness through unconditional cash payments, promises of unconditional free housing, and the decriminalization of shoplifting and open-air drug dealing,” he added.

A leading homelessness consultant agrees that addiction and mental illness are the two major factors affecting unsheltered homeless people and vagrants in the United States.

“Street-level homelessness is what most politicians are talking about,” said Dr. Robert Marbut, the creator of the Haven for Hope model in San Antonio. “That’s all from mental health and substance abuse. That’s the whole ballgame.”

As previously reported by The Dallas Express, Haven for Hope is a non-profit organization that provides social services like drug counseling, drug training, and transitional housing, all on a single campus. Its “one-stop-shop” model has been credited with reducing unsheltered homelessness in San Antonio’s downtown area by 77%.

“For street-level homelessness, it has almost nothing to do with economics. If they say otherwise, they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they’re playing a game,” he said.

That is especially true in Dallas, Marbut claimed.

“I know a decent amount about Dallas, and I get to Dallas every two to three years,” he said. “Here’s the problem that Dallas, I think, has: They’re not clearly articulating that the federal government has 10 definitions of homelessness — five at HUD and five at the Department of Education. There’s no clarity around the conversation about what the problem is. But street-level homelessness is literally people living on the streets — the ones you see in encampments and people in and out of some of the short-term emergency facilities.”

Some 75% of Dallas residents believe homelessness, vagrancy, and panhandling continue to be “major” problems throughout the city. However, City officials and local representatives of the federal government do not often agree on how temporary housing should be used in transitioning homeless people into permanent homes, The Dallas Express has reported.

“Disagreements are between our policymakers, and that’s the decision-making body,” Crossley said of the Dallas City Council. “We have a very strong backing from them, and we continue in the path we are already on, which has been successful — getting people immediately into housing. But we have a lot of requests here for additional tools, including alternative and temporary housing.”

Crossley said the Housing & Homelessness Solutions Committee has requested a briefing memo on temporary housing.

“It’s upcoming, and then they’ll see all the different things we could do,” she said. “Even within that, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. If you’ve done your research, and it sounds like you have, you see cities focused only on temporary housing and not focused on where people should go after that. Everything has to be in proportion.”

Dallas officials can build all the permanent housing they want, but without placing homeless individuals in transitional housing while they receive treatment, it is a waste of the City’s time and taxpayer resources, Marbut told DX.

“It doesn’t work,” he said. “You can’t put a person in isolation who’s a substance user. They will actually take more drugs — not less. If you want people to thrive in life and to get out of homelessness, you treat them. Why would we say that’s economics and just give them a free house?”

“The West Coast has shown you what it does. Street-level homelessness is now doubling every five to 10 years, and it has nothing to do with rental rates. Nothing. Zero. Any elected official who tells you that has an agenda,” he said.

Crossley told DX she was familiar with Marbut’s work and his ties to Dallas but disagreed with the notion that street-level homelessness is primarily caused by substance abuse.

“The minority of the homeless population are outside because of substance abuse issues,” she claimed. “How many people are housed on a daily basis who have those issues? National data shows that the majority of the people who are homeless in a city are from that city. That’s not necessarily true on the West Coast, and there are several reasons for that. In Dallas and Seattle, a lot of people who are becoming homeless may have generational poverty in their families. Maybe rent went up, and now they’re not fine.”

In its 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 653,104 people in the United States were experiencing homelessness during a point-in-time headcount at the end of January.

“This is the highest number of people counted and reported as experiencing homelessness on a single night since reporting began in 2007,” the report reads. “Unlike in the past where a single population drove the change, this year’s increases were across all populations.”

“While the upward trend in unsheltered homelessness began several years ago, these increases were exacerbated in recent years as the COVID-19 pandemic, an opioid epidemic, and a nationwide affordable housing crisis conspired to make attaining and maintaining housing increasingly difficult for many low-income households,” the report notes.

However, Marbut said point-in-time counts are “notoriously” inaccurate, agreeing with Dallas City Council member Cara Mendelsohn (District 12), who has challenged data collected through the point-in-time method, calling the approach flawed.

“It is horrible,” Marbut said. “Point-in-time data is incredibly inaccurate around the country. If you use the same procedure every year, with the same person running it, using the same definition, and the weather is the same year to year, then your trend date is going to be good. If I were the boss today, I would blow up the point-in-time count. Everybody puts all this weight in it, and it is highly inaccurate.”

“Until our whole focus is untreated mental illness and substance abuse, you’re not going to move the ball,” Marbut said. “If you don’t get involved with mental health and substance abuse, you’re not going to change the outcomes. Sometimes, bad policy will make things worse. Your street-level numbers are going to go up. The death rate is going to go up. Nearly the only way to leave street-level homelessness is to die, and that’s how sad it’s become in many parts of the country.”

Marbut said no City official has contacted him to discuss implementing a Haven for Hope-type operation in Dallas.

“You’ve got to think of this as an investment. Gimmicks don’t work. If you want to solve this problem, you have to invest in it. It’s going to cost some money up front but saves money over time. Haven for Hope has saved San Antonio’s tourism industry and our downtown.”

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