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Thursday, September 29, 2022
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Interview: Austin Street Center and Dallas Homelessness

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A Dallas non-profit discusses the causes behind homelessness, encampments, and solutions they believe will help | Photo from Austin Street Center

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Since last year, Dallas City Council spent millions addressing homelessness, but there are still encampments in the city, such as under the I-345 highway, in Highland Park, and the well-known Camp Rhonda east of downtown. The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance reported there were 4,105 homeless in Dallas County this February.

The Dallas Express interviewed Teresa Thomas, Assistant Director of External Relations for the Austin Street Center (ASC), about the homeless situation in the city.

“I would describe it as a largely overlooked problem in the city,” she said. “I think it’s very easy for the citizens of Dallas to kind of turn their eyes away.”

As an example, Thomas talked about a time when someone thanked a co-worker for helping the homeless. “What she meant was, ‘I’m glad you’re there, down there tucked away so that I don’t have to see homeless people on my daily walk.’”

Located off Hickory Street near I-30, between Deep Ellum and South Dallas, ASC is a non-profit seeking to provide safe shelter to the homeless, get them into “permanent housing,” and meet the “basic needs” of the “most vulnerable.” Founded in 1983, they serve men 45 and up and women 18 and up.

Causes of Homelessness in Dallas

“I would say lack of affordable housing is definitely a big cause,” Thomas said, adding it’s “contributing to new homelessness.”

“The price of rent for a decent apartment, and heaven forbid someone actually have a family, cannot be reached on most people’s hourly wages,” Thomas said. “If they can pay rent, then they can’t do anything else with their money.”

She mentioned “complex” mental health issues as a cause for old homelessness: those in that state for more than 3 years. From conversations with homeless people suffering from mental illness, Thomas learned they had a “relatively normal life” until something happened, like a death in the family.

“That kind of fractured them mentally, such that it made it all the more difficult to get back on their feet,” Thomas said.

She shared about just such a person she interviewed at ASC who recently moved into housing. He lost his parents and raised his siblings as his own children, only to lose them too.

“Mentally, he kind of just went into a tailspin for a little bit,” Thomas said. “If you don’t have anyone taking care of you at that point, then that kind of snowballs into I lose my apartment, or I lose my home.”

This fits an “equation” she said is used for depicting homelessness. “We say that poverty plus a crisis, and then minus social support, equals homelessness.”

Encampments

Thomas said homeless encampments are “a very thorny issue.”

“There are real concerns about crime. There are real concerns about property value, and we get that,” she explained. “We also understand that people often don’t have places to go.”

As for what to do about encampments, Thomas believes there’s a third option, instead of a binary choice of allowing or removing them. “I think the third answer has to do with where encampments are,” she said. “In general, what I’m saying is there’s plenty of unused land … that could be used, I think.”

Solutions for Homelessness

“There is no single solution,” Thomas said. “There’s probably a handful of solutions that will probably effectively solve 20 percent of the problems. We got to do several things in concert to effectively address homelessness in Dallas.” She explained the reason is due to different individuals in different situations.

An example Thomas gave of “several things in concert” is how private shelters in the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance are working together.

“Whereas there are shelters that help women and children, we address the older population,” she said. “There are shelters that just provide overnight shelter. There are shelters that provide more religious emphasis than we do. I think all those things in concert are important.”

She also praised the city government for creating the Office of Homeless Solutions. “That allowed service providers like us, like [the] Salvation Army, like The Bridge, we’re able to come together and work with the city when they address encampments.”

She explained these groups, before the city moves an encampment, can suggest sending mental health professionals and case workers to those homeless beforehand, helping to ensure they have somewhere to go.

One solution Thomas believes will have the most impact are rapid rehousing funds the city government is implementing, but she does offer caution.

“There has to be support surrounding that to kind of ramp people back into independent living,” she said.

Her highest priority is “to not criminalize being homeless,” examples being public camping, trespassing, and panhandling. Thomas said such laws are “useful,” but disagrees with issuing citations to the homeless.

“If somebody is trying to claw their way back into independence, and they’re trying to look for a job, and then they have a criminal record, well, that’s not going to help,” she said.

When asked what she would like to tell the people of Dallas on homelessness, Thomas urged “compassion.”

“A lot of the things that we talked about, numbers, policy, all of those things are secondary to compassion,” she said. “We frequently encounter people in the worst day of their lives, the worst week of their lives, the worst year of their lives, and we’re just trying to support them while they get back on their feet.”

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