Local issues

Dallas considers major permanent housing committment for the homeless

The Blackland neighborhood in Austin provides housing for ten homeless families.
The Blackland neighborhood in Austin, acting as a community, provides housing for ten homeless families.

Mike Rawlings, Dallas’ homeless czar, has proposed that the city build 700 homes for chronically homeless people throughout the city within five years.

In my opinion, this is the right thing to do.

HUD defines the chronically homeless as disabled individuals who have been continuously homeless for more than a year or have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years. It estimates they account for 18 percent of the homeless population. They also account for a huge share of the hospital and police expenditures on the homeless.

The approach the city is pursuing is known as permanent supportive housing. After two decades of arguing about a solution to the problem of the homeless this has developed as one part of a consensus solution. Since 1999 HUD has committed one-third of all federal homeless funding to this approach — a mandate that came from a Republican Congress.

Permanent supportive housing is a major departure from the “manage the problem” approach of devoting most of the funds to homeless shelters. The reliance on shelters led one housing advocate to observe they had become, “the poor houses of the 21st century.”

A HUD report says permanent supportive housing programs are a major factor in a 30 percent national drop in the the number of chronically homeless people.

The next institutional challenge is for government to find some way to reprogram the newly realized savings to hospitals and law enforcement realize to supporting the cost of providing housing and supportive services to the chronically homeless. If we become complacent and try to cheap this out be cutting housing funding or the services such as drug and alcohol rehab, job training, etc, these gains will quickly be lost.

As well placed as the emphasis on the chronically homeless is from a cost effectiveness standpoint, we must be careful not to lose sight of the needs of the other 80 plus percent of the homeless population — especially families doubled up with friends and family. The two fastest growing homeless groups are the working poor and women with children.

Another problem looms on the horizon, a NIMBY backlash against new permanent housing.

The Dallas Morning News’ Kim Horner reports that some Dallas City Council members expressed concerns about this backlash in response to Mike Rawlings’ proposal to build the 700 homes.

Council member Carolyn Davis said Fair Park residents in her district strongly opposed a recent proposal to build 150 units of permanent supportive housing in their neighborhood.

“The community spoke and said they did not want this facility in the district,” she said. “It comes to a point, colleagues, that the community comes first.”

Ms. Davis said everyone needs to work together to find another site for that project.

Mr. Rawlings said people in all parts of the city must be willing to accept housing for the formerly homeless, who he said face unfair, negative stereotypes.

Mr. Rawlings is correct one again. All neighborhoods should play a role in the solution.

That is exactly what the Blackland neighborhood in Austin has done. The community owns and manages ten houses for the homeless. If each neighborhood would view housing the homeless as a challenge that each community has an obligation to address we could take a giant step toward stamping out homelessness.

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

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