A row of cots lined up inside the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, which opened its doors to shelter the homeless on the coldest nights of the year. Photo courtesy of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.
Increasing homelessness in Dallas is part of a national trend affecting urban areas, but it doesn’t make the results of a January “point-in-time” count of the homeless population here go down any easier.
According to the annual study, presented Wednesday at the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance’s “State of the Homeless” address, overall homelessness in North Texas increased by 9 percent over the last year. There were, in other words, 4,140 homeless people in Dallas and Collin counties counted on Jan. 15, which would be similar to any other given night. The numbers are worse when counting specifically the “unsheltered homeless,” with a 23 percent increase in the number of people sleeping on the streets, rather than in emergency shelters or transitional housing.
North Texas did see small but respectable decreases in the number of homeless veterans, and among the chronically homeless, those people who have been homeless for at least one year.
Cindy Crain, head of the homeless alliance, said after her address that those small successes with veterans and the chronically homeless can be attributed to targeted housing initiatives, like a priority list that quickly identifies homeless veterans and allows social workers to direct them to veterans’ services.
Crain operates under a philosophy of “no empty beds,” meaning that every shelter should be full and using all of its available resources. “We’re about to max out all the housing I got,” Crain says. Actually ending homelessness, however, requires action beyond the shelters and homeless service agencies her organization helps coordinate. One has to address its causes.
There’s the affordable housing crisis, a top priority as the city fine-tunes its first-ever comprehensive housing policy. Poverty is an easy one. Racial inequity, a factor in economic mobility, housing, and the criminal justice system, is another. A disproportionate number of homeless people in Dallas, about 66 percent, are African American. According to a national report by the Center for Social Innovation, segregated social networks play a large role in homelessness. Call it “network impoverishment.”
“If I’m poor, so is everybody around me,” Crain says. People fallen on hard times can often depend on support from their family, friends, and neighbors, but not if those neighbors don’t have the resources to help.
Crain, who came under fire last year after a scathing city of Dallas audit of the homeless response system, says the homeless alliance is doing a better job working with area shelters and service agencies, and of collecting data for its database of information on homeless people, a critical component of the “triage system” necessary to direct homeless people to the appropriate services. “My board is rock solid and behind me,” Crain says.
You can read highlights of the point-in-time count and “State of the Homeless” address here.