Tuesday, December 15, 2009

When Does a Goal Become a Priority?

An article in the Sunday edition of the Dallas Morning News brings to light a challenge, if not a problem that our city is having regarding how to make an impact on homelessness. Where can we provide housing for them?

City leaders have officially adopted the goal of providing 700 units of 'permanent supportive housing' for homeless people in our city. According to the article, on any given night there are more between 600-1000 people living on the streets, under bridges, in a vacant abandoned housing. Permanent supportive housing is a strategy which provides rent subsidies and the necessary services which get people off the streets and into homes. In many cases these homes are located in multifamily housing complexes. Central Dallas Ministries provides such housing in a program that I supervise called 'Destination Home'.

Destination Home is a PSH that follows a 'housing first' model. It is HUD funded and is targeted toward the chronically homeless and disabled. It has been a successful model since its we began it nearly three years ago. Those who are in the program must be certified as disabled and must meet the HUD definition of 'chronically homeless'. Beyond that, they must pass the apartment owner's criminal background check, comply with the lease that they sign and meet the program requirements - which for the most part requires them to see their case manager twice a month and be a good tenant. That's it.

Have there been problems. Of course. There have been the same problems that the landlord has had with other tenants. Which is minimal. Most of the program participants have been in the program at least two years, and recognize the chance that they have to begin their lives all over again. There have been very few tenants who have been put out of the program and fewer who have been evicted. Currently there are some 40+ people in the program with nearly 10 others at various stages of application, approval or move-in. They live in furnished apartments and are served by Central Dallas Ministries and area churches. The goal: reintegrating the formerly homeless into the life of the community.

Again, problems - of course. More like challenges. But the challenges are surprisingly few. Health is a major issue. At least three people have died - theirs were deaths associated with years of life on the street, without regular health care. But beyond that, we've found that with regular, compassionate case management; case management that is more like friendship than like subject to object social service programming, these men and women live independent or rather interdependent lives. We (CDM) not only look after them; they look after one another.

So here's the point: if it makes sense to employ this type of strategy in stemming the rising tide of homelessness in our city, why is Dallas struggling to achieve the goal of 700 additional units of such housing? The reason is, its a goal, not a priority.

Priorities have money behind them and a strategy to achieve the stated outcome. Dallas has done neither. As a result, neighborhoods are hunkering down in their opposition to such PS housing. Why? For the most part, it is poorly proposed and the prospective communities are not educated regarding the needs and how it can be further integrated into economic development efforts.

One such effort was rejected in the South Dallas/Fair Park area of Dallas and received overwhelming opposition. I didn't quite understand it until I attended a meeting of the Mayor's Task force to deal with the issue. While the non-profit that proposed the project did indeed approach the community, the neighborhood had been ill prepared, even for the meeting. Secondly, the residents were left feeling, 'We already have homeless people all over South Dallas, now they're going to bring in more?!'

The DMN article relates the challenges of for-profit developer Larry Hamilton who wants to take the long abandoned Ramada Inn, immediately south of City Hall into nearly 200 units of PSH. The problem? Residents of the Cedars, an affluent neighborhood, currently living near a shelter and the Bridge, the city's new Bridge, a homeless assistance center with coordinated services to help refer homeless citizens to medical, mental health services, jobs and job training, as well as providing them food and shelter at night. They're objections stem from the usual stereotyping of the homeless, totally ignoring the fact that Larry Hamilton is one of the foremost developers of high end housing in downtown Dallas. Having met and talked with Hamilton about his plan for the Ramada, no one will know that the formerly homeless are living there - except of course, the formerly homeless who live there.

So...if those living in communities that are distressed don't want housing for the formerly homeless and those who are in more economically healthy transitioning areas don't want the formerly homeless among them - where do house them?!

Some how Seattle has found a way to do it. New York City has found a way to do it. Houston has found a way to do it. Why is it such a challenge in Dallas? Again, in Dallas, it remains a goal and not a priority. It needs to be a priority.

It needs to be a priority because its economically sound. In Seattle $86,000 is spent on the homeless who are not in PSH. The city spends less than $13,500 for those who are. All told the city saves $4 million. Dallas is estimated to spend about $50,000 on the chronically homeless annually. PSH is projected to cost about $8000 - $10,000 a year. It seems like a pretty simple argument when it comes to housing the homeless to those who say it will cost to bring them 'in here'. 'They' are already here; 'they' already are costing us - big time. We can spend less and get people off the street and into safe affordable housing, with services coordinated and customized to meet their needs (pretty much like the rest of us), or we can continue spending money at exorbitant rates on solutions that don't solve the problem.

What could the city do?

First, every city council member could enlist the aid of churches and non-profit organizations to educate their constituents on the need and advantages of PSH. People are afraid, because they don't know. PSH are not flop houses or shelters designed to house drug addicts, prostitutes and paranoid schizophrenics on a first-come-first-served basis. It is a strategic program in which participants are carefully screened (and, by the way, when you move into a neighborhood, you never know how 'normal the people who live around you are, anyway). These education sessions ought to take place before there is a plan to build any housing in any community.

Second, the city should officially campaign on the necessity of ending homelessness in Dallas. We have stigmatized the homeless. The stigma ought to be on a rich city that allows homelessness to exist as a fact of everyday life without aggressively addressing the problem. The homeless ought to be far less ashamed than the rest of us for not doing more about it.

Finally, we need to put money behind the goal of 700 units of affordable housing. There ought to be a pot of at least $5 million (maybe partially funded from a percentage of every ticket sold at Dallas' new multimillion opera center) to develop and sustain these properties through a combination of grants and low interest loans.

The homeless aren't going anywhere. And I'll be glad to argue that they shouldn't have to. They are not aliens imposed on us from other planets. They used to be professionals. Some are the veterans we claim to love so much. Others are have lost jobs and homes through personal misfortune or the economic downturn. Others have medical and, yes mental problems. But that means they are just like many of us.

The difference is they have no home.

No comments: