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We Have To End Dallas NIMBYism Before We Can End Homelessness

Last week brought big news in Dallas’ fight against homelessness. The Dallas Real Time Rapid Rehousing initiative, announced with a group press conference at City Hall, is an ambitious $70 million program that aims to transition more than 2,600 people into stable housing by the fall of 2023. About 600 people will be given vouchers for permanent supportive housing; the other 2,000 will have their rent paid for a year while they are connected to social services and get back on their feet.

The stars had to align to make the program possible, says Peter Brodsky, the Dallas developer who chairs the board of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. MDHA is the organization that coordinates the area’s “continuum of care,” or the network of social services, shelters, and various agencies that support people who are homeless. Recently, MDHA has changed its approach as part of a needed and overdue revamping of a continuum of care that has too often failed at its job of keeping people off the streets. In 2017, for instance, a city audit roasted the homeless response system for its inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

Just in the last year, the nonprofit brought in Brodsky, who’s previously taken on Dallas’ stray dog problem and pushed development in southern Dallas, particularly with the overhaul of Redbird Mall. And the organization began working with Clutch Consulting Group, a firm credited with improving homeless services in Houston. “We have a much higher-functioning continuum of care now that is able to execute on big things that it probably couldn’t have executed on a year ago,” Brodsky says.

Then, in March, we learned that local governments would be flooded with money from the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal stimulus package designed to help the economy rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. For this rapid rehousing initiative, the city of Dallas and Dallas County have each agreed to kick in about $25 million of their stimulus funds that were intended to fight homelessness. The city of Mesquite, Dallas County, and the Dallas Housing Authority are also contributing housing vouchers, and MDHA is raising additional funds from private donors.

“It presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something really, really big to tackle this problem,” Brodsky says. “Because it is a very expensive problem to tackle. In ordinary budgets, there just isn’t the money, or the money hasn’t been allocated to do so.”

I got on the phone with Brodsky on Friday to talk about this new program, and about how housing is the fundamental solution to the problem of homelessness. That means supporting those groups connecting people to social services. It means pressuring elected officials to adopt policies that encourage affordable housing. And it means welcoming that housing—and neighbors who may otherwise be homeless—into your neighborhood north of I-30. Yes, into your backyard.

“If there’s an apartment complex going up in a community, there may be 50 people signed up at City Hall to speak out against the zoning,” Brodsky says. “What we need is an equal number of people speaking out in favor of the zoning, because it’s good for the city. And it’s the only way that enough affordable housing will ever exist.”

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Can you detail some of the logistics on how this program will work? You’ve got $70 million in cash and housing vouchers. Who oversees how that is distributed, and how do you measure this program’s efficacy?

MDHA has a list of people in its system who are essentially organized based on urgency and need. There are also going to be case workers going out to speak to people who are not in the system because they’ve been living on the street for a long time. The agencies that are on the ground—The Bridge, CitySquare, the Salvation Army, Austin Street Shelter, Family Gateway, all of the agencies that are dealing with people experiencing homelessness on a day-to-day basis—are still going to be the organizations interacting with individual clients. Those clients are going to be assigned the opportunity to get housing by what’s called the coordinated access system, that list I mentioned before.

One of the agencies will work with that person and a housing navigator to help that person find an apartment. The person will select an apartment, and then that agency will case manage the person to give them resources. MDHA is going to be administering the case management dollars. Dallas Housing Authority is going to be the agency that is actually paying rent for people. But the day-to-day work is going to be done by the agencies who interact now with people experiencing homelessness. It will be MDHA’s job to keep all the data. The efficacy is going to come from, “How many people did we house?” We’re going to have to be measuring for a long time to ensure that people stay housed.

What’s the distinction between the vouchers for permanent housing vs. the rapid rehousing efforts in this plan? About 650 people will receive the permanent vouchers, but you’ll look to pay rent for a year for another 2,000 or so people.

There’s a special allocation that we’ve made to survivors of domestic violence and families. They generally are really good recipients for vouchers. That’s about 200 vouchers. There’s about 455 vouchers left after that. The people who are going to receive those vouchers are people who are very unlikely to be able to get back on their feet and be able to earn enough money that they could pay their own rent after a year. So it’s people with really significant mental health issues, really significant physical health issues, someone who’s significantly older, whatever the case may be. At the end of the year, the person is going to need continued subsidy. They need what’s called permanent supportive housing.

Peter Brodsky, shown here at Red Bird Mall in a 2017 photoshoot for D CEO. Photo by Sean Berry.

Sean Berry

There are a lot of people—a lot of people—living on the street right now who, if given the opportunity to get back on their feet and given access to the services they need, are very capable of self-sustaining. It doesn’t mean they’re suddenly going to become six-figure computer technicians. They will probably still not be very earning much. They will have plenty of life struggles. But they’ll be able to sustain housing. And that is the group of people we’re targeting for rapid rehousing. It’s not the most severe cases of chronic homelessness. It’s the group that needs some temporary supportive housing, and then they can move on and live the rest of their lives.

From the outside looking in, this emphasis on rapid rehousing seems like a different approach than what Dallas has tried in the past. How does this changing strategy fit in with what’s happening here?

I think it’s changing all over the country. In the past, there has been a philosophy employed that, before somebody could be housed, they had to be quote-unquote, “fixed.” And so it was, “OK, let’s get you completely off all substances. And let’s get your mental health completely stabilized. And then you’re quote-unquote ‘housing-ready.’” The homelessness experts, over the years, have come to the conclusion that’s not the most effective strategy.

The most effective is a housing-first strategy. Let’s get people into a stable living situation. There are plenty of people who struggle with substance abuse issues, and they’re still able to be housed. There are plenty of people who struggle with some mental health issues, and they’re still able to be housed. So let’s house people. And you can’t just put them in an apartment and then leave and think everything’s going to be OK. There has to be wraparound services provided to allow them to get the help they need. But it’s really, really hard to stabilize your life when you’re either living in a tent or living in a shelter.

Last month, in MDHA’s annual “state of homelessness” address, you talked about how the data from this year’s point-in-time count of people who were homeless in Dallas and Collin counties aren’t totally representative. (COVID-19, the February freeze, and a changing reporting system all made the numbers difficult to compare to previous years.) But what is the overall picture of homelessness in Dallas like right now? How have the pandemic and our affordable housing issues affected what’s going on?

The answer is I don’t really know, because it’s been very difficult to get a count. I think this year is going to tell us a lot. On the one hand, there has been the eviction moratorium, and it was just extended for another month. Obviously, fewer people fall into homelessness when it’s illegal for them to be evicted. On the other hand, that’s going to end at some point. And you’ve got a rapidly rising cost of housing, which means that more and more people are going to get priced out of their own apartments. On the other hand, you’ve got a booming economy—or one that seems like it’s going to rebound very robustly. If that rebound is spread across different incomes, it could be very positive. So there’s a lot of different cross-currents. It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen.

“And I wish we could see people with more empathy—as someone who’s a neighbor, who needs help, rather than as a potential threat, either to your safety or to your home value.”

What’s something that I—that your average Joe—can do to help their homeless neighbors? What’s a way anybody can contribute?

I think there’s two things. One will feel somewhat satisfying and one will not feel satisfying at all. The more satisfying one is to contribute money to shelters, because they’re the ones that are on the ground, that have the services people need, and are working directly to impact people experiencing homelessness. The second thing really has to do with advocacy and open-mindedness. The only way this is going to get solved is through a better affordable housing policy in our area. We have got to put pressure on our city leadership and county leadership and state leadership to devise affordable housing policies that will stimulate developers to create housing. There aren’t enough government dollars in the world to do this—and to have the government own the housing, that hasn’t proven to be a great model. But if we could build more affordable housing, and incentivize developers to do that, that’s ultimately what the solution is.

The other part of that is to get past the fear people feel about affordable housing going into their community. There is a lot of NIMBYism everywhere, and there’s a lot of NIMBYism in the city. The result of that is that for many, many, many years all of the affordable housing in Dallas was put in southern Dallas. And that’s not a recipe. It’s not fair to the people being housed. It’s not fair to the people who live in that area to begin with. It creates pockets of poverty in the city. We’ve got to have a situation where every district welcomes affordable housing. We’ve got to have less socioeconomic segregation in the city. There are a lot of voices that oppose that. If there’s an apartment complex going up in a community, there may be 50 people signed up at City Hall to speak out against the zoning. What we need is an equal number of people speaking out in favor of the zoning, because it’s good for the city. And it’s the only way that enough affordable housing will ever exist.

What else should folks know about homelessness in Dallas?

There are a lot of myths and assumptions about people experiencing homelessness. I saw someone on Facebook today say, “We really need more psychiatric beds, because 80 percent of homeless people have severe mental illness.” That’s just not true. The population of people experiencing homelessness—It’s not a scary population. These are people who are very poor. They’ve found themselves in a situation where everything has gone wrong. Everything, including the final safety net—your friends, your family—is falling through. And yes, people make bad choices in their lives. I’m not saying that every single thing that has happened to a person in their life is not their fault. But this is not a scary group of people who are ranting in the street. It would not be scary to have them live in your neighborhood.

These are people who have some really bad things happen to them. But they want the same things everyone else wants, which is a life of stability and dignity. And I wish we could see people with more empathy—as someone who’s a neighbor who needs help, rather than as a potential threat, either to your safety or to your home value.

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