If the Dallas City Council approves a proposed $3.8 billion budget Wednesday, Texas’ second largest city will put about $12 million of its general fund toward homelessness. That’s what it spent last year. It’s a challenging year for local governments as the coronavirus’ economic fallout cuts into tax and other revenues, and advocates say that same economic fallout makes homeless services even more vital.
Pastor Wayne Walker said the city’s homelessness budget was inadequate last year, and that was before the coronavirus started pushing people into financial ruin. Walker is the executive director Our Calling, a faith-based homeless service organization.
“The number of cars that line up outside of our facility that wrap around the building every day with people who have just become homeless and don’t know where to go…is growing by an exponential factor,” Walker said.
The money budgeted for the Office of Homeless Solutions would continue to fund outreach, services, shelter and housing. It’s a challenging year to be crafting a city budget, the pastor acknowledged, but he said he’s long been frustrated by the city’s priorities.
“Dallas spends more money on arts and culture, and more money on animal services, than we do on the homeless community,” Walker said.
The number of people experiencing homelessness in the greater Dallas region has shot up in recent years, rising from 3,141 in 2015 to 4,471 — and the city has the largest homeless population in the state. While the overall homeless population dipped by about 1% as of last January, it’s unclear if that modest improvement survived the pandemic’s upheaval.
For people living out on the streets or in their cars, the growth has been even more dramatic. Dallas’ unsheltered population tripled over the last five years. Dallas has fewer shelter beds than it did a decade ago, Walker said, and the social distancing required to reduce the chance of coronavirus infections in the shelters has exacerbated the shortage.
Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance President and CEO Carl Falconer said Dallas has given too little money and focus to homelessness over the last decade. But he praises the city for “prioritizing” homelessness, even if prioritizing means keeping funding flat in a tough economic context.
In a normal year, Falconer said he’d also be arguing the city is putting far too little into homeless services, “but, given the fact that this year we’re looking at cuts to the budget, flat is okay with us right now.”
Falconer said the city’s spending plan is being bolstered by millions of dollars in federal funding from coronavirus aid packages sent to Dallas to help people experiencing homelessness, about $34 million. Congress also sent rental assistance and other funding to help people at risk of losing their housing. Falconer and the other homeless services leaders who spoke with KERA said they’re impressed by city’s deployment of the pandemic aid money.
“I think that is really one of the reasons why ‘flat’ in the city budget is okay” this year, Falconer said.
Dallas also plans to receive about $12 million in state and federal grants for homelessness, unrelated to the pandemic.
Strategies for solving homelessness in Dallas
City Council member Chad West, who chairs the Committee on Housing and Homelessness, said the city has been plotting out more ambitious strategies with the goal of solving homelessness in Dallas. Part of that is improving collaboration and coordination within the whole homeless services ecosystem.
But, given the fiscal challenges the city faces, he said now is not the time to roll out sweeping proposals.
“We have challenges right now with a reduced sales tax, and it’s going to be even worse in [the next fiscal year],” West said. “I think you’ve just got to try to keep everything sustained as we see what our COVID recovery looks like.”
Even so, West points to bright spots in the budget.
There’s a new, $650,000 program to divert people picked up for public intoxication into addiction treatment, instead of sending them to jail. About 1 in 5 people arrested for public intoxication are homeless, according to city data.
The city will begin purchasing old hotels to set up medium-term housing so people experiencing homelessness have a stable place to chart a path toward a better life. The city will use bond money approved in 2017 along with federal funds to do that.
Last month, the city announced plans to end veteran homelessness within a year.
“Once we see some successes from that, and show that we are making an impact, I get the impression that my colleagues would be more willing to invest more money in the future,” West said. “But we need to see results first.”
Beyond what’s budgeted for direct homeless services, the city is working to make more affordable housing available in Dallas by helping to preserve the low-income housing that exists and approving 1,000 permits for new affordable housing units in the city over the coming year.
“We’ve got decades and decades and decades of policy decisions from a federal, state, local level that have contributed to this,” said Ellen Magnis, president and CEO of Family Gateway, which serves families with children who are experiencing homelessness. “This is a systems failure, not a people failure. These are people who have fallen through every crack.”
Magnis said the city will need to budget more money if it’s serious about fighting homelessness. “There is never enough,” she said, but money alone can’t solve it. Ending homelessness in Dallas will also take better coordination between services providers and the political will to address the structural inequality that drives homelessness.