Day by day, many Dallasites inch closer to a financial abyss. Sometimes it’s self-inflicted, but oftentimes it’s not. Many who find themselves without a roof simply had a series of misfortunes that were beyond their means or ability to handle. If anyone doubts this, the statistics on the numbers of people who work full time and yet don’t know where their next meal will come from or don’t have enough money to pay an unexpected $500 expense are alarming. Hand-in-glove with this are the shocking (and increasing) numbers of people for whom rent consumes an outsize amount of their wages. Living paycheck-to-paycheck has become a dream for those living a paycheck or two behind. Despite reports of the economic recovery, it’s not reached those most vulnerable.
Dallas, with its housing boom, is hardly immune, with rising rents exacerbating what was likely already a tenuous hold on tenancy. The final shove, out onto the streets, is a place infinitely more difficult to escape from than you imagine.
Getting back on the ladder requires state-issued identification, a Social Security card, clean clothes, and a place to shower. Many of these items are hard to hold on to when homeless. Hygiene is particularly challenging. Think about it for a second … where would you shower without a home, family, friends, or a gym membership?
For those with self-inflicted homelessness due to substance abuse or a criminal record, extensive counseling and rehabilitation must be added to the mix.
Rebuilding these lives into meaningful contributors to society begins with housing and counseling, followed quickly by work. I can already hear some railing about handouts, taxpayer charity, and bleeding hearts. So here’s a little cha-ching for you:
In Salt Lake City, where a 10-year plan to end homeless was initiated in 2004, taxpayer spending was $61,000 a year for each chronically homeless person. This figure included a variety of city and emergency services. This compares with $16,000 needed to place that person in housing with the correct services. During the 10-year plan, chronic homelessness declined from 3,000 to 400 and was on track to zero out the following year. Simple math says that providing shelter and accompanying services actually saved the city $135 million a year. Salt Lake City spends about $20 million a year on the program with other monies donated by various charitable organizations.
Now that I’ve appeased your wallets, how’d they do it?
They built supportive housing, supplied counseling and case workers. Each year 15 percent of these residents get their lives on track and move on to permanent housing.
Many cities have shelter and public housing but fail to place it in the correct location and fail to keep up the maintenance. The result is public housing that is so bad the homeless would rather live on the street. Salt Lake City built housing that wouldn’t look out of place in any middle class neighborhood. They also discovered that neighborhoods did matter. The chronic homeless needed to be moved away from their old stomping grounds where returning to bad habits was too easy.
Where some cities like San Francisco have not succeeded in substantially curbing their homeless problem is exactly there — poor housing located in the same tumbledown neighborhood their buddies could be found. Part of rehabilitation is breaking cycles.
Counsellors not only work with addiction, but also guiding their charges back towards meaningful work and society by working on issues like identification and job skills.
Salt Lake City is not alone in its success. Denver and Minneapolis are other examples in the US. What could Dallas do to provide this kind of support network to our homeless problem? What would the costs and savings be?
First a Roof, Then a Job.
Getting homeless people back to work is difficult for the above-mentioned reasons. I’ve recently seen two very different programs for utilizing homeless labor.
Albuquerque, New Mexico recently celebrated its first year of giving homeless people day labor jobs cleaning the city’s streets, parks, and city lots. Twice a week, a van drove around the city picking up homeless people who would work for the day for $9 an hour and lunch in exchange for litter pick-up, landscaping, and the like. When the work day is done, those wanting overnight shelter are given it. Contrary to the belief that homeless people are lazy, there was a line for the bus as it passed, with those who couldn’t be accommodated begging for a spot on the next run.
So far, the “There’s a Better Way” program has provided 932 jobs that cleared 69,601 pounds of litter and weeds from 196 city blocks. Over 100 of them have since found permanent employment. The Republican Mayor, Richard Berry, who spearheaded the plan was quoted by The Washington Post, “They’ve had the dignity of work for a day; someone believed in them today.”
The mayor has increased funding to double the program from two to four days a week. The St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, which runs the program for the city, is also instituting a day labor program of its own. “It’s helping hundreds of people,” Mayor Berry said, “and our city is more beautiful than ever.”
Tour operators in Barcelona, London ,and Bath have taken a different tack. They’ve developed specialized tours led by homeless people. Barcelona offers Hidden City Tours, while Bath has Secret City Tours, and London its Unseen Tours.
These aren’t tours of castles and art museums. They’re tours of how the homeless survive in these cities. Soup kitchens, secret cubby holes for storing clothes and the like. Their unofficial motto seems to be to see the streets with people who live on them. It’s definitely an alternative view, but what began with two guides in Barcelona blossomed in a year to five guides giving tours in multiple languages.
In the end, all these programs have one common thread — giving people in need the assistance and dignity to become productive. Each eschew the stereotype of drug-addled, lazy bums to understand homelessness is rarely a conscious choice. One Salt Lake City man said that after his wife died he crawled into the bottle in grief. Their program picked him up and returned him to productivity and self-worth.
If Dallas wants to handle its homeless problem, there are any number of successful templates available from cities across the globe that have tackled the problem successfully. Dallas is perfectly poised to handle its problem too. Compared with other cities like San Francisco, New York, and London, Dallas’ real estate costs aren’t horrifically out of reach once a homeless person returns to tenancy. They’re equally not so expensive as to make construction of homeless housing out of reach either.
What’s most interesting (telling) in reading about the success stories is to scroll and read the comments. The vitriol from the US stories is shocking. Some people, even when confronted with success that saves municipal monies, still have to run the homeless down. Those people are in a bubble … either a bubble of entitlement and ignorance or a bubble of fear that they could be next.
Remember: High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. If you’re interested in hosting a Candysdirt.com Staff Meeting event, I’m your guy. In 2016, my writing was recognized with Bronze and Silver awards from the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make? Shoot me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.