For the more than 200 homeless people that until recently lived under a highway overpass in Dallas’ "Tent City," the nylon roofs over their heads were a relatively safe haven from the streets, the closest they could come to a permanent home.
When the city ordered them out in early May, shutting down the sprawling encampment under Interstate 45 near downtown was not as contentious as it might have been. Local homeless advocates were among those who wanted the camp closed, saying it was unsafe and unhealthy. They planned an exit strategy and sent out street caseworkers to help people get a roof over their heads.
By May 4, Tent City was no more. Some residents were moved into private housing or emergency shelters. Others packed their few belongings and moved on to other smaller encampments in the city. The tents came down, but the pervasiveness of homelessness in Texas’ third-biggest city remained.
Local leaders now hope to use the spotlight and effort surrounding Tent City's demise to help those in the city struggling to find a place to go and stay off the streets. But it’s a feat that they say will be close to impossible if Dallas can't come up with more options for permanent housing with built-in support services for a population that faces the full range of economic, medical and mental health challenges.
“Other than living under a bridge, there’s not a lot of options,” said Cindy Crain, president and CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which partnered with the city to close the encampment.
The city “philosophically believed” that people in need will go to a shelter, but what Dallas needs is more affordable and permanent housing with case managers to keep people off the streets, she said.
Homeless advocates and city officials are hoping to rally support for a type of subsidized housing — typically in apartment complexes — with access to caseworkers and support services for disabling conditions, such as mental illness and addiction.
Nearly 600 people in Dallas are chronically homeless, according to a recent census by service providers. And they estimate many go uncounted.
“Our hope as well is that this will lead to some collective will to developing more permanent supportive housing,” said John Siburt, president and chief operating officer of CitySquare, which is working to address homelessness in the city. “The real issue is that there aren’t places to put folks.”
Dallas’ permanent supportive housing dedicated to the homeless population is below the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s expectations, according to a recent housing inventory by Crain. And Dallas has been slow to adjust to a shift in housing policy — pushed by HUD — that places less emphasis on transitional housing and more on permanent homes for the chronically homeless, Crain indicated.
On the heels of the encampment closure, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings announced the creation of the Dallas Commission on Homelessness, which is expected to propose long-term housing strategies to the city council in August in time for the next bond election. Rawlings has said those proposals for more permanent supportive housing could be part of that ballot measure.
But while permanent housing programs are expected to be more cost-effective and save taxpayers money, service providers for the homeless are holding their breaths over what could be a tough sale to some voters.
The city of Dallas has used local bond money to help build 50 cottages expected to open next month for homeless people who use up a significant amount of tax dollars through medical services at Parkland Memorial Hospital, stints at the county jail and other mental health services.
And advocates for the homeless say the city council is showing more support for additional investments in permanent supportive housing than ever before.
But they add the attention Tent City has drawn has also sparked a sense of NIMBY — an acronym for Not In My Back Yard — among some locals who raise concerns about where in the city housing for the homeless will be placed.
Proposals to build more permanent supportive housing have “been kicked around a lot, but it’s always been this NIMBY problem and where do we put folks and the stigma that goes along with the homeless,” said Bernadette Mitchell, the city’s housing director. “We heard a lot of that when we were going through the closure, and how do we get past that.”