Why Can’t the Homeless Camp Somewhere? (And other questions for today)

When you shut down a large homeless encampment and provide no alternative location for people to go, they are going to find another place to sleep. They will move to another neighborhood, another wooded area or another parking lot. Dispersing them into small and more secluded areas is not healthy and spreads out the “problem” throughout the city.

Let’s face the fact. Many of the people we serve will not go into a shelter. Many have already been in housing and have lost it. Most are struggling to survive in a corner of the city where fences were erected and they were kicked out. As we all stand in awe watching the exodus from Tent City, we were left asking questions.

Why can’t the city acknowledge that we have thousands of people sleeping outside? The Point In Time count was so much better managed and executed by MDHA than in previous years. However even with all of the improvements, the process is broken. Other cities count in daylight, over multiple days and with safety and accuracy the main goals. Dallas’s count was in the middle of the night, over a few hours and was described by volunteers as “dangerous” and haphazard. Who wants to crawl in the woods behind a liquor store at midnight with a stranger? That doesn’t sound like a safe or strategic plan. Houston for example, counted over a three day period, 12 hours per day, only in daylight hours. Dallas counted from 10PM to 1AM on the coldest day in January. In that three hour timespan they only counted 586 homeless individuals. I don’t think you could visit every Starbucks in Dallas county in under three hours.

Why do we continue to play this silly cat and mouse game to hunt and close homeless encampments? I fully understand the chaos, crime and criminal element that existed at Tent City. I have personally heard countless stories of victims of domestic violence, sexual assaults, knife wounds, sex trafficking and drug trafficking. However these same crimes exist in many different neighborhoods throughout Dallas. (Have you seen the citywide murder and crime rates?) Bulldozing crime-ridden neighborhoods is not a sustainable solution. Finding and prosecuting criminals needs to be the priority. If a police officer can stop me and search my car with probable cause, why can’t they search tents for drugs and stop the dealers and perpetrators from inflicting such pain on the helpless.

Why does the city only support the Bridge? The Bridge is doing great work and I personally have great relationships with their staff. However I don’t understand why the city gives 4 million dollars a year to the Bridge, and doesn’t do anything to help the other shelters. The Bridge is great, but it is also the smallest and youngest shelter in Dallas (happy 8th birthday). They don’t serve more meals, have more beds or help more people than the other shelters. I was invited to a meeting with the City Manager, some City Council members and many other professionals in Dallas to discuss Tent City. I was shocked to see that the only shelter that was invited was the Bridge. The other shelters were not included in the discussion. Even the media has a bias towards the Bridge. All of the shelters are doing great work. All of them have clinics, all of them work with the VA and serve vets, all of them help with long-term sustainable solutions to ending homelessness. All of them need to be heard and recognized for the great work they are doing.

Why can’t we work together? I’m not a smart guy, but I do know that if you want the best ideas you bring the brightest people to the same room. In the history of Dallas there has never been a single brainstorming meeting with the directors of the nonprofits who work with the homeless. Some will come, some will meet. Some meetings have happened, but never any that invite all of the shelters or all of the nonprofits that work with the homeless community. Politics, ugly history and bad attitudes have thwarted collaborative efforts. We should all be ashamed for how we have each contributed to building our own islands rather than working together as a community.

Why can’t the homeless camp somewhere? We (@OurCalling) have records on thousands of homeless individuals in Dallas. We also get alerts through our app where concerned citizens report new homeless encampments to us. I have personally visited under hundreds of bridges, behind many liquor stores, in alleys, all over the city. Most people camping outside are technically trespassing because we don’t have a legal option. Many keep their camps clean, aren’t disturbing the public and might be good neighbors. Many can’t get a job due to mental health issues, disability, criminal background or lack of life skills to maintain employment. What does it hurt the city for them to camp peacefully? Yes, there are some that aren’t peaceful and we should police those areas. But the majority are peaceful. The majority want a place to lay their heads and sleep with dignity.

Why are we focusing on housing, and not the reason people lose it?The support services needed by the homeless or recently housed will cost far more than the real estate. “Housing first” has become “housing only” and many of our most vulnerable citizens have been relocated to the most crime infested apartments, only to be abandoned with little to no care. Some of the groups that push people into housing stop caring for the individual once they get a set of keys. No support, no food, no toilet paper, no rehabilitation, no counseling, no care. If someone is in a situation where they need housing, it’s a symptom of much bigger problems in their lives. I know too many people who have gotten housing and have died, become victims of sex trafficking, become victims of human trafficking or have relapsed into deeper chaos – only after being relocated far away from support. The wrong kind of housing, does not help.

I’m frustrated. It’s so depressing to watch someone’s possessions being piled up by a bulldozer and thrown into a garbage truck. It’s difficult to talk to a father asking about his mentally ill child, wondering if she is alive and if she will ever get off of the streets. It’s challenging to explain to someone with severe mental illness why they had to move. It’s infuriating to listen to organizations bicker about the past, and fail to consider that if we don’t come together we will repeat our mistakes into the future. This is not an easy task for any of us. It’s time for us to unite.