Monday, July 25, 2005
Does Dallas Really Want a "Solution" to Homelessness?
Kim Horner, reporter with The Dallas Morning News, offers up another excellent analysis of the situation facing homeless persons here in Dallas, Texas.
Take a look at her reports by going to http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/
latestnews/stories/072405dnmethomeless.2d4ec70.html and the additional links you will find there.
Over the past 15 to 20 years, we've enjoyed detailed reporting on the problem. Thank God for journalists like Ms. Horner who keep the grim reality before us.
Our problem is not knowledge.
Our problem is leadership and political will.
The people in this city with the authority and the power to take positive action have a long history of, well, sitting on their hands. The rest of us dutifully wring ours while waiting for the next update from the media. Meanwhile, nothing changes.
The picture Horner paints in her reports ought to sadden and shame us all.
The situation does not need to remain as it is today.
We've all hidden behind our lame, but typical, "blame the victim" responses for so long that we now believe our own lies about the poorest of the poor in Dallas.
If you live here, you know our now standard lines.
"The homeless suffer from mental illness and are so hard-core that it is nearly impossible to help them off the streets."
"Most of the homeless are hopeless alcoholics and addicts who choose the life they live. They prefer the streets."
"The state has cut back so far on mental health dollars that our current mess is really not the city's fault."
"We need to get this problem out of downtown and fast! These people are ruining our every attempt to revitalize the core of our city."
And on and on we go.
Frankly, it is enough to make a person sick, especially if you really care about the homeless and the city.
You see, when it comes to progress, the city and the homeless are joined at the hip.
Granted, people on the streets of Dallas (and of every other city in America) face tough, personal problems. Clearly, many find themselves in desperate situations due to bad choices.
Still, the larger community has a responsibility to act to relieve the problem in a humane, comprehensive and strategic manner for the sake of everyone who resides in our community.
What can Dallas do beginning today to address this continuing and worsening problem?
1) Appoint a "homelessness czar" who has the necessary special authority to direct the Mayor, the Council and yes, even the City Manager toward a viable solution. It is more than obvious that the current city bureaucracy cannot handle the issue.
Therefore, this special leader should have authority outside typical City Hall channels. He or she should report directly and only to the Mayor and the Council.
The office of this special leader must be independent, adequately funded and properly staffed. The czar should have the power to build a brand new system for addressing the issue of homelessness for and in the city of Dallas. Nothing about current policy or practice should be above this new leader's reach. Nothing about the present system should be considered sacred or off limits to reform.
2) Incentivize development of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) apartments. What is needed in Dallas is not a more elaborate shelter system. Ms. Horner's description of life in and around shelters comes as no surprise to anyone who understands homelessness.
People should not be forced to live in temporary quarters for months and years on end. Shelters provide no solution to the problem.
People need homes, permanent housing. Developers will step up to meet this market need if assisted, or at the very least not discouraged by public sector officials and processes.
We have a shortage of SRO housing in Dallas today because city leadership has not encouraged or supported its development. Tax credits, property donations, grants, low-interest loans, tax abatements and other creative kinds of public support should be marshaled to activate an aggressive, coordinated, civic plan for SRO development in and around the city.
3) Take seriously the national experience of other major cities. Other communities have made great strides while Dallas remains content to sit back and talk.
The "place first" movement has demonstrated empirically that once homeless persons obtain housing of their own, many of the seemingly chronic problems they face dissipate.
Let's stop reporting on all of the fact-finding trips we've made and get started with concrete implementation here in Dallas. It is time to apply what we have learned from the experience and success of other communities. . .NOW!
4) Find the funds necessary to provide mental health treatment for the people who need these services. Dallas leaders need to put on a "full-court press" in lobbying State and Federal leaders to direct more funds toward these needs.
Why not invite the state and the feds to fund an innovative "pilot" strategy that would link the funding of adequate mental health services directly to our larger vision for the revitalization of our city's core? What we demonstrate in Dallas could serve as a model for development and human uplift elsewhere.
At the same time, the new czar should go to work coordinating the efforts of local foundations and faith communities while challenging them to step up to do their part in addressing what has become a community crisis. We need a new brand of creative resolve and an out-of-the-box funding strategy.
5) Business interests downtown need to be challenged to think differently about the issue of homelessness. Frankly, these leaders might respond more positively if they felt they were getting new solutions out of City Hall.
Since we have no real plan for getting people off the streets, it is hard to question the current attitude of the downtown business pioneers who want to see the core of the city thrive again.
Once an action plan is drafted, complete with short and long term strategies, our elected leaders should employ their political and regulatory powers to urge business leaders to cooperate, rather than obstruct.
6) Regard the solutions to the challenges surrounding homelessness as a part of the larger challenge of downtown revitalization. By this, I don't mean the removal of the homeless, as we so often read from our leaders in reports like Ms. Horner's.
What I have in mind is actually quite different. I am suggesting a just solution that has as its centerpiece homes--some of them downtown--for the homeless. As we know from other urban centers, such an approach will be a key component in any successful downtown renaissance.
There is no reason to delay another day.
We've had enough reporting.
What we need is action. Bold, creative, decisive action. . .today!
[Photo by Hal Samples, www.herotozero.org)