Friday, June 16, 2017

Addressing Racism and Homelessness in Dallas – a Progress Report

It’s hard to believe that the first time we discussed the disproportionate representation of African Americans in Dallas’ homeless population, on this blog, was just a little over nine months ago. Since then, we have endeavored to make the glaring racial disparities in homelessness an integral part of every conversation surrounding homelessness in our community.

With the help of a generous grant from United Way of Metropolitan DallasUnite Dallas Relief Fund, we are in the midst of a research and action program from the Center for Social Innovation (C4) titledRacism and Homelessness - Addressing Inequity in 10 American Cities”, nicknamed SPARC (Supporting Partnerships for Anti-Racist Communities). In the words of C4, “While no single initiative can end structural racism across all systems, we believe,” that through this initiative we can, “create positive change in attitudes and behaviors that will begin to close the racial gap that has led to the disproportionate prevalence… of homelessness among African Americans.”
Hard Conversations: Racism and Homelessness
We launched the program, with a number of activities in late November 2016, including a first round of training for service providers, and the first meeting of a planning body to help MDHA and C4 shepherd this program in Dallas. The highlight that month was an installment of our Hard Conversations series on Racism and Homelessness. It was a packed house, in what could only be described as a combination of a church service and rock concert, with some serious learning and consciousness raising.

In February, C4 staff spent a week here in Dallas collecting qualitative data. They held focus groups with individuals experiencing homelessness, case managers and other front-line professionals, and mid to upper management personnel of service providers. They recorded about twenty Story corps style interviews with persons experiencing homelessness, where these individuals shared their life histories. Through this qualitative research, which they are conducting in all participating cities, they are looking for patterns in how people of color enter homelessness and what barriers prevent them from rapidly and permanently exiting homelessness.

We also spent time that week, MDHA and C4 staff together, meeting with a variety of stakeholders in the community to seek their guidance and input, including a large group of African-American and allied clergy, and leaders of other anti-racism efforts in our community. We also had another in-person meeting of the local planning body we had formed to help us shepherd this effort, whom we have and continue to meet with regularly over the phone.
2017 State of the Homeless Address
During the State of the Homeless Address in March, Cindy J. Crain, MDHA’s President and CEO, shared the relevant data on racism and homelessness, from the 2017 Homeless Count, and the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). These numbers reiterated what the 2016 Homeless Count numbers showed us already: 60-70% of those experiencing homelessness in our community are African-American. She vowed that MDHA would continue to work to, “counter the systemic influences that created such extraordinary disparity with systemic changes.”
Along the way, we were heartened to see the media address these issues, with Tasha Tsiaperas’ Does Dallas' homeless population show the city is racist? in the Dallas Morning News, and Stephanie Kuo’s How Dallas' History Paved The Way For A Disproportionately Black Homeless Population, on KERA, as two prime examples. Race has also been constantly in the background of KERA’s excellent series, One Crisis Away: No Place to Go, which focuses on the plight of families in West Dallas, who are at risk of losing their homes.

Currently, as C4 analyzes the qualitative data collected here in Dallas at the end of February, they are also in the process of collecting quantative data from the HMIS system, which they will subject to rigorous analysis. They have also begun to connect us with the other cities they are working with in a budding online learning collaborative, where we are sharing our challenges, and how we are beginning to tackle them. It is fascinating to see the commonalities and differences between the different communities regarding the connections between racism and homelessness. 

C4 encouraged us, from the beginning of this process, to develop and incorporate structural changes that could begin to move the needle on racism and homelessness in Dallas. To that end, as we developed our new Continuum of Care (CoC) Strategic Work Plan, with our partners in the CoC General Assembly, we included as an overarching goal, addressing racial disparities in homelessness and service delivery. We encourage you, the reader, to review these action items to see how you can help. 

A key action item pertains to one of our most important innovations in our homeless response system this year, the MDHA Homeless Response System Community Dashboard. It provides a quarterly snapshot of the core system metrics that inform us on achievements in moving individuals to permanent housing. We will add an addendum to this important tool, which will capture, along racial and ethnic lines, who is homeless and in need of housing. Even more importantly, it will inform the community on how well we are utilizing the housing resources we have, in a way that promotes racial equity and begins to eliminate racial disparities in service delivery.

Promoting racial equity in service delivery begins “at home”. What do we mean by that? During the State of the Homeless Address, Cindy Crain shared a slide that showed the racial and gender breakdown of the CEOs/Executive Directors of the main thirty-two service providers in the homeless arena in Dallas. The numbers are troubling, to put it mildly: 44% white males, 44% white females, 6% black males, 6% black females. A key action item is to build on this, and conduct and publish an annual demographic survey of all senior management and board officers of federally funded homeless response system agencies. We can and must begin to move to a more diverse make-up of senior staff, as well as lay and professional leadership, that better reflects the population we are all here to serve.
Last Hard Conversation with Randy Mayeux on Housing First
Later this month, we will host another public event, related to racism and homelessness, as we seek to keep this issue front and center in our work.  MDHA, CitySquare, and the Dallas Public Library will present a book synopsis of Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, and Threatens Our Future. Randy Mayeux, renowned scholar and longtime book reviewer at CitySquare’s Urban Engagement Book Club, will lead the discussion. Larry James and Rev. Dr. Michael Waters, will join him for the Q&A portion. They will expound on how the lessons of Toxic Inequality can be applied to race, poverty and homelessness in Dallas. RSVP today, so you don’t miss this exciting and informative event!

We look forward to continuing to work with C4, with our partners, and with the community at large on addressing this important issue. Together, we can fulfill the vision we started this process with, and “create positive change in attitudes and behaviors that will begin to close the racial gap that has led to the disproportionate prevalence… of homelessness among African Americans.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

Jonathan Reconnects, with a Little Help from the MDHA Flex Fund

Jonathan* has not had what most would consider an easy life. His disability does not allow him to work. He had even experienced homelessness. That said, with the help of a City of Dallas program, Jonathan had made significant progress. He had gotten into an apartment with a rental subsidy, and had a steady though fixed income from SSI (Supplemental Security Income). He no longer needed to worry about experiencing homelessness. Or, so he thought…

The problem is that $733 a month, which is what SSI paid in 2016, does not always go far enough. Late last year, Jonathan fell behind on his electric bill, and on December 15th, his electricity was shut off. That night the temperature dropped to 36, and a few nights later it was down to 17 degrees!  
Jonathan’s case manager, Mirka, was able to help him make an appointment with Dallas County to apply for utility assistance, but they could not see him before the 27th. On top of that, his electric provider was not registered with Dallas County, so it would take another seven days following that appointment, before his electricity could be turned back on.

Jonathan was at wit’s end. He could not refrigerate his food, he could not cook, and he could not heat his apartment. What really worried him, though, was that his lease required that his apartment be connected to utilities, so he was now in violation of his lease. He was liable to find himself, not only without electricity, but without a place to live altogether.

Put yourself in Jonathan’s shoes at that moment. Imagine what that feels like, to be without electricity, mere days before Christmas, worried that you might be evicted. Now imagine that all of this is happening to you because of $53.53, which is approximately what many of us middle class folk might spend on a casual dinner with drinks, for two.

Fortunately, Mirka knew where to turn for help, the MDHA Flex Fund. The Flex Fund was designed by MDHA, with the help of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, to pay for minor but impactful expenditures that impede clients from (making progress in) ending their homelessness. In this case, it would work in a similar, if not identical, fashion. The Flex Fund could pay the electric bill, and not only make Jonathan’s home habitable again, but also shield him from being evicted and returning to homelessness, due to the violation of his lease.

Mirka completed the one page Flex Fund request form. It asks for the client’s information, the solution needed, including cost and vendor, articulation of how this solution will help the client end his or her homelessness, and an explanation of why other resources cannot provide it. (This prevents service duplication, and waste of funds.) She then emailed the form, with documentation from the electric provider, to MDHA.

Shavon Moore, MDHA’s Continuum of Care Resource Manager, received the request and quickly approved it. She suggested to Mirka, however, that they “top off” Jonathan’s account with another $50, so he would not be disconnected again before his utility assistance could be approved by Dallas County. She then went online to the electric provider’s website, and paid $103.53.
Within two hours, Jonathan’s electricity was reconnected, the lights were on, his refrigerator was humming again, and the apartment was feeling nice and toasty. Jonathan was finally able to rest easy, and not worry about becoming homeless again. This Christmas would be full of light and warmth, after all…

* Client’s name has been changed to protect his privacy. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A New Beginning, Full of Hope

Homelessness comes in many “shapes and sizes.” It can happen to people for varied reasons. I am often reminded of a quip from our good friend, Dr. Iain De Jong, that drives this point home, “If you have seen one person experiencing homelessness… you have seen one person experiencing homelessness!”
Dr. Iain De Jong (Courtesy of the Press Democrat)
One of the reasons people experience homelessness is domestic violence. Though this is not what people usually think of when they hear the word “homelessness”, it should immediately make sense. What else would you call your situation, if you left your home, to escape your abuser? Therefore, the Federal Continuum of Care grants facilitated through the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance (MDHA), have long included grants for housing programs for domestic violence survivors.

One thing that survivors do share with others who experience homelessness, is that they need more than just housing. Often, they can find themselves with nothing more than the clothes on their back and what they could carry in their hands.

Regina*, a domestic violence survivor, had found refuge with our grantee, Hope’s Door New Beginning Center. She was working hard on rebuilding her life, was admitted into their housing program, and was able to save up enough money to pay her required portion of the rent on her apartment. She was still missing two things, so basic to rebuilding her life and remaining housed, that most of us take them for granted, furniture and transportation.

Regina learned about the Dallas Furniture Bank, whose mission is to provide “furniture to families transitioning from homelessness.” She also learned about the DART Reduced ID card program, a DART-MDHA partnership, which allows those experiencing homelessness to ride on DART using 50% discounted passes. However, she did not have the money to utilize these services.
Aliah Henry, CEO, Dallas Furniture Bank
Now, you might ask why Hope’s Door New Beginning Center could not help her with these needs. It is not that they did not want to help her. As is often the case, the Federal grant that paid for her housing and services, could not be used to pay for furniture and transportation. What was Regina to do?

Luckily, her case manager, Jackie, knew who could help: The MDHA Flex Fund. The Flex Fund was designed by MDHA and United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, with people just like Jackie in mind. The idea of the Flex Fund is simple. A person experiencing homelessness faces a minor but impactful expenditure that impedes the person from (making progress in) ending his or her homelessness. The Flex Fund pays for it. That’s all there is to it.

Jackie told Regina about the Flex Fund. She shared with her that early on MDHA had formed a partnership with the Dallas Furniture Bank to allow clients to obtain basic furniture, with the MDHA Flex Fund footing the bill. Jackie and Regina discussed what furniture would be most helpful to her. Regina chose a sofa, a chair and an end table for her living room, a table and chair set for her dining room, and a full-size bed, dresser and night stand for her bedroom. Jackie also shared with Regina that the Flex Fund could pay for her DART Reduced ID card and the remaining 50% cost of a monthly pass, as well.
A Hope’s Door New Beginning Center staffPurple Thursday photo
Jackie filled out MDHA’s simple Flex Fund forms, and submitted them to Shavon Moore, MDHA’s Continuum of Care Resource Manager. Shavon notified the Dallas Furniture Bank, and they called Regina in for her private appointment. It felt great to shop in style at their facility, and choose her very own furniture. Shavon also provided Jackie with a letter Regina could take to DART, certifying her homelessness, as well as a check made out to DART to cover the ID and the remaining 50% cost of a monthly pass.

Hope’s Door New Beginning Center is a true lifeline for domestic violence survivors like Regina, in bringing normalcy back into their lives. With the help of community partners like MDHA, the Dallas Furniture Bank and DART working together with them, Hope’s Door New Beginning Center can better help the “Reginas” of our community in achieving a sense of stability in a new beginning, full of hope.

* Client name has been changed to protect her privacy.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

They Couldn’t End Their Homelessness without It

British actor, Roger Daltrey, in one of the iconic American Express card commercials from 1985

How often do you find yourself without identification? The answer is, probably not that often. Most of us, in the words of the old American Express commercial, don’t leave home without it. This is why many find it surprising that over 10% of us do not have a government-issued photo ID. Not surprisingly, those without an ID tend to be poor, minorities, and/or elderly.  

Many of these same people manage to navigate life without an ID. However, ending a person’s homelessness can be challenging, if that person does not have some type of government issued identification, and cannot afford to get one. It seems that to paraphrase the same commercial, you can’t end your homelessness without it.

About six weeks ago, Daniel and Karla*, two neighbors who had experienced homelessness in the past, found themselves in a pickle. They were both living in permanent supportive housing, funded by a Federal grant. The agency which had received the grant ceased to operate, but our grantee, CitySquare, was prepared to keep the residents in housing. Daniel and Karla each had to present a government issued ID (at least a birth certificate), but neither of them had one. What were they to do?

About four weeks ago, Abraham was experiencing homelessness. He was determined to find a job, so he could become housed. He knew that he would need a government issued photo ID to get a job, and that to get the photo ID, he needed a birth certificate. He had obtained a birth certificate with the help of our partner, The Stewpot, but alas he could not find it. (It is difficult to keep all your documents and valuables in place, when you don’t have a home!) He would have to wait an entire year to be eligible for this help again. What was he to do?

Just three weeks ago, Richard was experiencing homelessness. CitySquare was helping him get everything in order, so he could apply for a Dallas Housing Authority voucher. He had a driver’s license, but it had expired. Without renewing his license, he would not be able to apply for a voucher. What was he to do?

Fortunately, about two years ago, through surveys of clients and service providers, MDHA had identified a variety of needs (beyond housing and supportive services), that Dallas’ homeless population faced, in their struggle to end their homelessness. One of these needs was critical documents, such as government issued identification. These needs may not be covered through existing federal, state and local government grants, that fund programs for the homeless.

Thus, with the help of United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, the MDHA Flex Fund was born. The idea was simple. A minor but impactful need, such as the lack of a birth certificate or photo ID, impedes a client from (making progress in) ending his or her homelessness. The Flex Fund pays for it. That’s all there is to it.

That is how we helped Daniel, Karla, Abraham and Richard. Their case managers submitted a simple one page form. The form asks for the client’s information, what the client needs (including cost and vendor), articulation of how this will help the client end his or her homelessness, and an explanation of why other resources (including the client’s) cannot provide (for) it.
A classic Shavon Moore selfie
Shavon Moore, MDHA’s Continuum of Care Resource Manager, reviewed each request, approved it, and provided payment directly to the vendor. In fact, as is often the case with critical documents, in Daniel, Karla and Abraham’s cases, Shavon could quickly order the documents and pay for them online. Once they arrived, the case managers picked them up from the MDHA Offices.

Research shows that ending a person’s homelessness, quickly and permanently, is not just the right thing to do; it is the most cost effective thing to do. How cost effective is it to end a person’s homelessness with the help of the Flex Fund, specifically? The numbers speak for themselves. The cost of helping Daniel and Karla remain housed, Abraham pursue a job, and Richard become eligible for a housing voucher was… $120.75. No, not $120.75 each; $120.75 total. Now, that is not a bad return on investment!

* All client names have been changed, to protect their privacy.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Who am I? Why am I here?

One of the most misunderstood moments of political history is the moment that Admiral James Stockdale opened his remarks at the 1992 vice presidential debate with these words. Arguably, of the three men on the stage, he had the most impressive resume, most of it in service and unimaginable sacrifice for his country. However, he had struggled to define himself, or at least make well known his definition of himself as a political actor.

This is why Stockdale opened with these words. He wanted to address just that issue. Unfortunately, all most people remember is the soundbite, which combined with our obsession with youth and looks, caused most people to only remember the question, and totally misunderstand the context of it.

If you think about the question itself, it is one that each individual and each organization must answer. It is a question that seems to fit this time of year, too. Spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) is all about rebirth and renewal, as the world awakes from the slumber of winter. Fittingly, the two Abrahamic traditions that use a solar or partially solar calendar, observe holidays that celebrate their origin stories, as these faiths answer Stockdale’s question.

This is why I love site visits. Now, if you work for a non-profit, you may have just fallen off your chair, and if you don’t, you could be forgiven for not knowing what on earth I am talking about. When a non-profit asks for funding, often funders will ask to come in for a site visit, to see what that non-profit does, rather than just reading a written grant request. It can be stressful, and in some cases, that might be an understatement.

So, why do I love site visits? Even the best organization, working in the service of the most important cause, can fall into the monotony of the day to day work. A site visit causes an organization, and individuals within that organization, to stop and reflect on why they do what they do. Ideally, we should always be ready to answer Stockdale’s question, but to borrow Dr. Samuel Johnson’s phrase, a site visit can concentrate the mind wonderfully.
Ian Redford (playing Dr. Samuel Johnson) in A Dish of Tea with Dr. Johnson
(Courtesy of Bob Workman)
Now, some funders are clearer and some funders are less clear, regarding what they are looking for on their site visit. United Way of Metropolitan Dallas stands out for their clarity in that sense, and serves as a model for others. Here is how a United Way volunteer cut to the chase, on what they are looking to learn when they pay you a visit, “Be on point about why you are requesting the funds, what you will do with the funds, and why you will be successful with those funds.” In other words, what is the need, what is the solution, and what evidence do you have that the solution will successfully address that need?

On Monday, we have the privilege of sitting down with our friends from United Way, and answering these questions regarding the MDHA Flex Fund. I have to admit, I think this is easier with the Flex Fund than with other programs, because of its beautiful simplicity.

Dallas’ homeless population faces a variety of minor but impactful needs, beyond housing and supportive services, that impede them from (making progress in) ending their homelessness. The Flex Fund pays for (solutions to) these needs. We have research and practice from other communities, not to mention the last 20 months in our community that shows the concrete impact of such a program, in the lives of hundreds of people.  
Marsha, Family Gateway
Sarah’s story, which we have told in this blog before, is a typical example. Sarah and her daughter Carol were homeless. With the help of their Family Gateway case manager, Marsha, they obtained a housing voucher, and found an apartment. The landlord required payment of an administrative fee of $149, prior to move in. Their only income being inconsistent child support and SSI, they couldn’t afford it. They were stuck.

Fortunately, their story has a happy ending. Marsha, put in a request to the Flex Fund, it paid the landlord the required administrative fee of $149, and Sarah and Carol moved in to their new apartment. Sarah loves having a place to call home, and it is much easier to care for Carol, who has a disability, in an apartment of their own. Their homelessness ended.

One component United Way added this grant cycle, which I was particularly excited about, was what they call a “visual client flow”. This useful exercise helps the service provider, get out of their organizational comfort zone and vantage point, and look at the program through the eyes of the client. (Click through to see what that looks like.) This is tremendously important, because at the end of the day, it reminds us of our ultimate answer to Stockdale’s question, “Who am I? Why am I here?” We are the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, and we are here to end homelessness for real people, just like we did for Sarah.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Faith, Hope and Home II

Rev. Jonathan Grace, CitySquare
leading an opening prayer
On March 30, 2017, we held our second Faith Hope and Home event, in Austin Street Center's beautiful chapel. The evening was led by our very own Rebecca Cox. It featured: Josh Cogan of Outlast Youth, Teresa Keenan of Incarnation House, Rev. Heather Mustain, of Wilshire Baptist Church, Leah Parker, of St. Paul United Methodist Church, and Mark Pierce, of the Dallas Independent School District.

Mark Pierce, DISD
Mark, Teresa, and Josh talked about the evolution of school and out of school time drop in centers, how helpful they have been to youth, and the need for more such centers. Rev. Heather and Leah shared how their congregations participate in the Room in the Inn program. This program allows congregations to host pre-screened persons experiencing homelessness in their house of worship for a night, break bread with them, practice fellowship, and help them become part of the community. They encouraged other congregations to follow in their footsteps. A vigorous and informative Q&A session followed. Charletra Sharp, of the City of Dallas, closed out the evening, inviting those who wanted to roll up their sleeves and continue this work on the systems level, to join the MDHA CoC General Assembly's new Faith Collaborations Committee.

Is your congregation ready to engage in work that not only helps the homeless, but will really move the needle on ending homelessness? Contact us or any of the above speakers, and we will hook you up! (If you don't know how to contact one of them, we can help with that too.)

Saturday, April 8, 2017

With a Little Help from Our Friends

Opening Scene of Top Gun

Recently, we blogged about Becoming a Top Gun Homeless Response System. The mental image you get from watching film of a dogfight can be deceiving. You might think this is the ultimate combat scenario that involves two people alone squaring off against each other. Not so; just ask any pilot. He or she is just the tip of the spear; the spear itself being the ground crew, who can be quite numerous. Without everyone working together, and each person doing their part properly, even the Top Gun is rendered useless.
An effective homeless response system also depends on many different people, working together, each carrying out their functions properly. Indeed, two of the most important underlying themes of Opening Doors, the national strategic plan to end homelessness, are that we must do our work properly, i.e. follow evidence-based practices, and work together, i.e. not as disparate organizations in an uncoordinated environment, but as one unified homeless response system.

Getting involved in our local
Continuum of Care (CoC) is a great way you can help our homeless response system become a Top Gun. A CoC is a regional or local planning body that coordinates housing and services (funding) for homeless families and individuals. MDHA is the designated lead agency for our CoC organization.

Our CoC General Assembly meets once a month, and anyone can attend, learn about the work, and pitch in to help. The Assembly usually meets at
United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, on the fourth Tuesday of the month at 9.00am. Check our website calendar for exact details. Once you get your feet wet, you can join one of our CoC committees, where much of the hard work of systems change takes place. We look forward to seeing you there!