Monday, August 10, 2015

(Really) Coping With Tent City (and Homelessness, In General) by Building an Effective Homeless Response System

Two-three months ago Cindy Crain, MDHA President and CEO pulled together a multi-agency Outreach Taskforce to help the folks living in the encampment under I-45. We have been meeting regularly to methodically and thoughtfully address this challenge, with the ultimate goal, of connecting every one of those folks to housing.

On Wednesday morning, MDHA Vice President, Rebecca Cox, along with other members of the Taskforce, was doing her regularly scheduled weekly visit with the folks at the encampment. She discovered something she had not seen during previous visits – a one year old baby.  Rebecca texted Cindy, and they decided then and there that that child and her mother would NOT spend another night there. It turned out that the mother had been connected to housing already. Why was she still there? She needed about $50 for the apartment application fee. This was a classic case of the agency connecting her to housing not being able to pay for that fee due to the specifications of their housing grant. Cindy immediately had cut a check for this. Rebecca picked it up, and hand-delivered it, and the problem was solved.  

Courtesy of Edd Eason, CoC Chair
This is just the type of small expense that often prevents folks from resolving their homelessness situation, and which necessitates a quick, nimble, red-tape-free "Flex Fund." This is one of the programs Cindy mentioned to me her first day on the job in Dallas. She called for it explicitly in her State of the Homeless Address, and we incorporated it into the Continuum of Care Strategic Work Plan. United Way of Metropolitan Dallas, stepped up to the plate, and offered to fund a pilot program for just this purpose. Officially this program hasn’t even begun yet, and we have already helped one mother and her child with it! I will be writing more here and elsewhere about the idea of flex funds, and how they can help make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.

On Friday, following careful and methodical work these last two-three months, the same Taskforce was able to connect a good number of folks in the encampment to housing. The Taskforce members will continue to work with the others to connect more and more of them to housing. As part of this effort, Cindy had invited Christopher Herring, of the University of California–Berkeley to advise us, homeless advocates, and community leaders on this issue. 

Chris, who has done extensive field research on tent cities, delivered a fascinating, erudite and down to earth presentation titled, “Coping With Tent City” during our “Hard Conversation” at United Way of Metropolitan Dallas (co-sponsored by CitySquare), with about eighty people in attendance. He talked about commonalities and differences in the roots, nature and character of such encampments, and the constructive and less constructive responses to them. His main argument is that encampment growth correlates not with rises in poverty and homelessness, rather with criminalization of various acts associated with homelessness. This pushes folks experiencing homelessness figuratively and literally to the margins.

You can read more about Friday’s exciting developments and Chris’ presentation in this great piece by our good friend, Tasha Tsiaperas, on the Dallas Morning News blog: Social workers find housing for 21 people living in homeless camp under I-45 -  Tasha references a promising development. The Justice Department just announced last week, that they are taking legal action to contest laws that criminalize homelessness, as violations of the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Hopefully, this will encourage other communities to approach this issue in a more constructive way, as we are here in Dallas. It’s about time we as a nation, solve problems and not just slap ill-fitting dehumanizing “band-aids” on symptoms. How do you do that? You do that, by building an effective homeless response system, as we are doing at MDHA today.

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