Saturday, March 31, 2018

On the Rise of Homelessness in Urban America, and Our Next Steps to Address It Here in Dallas

During her State of the Homeless Address on March 21, 2018, Cindy J. Crain, MDHA President and CEO, shared the results of the 2018 Homeless Count in Dallas and Collin Counties. The numbers showed an increase in homelessness, in general, and unsheltered homelessness, specifically, accompanied by drops in chronic and veteran homelessness. That same week, the Collin County Homeless Coalition published its report, which showed a drop in the number of those experiencing homelessness in that county. Not surprisingly, it takes the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) many more months to report on the results for the entire country.
In the meantime, we do have the 2017 numbers, which came out fairly recently, this last December, with HUD’s submission of Part I of its 2017 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress on Point-in-Time Estimates of Homelessness. HUD reported that, “Homelessness increased for the first time in seven years. The number of people experiencing homelessness increased by a little less than one percent between 2016 and 2017.” Interestingly, though, this aggregate number reflects two separate phenomena: “This increase reflected a nine percent increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in unsheltered locations, which was partially offset by a three percent decline in the number of people experiencing homelessness in sheltered locations.”
More importantly, HUD emphasized that this is primarily an urban problem: “Recent increases in homelessness were driven mostly by specific changes happening within cities. Increases in the numbers of unsheltered individuals in the 50 largest cities accounted for nearly all of the national increase…  The number of all people experiencing homelessness increased in major cities and decreased elsewhere between 2016 and 2017… More specifically, increases in unsheltered homelessness in major cities drove the national increase…”

One of our homeless friends at an encampment in 2017
(Photo taken by award winning photographer, B.J. Lacasse)

Why is this? What is going on in our cities?

An earlier HUD report, Worst Case Housing Needs – 2017 Report to Congress, may help us understand:

Worst case housing needs are a national problem. Such severe housing problems have expanded dramatically during the past decade and were exacerbated by the economic recession and associated collapse of the housing market, which reduced homeownership through foreclosures and tight lending and increased demand for renting. The slight improvements observed since 2011 offer cause for hope, but the failure to sustain the more promising trends observed in 2013 is sobering… The latest resumption of worsening housing problems among the nation’s very low-income renters is attributable primarily to demographic and economic factors—especially a notable shift from homeownership to renting—that grew the number of households susceptible to worst case needs. Uneven housing market responses that increased the proportion of unassisted very low-income renters with severe rent burdens played a secondary yet substantial role.

Even with rental assistance, 6 of 10 extremely low-income renters and 4 of 10 very low-income renters do not have access to affordable and available housing units. Among very low-income renters in 2015, only 25 percent of households had rental assistance and an additional 43 percent had worst case needs for assisted or other affordable housing. In other words, only a small share of very low-income renters—32 percent—avoided severe housing problems in the unassisted private rental market in 2015.  

And where is this problem most pronounced? “Central cities were home to most (9.51 million) very low-income renters, followed by suburbs (7.23 million) and nonmetropolitan areas (2.49 million).” The report emphasizes that the main culprit in this crisis is the lack of affordable rental housing in the nation’s urban centers.
Arguably, what we have is not a homelessness crisis, but an acute affordable housing crisis, and the epicenter of that crisis is in our cities, including Dallas and other urban communities in Texas. As we wrote, about a year ago, “Housing is the key… Local governments must act now to create affordable housing… We need more permanent supportive housing, more second chance housing, and more affordable housing in the 0-30% AMI (Area Median Income) range.” And HUD’s prescription is clear: “A broad strategy at the federal, state, and local levels is needed to continue to rebuild the economy, strengthen and realign markets, and provide assistance to those families most in need.”

Two of our formerly homeless friends
(Photo taken by award winning photographer, B.J. Lacasse)

The emphasis on the federal level is well warranted. The current level of federal funding for the Continuum of Care Program, just over $2 billion, is essentially a rounding error in a $4 trillion Federal Budget. We can’t expect to end homelessness, with this level of investment. As we wrote in December: “Especially over the last decade, we have become extremely skillful at building systems that maximize the impact of these $2 billion. However, as a nation, we have not explored the idea of significantly adding to that funding. We have accepted… that around $2 billion, in 2017 dollars, is enough to defeat a social ill that has been with us for forty years and counting.”

Ann Oliva
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary, HUD

However, we do need to do our part here in Dallas and Collin Counties, and specifically the urban core of Dallas, to address this affordable housing crisis, that is driving the increase in homelessness. This is why on March 28-29, 2018, we brought together all of the major “players”, in Dallas and Collin Counties, who can affect this type of change on the local level, for a Homeless Response System Leadership Training and Strategic Planning Retreat. This groundbreaking gathering was facilitated by OrgCode, led by pioneering world expert, Dr. Iain De Jong. With De Jong and former HUD Deputy Assistant Secretary Ann Oliva, leading a team of facilitators, this retreat, with more than 65 senior leaders in attendance, was designed to usher in a more strategic community response to homelessness.

Dr. Iain De Jong
(Courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune)

Participating leaders spent two whole days of intense action-oriented participative and interactive hard work. They focused on the critical nature of collective impact, and how an effective system of care can bring about an end to homelessness in our community. Together, through a strategic planning journey, utilizing the Breakthrough Thinking approach, participants made the necessary decisions and vital commitments that will chart our course, as a community.

We look forward to sharing the report OrgCode will produce to help our community flesh out the next steps. Then, united in vision and purpose, we will act on those decisions, and fulfill those commitments. That is how, working together, as a community, we can and will make homelessness in Dallas and Collin Counties, rare, brief and nonrecurring.


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