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A great city should be judged by how it treats the least fortunate of its citizens, those for whom nightly shelter and even survival are uncertainties. On a given night, more than 1,000 people are on Dallas streets, a 24 percent increase from last year. This very high-risk population badly needs our help to find safe shelter, a pathway for treatment and a way back to society.
It might seem simplistic, but the core of the problem is the lack of suitable facilities, an issue the city has struggled with for years. Existing shelters are swamped, meaning that these unfortunate souls are constantly at risk on the streets and often out of reach of nonprofits and other groups that could help them. Too often, they fall into a criminal justice system that is ill-equipped to deal with the myriad issues associated with life on the streets.
The city could significantly change this equation if it jump-starts development of permanent, supportive and transitional housing facilities. Dallas has an available down payment on this possibility — $20 million from a bond package approved last fall — but has yet to devise a clear strategy for how these dollars will be used and how best to involve the private sector.
This became evident during a recent meeting of the city’s Human and Social Needs Committee. Ideas discussed ranged from temporarily housing the homeless under the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center to opening temporary "pop-up" shelters in churches or schools to the city paying stipends to landlords.
These aren’t ideas that will make a permanent dent in the problem. Instead, the city should use the $20 million as seed money to encourage developers to provide new permanent, supportive housing units. The city believes it needs 1,000 of these units to address the homeless people in the city now. But increasing the number of units is the key point here. Getting people off the streets is the crucial first step toward providing the safe environment to treat medical, psychological and drug addictions.
Dallas isn’t the only city facing a complex homeless issue. Homelessness is a serious issue in every city and nearly every community in America, even in places with great prosperity. New York has more than 76,000 homeless, Los Angeles, 55,000 and Seattle has nearly 12,000 — the top three cities for concentrations of homeless.
The good news is that Dallas has established an Office of Homeless Solutions. With limited dollars available, Dallas should wisely leverage and coordinate resources in a comprehensive investment that delivers shelter and support effectively.
This is an important moment. If Dallas nibbles around the edges, it’s solutions won’t solve anything. If Dallas fails to work to substantially reduce homelessness over the long term, homelessness will likely only grow. And as this problem grows, it will be harder to solve.