January 31, 2023

Homeless camps can be found almost everywhere in Dallas. City officials say there are about 400 camps and last year they cleared seven.

Dallas City Council has allocated record-breaking amounts of money to this issue, sometimes in ways I disagree with, and we have had no decrease in homelessness. The annual point-in-time census, a homeless count mandated by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, is imminent. Unfortunately, it’s an unreliable snapshot of one night of those finding volunteers in a four-hour search heavily dependent on weather and volunteer numbers. Any Dallasite can look and know that homelessness has increased citywide without reading the results of the point-in-time census, which is usually reported in the spring.

I have a long history of working for, with and on behalf of people affected by homelessness, both as a volunteer and professional. I have served as Vice Chair of the Dallas Citizen Homeless Commission, the Mayor’s Task Force on Ending Homelessness, and the Leadership Committee of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance and its Youth Task Force. I’ve served as chair of the Collin County Homeless Commission, director of a homeless shelter, and speaking at this year’s Texas Homeless Network conference. I successfully brought a homeless shelter to District 12 in far north Dallas. This is a subject I have worked on as a volunteer and professional and is very close to my heart.

As a City Council Member, I have served on the City Council Housing and Homelessness Committee since my election in 2019. After only a few months in office, I forced the city manager to provide foul weather shelters as a city service for the first time. I coined the term “compassion plus enforcement” as a city strategy to address homelessness in Dallas.

Dallas staff did a great job with compassion. Outreach teams have reached out to the homeless and offered services. They have provided port-a-potties in large camps to improve the health of the people living there and local residents. You have done a good job with our bad weather protection. They got some people off the streets, but not enough.

What was missing is the enforcement part of this sentence. Staffers have allowed the homeless to dictate whether they leave a camp and seem to have forgotten that staying in camp is not an option. It is dangerous, unsanitary, unsightly, damaging to business and violates state law.

A new operational plan is badly needed before our beloved city becomes Austin, Portland or Los Angeles. The plan should provide the required scope, options and enforcement.

For public relations, contact should be made in a friendly, helpful manner, explaining that staying is not an option and presenting the options available, with support to make the chosen option a reality immediately and with compassion. The first option for homeless people is emergency shelter. Dallas should provide emergency shelter for anyone willing to come in, away from the elements, drug dealers and crime plaguing homeless communities. If homeless people do not want to go to emergency accommodation, inpatient psychiatric and addiction beds should be offered where appropriate. Dallas should review and provide family reunification assistance if individuals have a family member or friend willing to host them.

If the person rejects all of these options, two remaining options remain available. One is to leave Dallas and move to another city, the other is to be transferred to the City Detention Center, which is our overnight misdemeanor prison. In the detention facility, an individual spends the night and then has the opportunity to work with a member of the DA’s homeless diversion team to create a plan to secure housing facilities and services. The person may still not accept help and could just walk out the door and repeat this process over and over again. After several visits to the detention center, people may accept the help they obviously need or decide Dallas is not a place to camp.

The screams of criminalization of the homeless have already begun as the council tried to protect the safety of people standing or sitting in the median. Nobody wants to criminalize poverty. But how is it merciful to let the homeless out? Some animal groups will not even allow you to adopt a pet that will live outside. All emergency shelters in Dallas provide meals, showers, clothing and daily support services. There are a number of shelters, all working diligently to help homeless residents regain their independence.

Some people are made homeless by a series of unfortunate events, others are made homeless by generational poverty or trauma or tragedy. Regardless of the cause, Dallas should strive to help people by rejecting homeless camps as acceptable and calling for shelter, residential care, incarceration, or caring support to connect with family members or friends who will open their homes.

Continue efforts to develop human resources programs and affordable housing, as well as new efforts to create studio apartments; ensuring that released prisoners arriving in Dallas have the preparation, skills, and papers needed for the job; respond to the needs of the youngest migrants so that they are not left on the streets; and a focus on drug dealers who exploit the homeless are critical to a successful strategy to significantly reduce homelessness.

Compassion and enforcement should continue to be the guiding principles in tackling homelessness, but both are needed in equal doses. Dallas must do better to serve and help the homeless to ensure a clean, safe, and high quality of life for all.

Cara Mendelsohn is a Dallas Councilor for District 12. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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