By David Wilfong (North Dallas Gazette/NNPA Member)
Dallas is looking at a large, and continually growing homeless population. While the spread-out geography of a city like Dallas may make the appearance of the homeless less visually constant, the problem is growing large enough that people are starting to take a second look at it.
One of the most obvious places where the homeless issue arises is in Dallas classrooms.
Mark Pierce of the Dallas Independent School District’s Homeless Education program has characterized the numbers he is seeing as “catastrophic.” According to Pierce, the school district is currently working to educate approximately 3,700 homeless students. He also warns that there may be another 1,000 children in the city who are homeless, but not currently enrolled in school.
Dallas having a homeless population is nothing new, but Pierce said he thinks the problem has swelled in the past couple of years.
“There’s a lot of reasons [for homelessness],” Pierce said. “The one that stands out the most is that property costs have gone up a lot recently. So apartment complexes are raising their rents, and so it’s harder for people with lower income to find a place to live.”
Pierce has been working with the homeless in the district for 21 years, and he said that one of the programs that has been most successful are the campus “Drop-In” programs. In 2012, beginning at North Dallas High School, the district, in partnership with the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation and utilizing a grant from Baron & Blue, opened its first campus Drop-In in 2012.
The district now runs Drop-Ins at 12 Dallas high schools and two middle schools. Once a week the Drop-In centers are open to help students with a wide range of needs, from food and clothing to simple hygiene items. Additionally, the district can also employ some students to work in the centers, providing both support and learning opportunities as well as a way to earn money in the process.
“I would like to see one of these at every, single high school in Dallas, and throughout the rest of the country actually,” Pierce said. “People would be surprised. Even in the wealthier suburbs there are probably kids who have no home for one reason or another and could use a little assistance.”
As for what needs to happen in the near future, Pierce keeps his expectations reasonable.
“I’m an educator, I believe the kids should be in school,” Pierce said. “I believe that public schools can help meet their most basic needs and help them through a difficult time, and get them educated and graduated from high school at the same time.”
Pierce also said he would like to see universities join into the process, realizing that many students could be coming to college campuses without a “home base” to operate from.
In the meantime, the district mans the Drop-In centers and works to reach students where they are, often delivering food and other essentials to families currently stuck in hotel living situations, both during the school year and in the summertime, as well.
“The Dallas ISD has been at the front of this and we are doing some really wonderful things,” Pierce said.
Help to alleviate the homelessness problem in Dallas is actually quite extensive, but it comes in fragmented form, with the funds and other resources being distributed throughout the city from a wide array of public and private interests.
Services of Hope, a local nonprofit on the front line, sees the need when working with the school district and local apartment complexes which offer an after-school program.
“We work with a nearby Dallas ISD school and provide items such as personal hygiene, clothes, food and any other supplies we can get our hands on because more than 20 percent of the school’s population is defined as homeless. Their families are either living in shelters, their cars or short-term extended stay hotels,” shared Doris Prescott Services of Hope board member.
Dallas Housing Director Bernadette Mitchell briefed council members on the current condition of assistance resources for the homeless during a February 21 briefing of the Housing committee. She advised members that, in total, approximately $26.5 million is allocated toward the homeless problem in Dallas, though the city itself does not administer the majority of it.
“The Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) is your only homeless entitlement grant that comes directly to you from HUD,” Mitchell said. “So when you look at the other grants, the purposes are different.”
In the 2016-17 budget, the City of Dallas allocated more than $1.1 million for numerous Dallas-based agencies serving the homeless population from its ESG grant funds.
Other resources available locally include Continuum of Care Grants from HUD of more than $16.6 million. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) provides another grant of more than $1 million and an additional $811,130 through the TDHCA Homeless and Housing Services program. A $1.5 million contribution comes from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Finally, another $6.5 million is spent via various Dallas County programs.
Currently, city staff is working on recommendations as set forward by the Dallas Commission on Homelessness. These recommendations include: increasing targeted street outreach housing placement and support services; conversion to the community-wide coordinated entity and single-system HMIS; facility development and shelter capacity; increasing permanent supportive housing; and preventing homelessness within criminal justice and treatment facilities.
Councilmembers Tiffinni A. Young and Carolyn King Arnold, who represent districts highly affected by the problem, both expressed frustration with the growing numbers of homeless people, and also with the difficulty in finding the right resources on the ground when the problems arise.
For those who may want to pitch in a little extra, specifically for the students, there is a donation button available online at the Homeless Education page of the Dallas ISD website (www.dallasisd.org/Domain/109).