Dallas City Council Amends Code on Sheltering Homeless During Inclement Weather

A stipulation was added during Wednesday's council meeting that prevents a key organization from being exempt from penalties

On recent cold nights, dozens of homeless people have been camping out in Terminal A, close to a DART station connecting the airport to Dallas.
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Dallas City council has altered a city code in such a way that is not sitting well with local homelessness organizations.

At Wednesday's city council meeting, Dallas leaders made some changes to the city code affecting how the homeless are housed during emergency inclement weather situations.

The change stems from an incident two years ago when Dallas-based OurCalling said it received a citation for housing homeless individuals overnight during extremely cold weather.

It violated a city code that called for only certain facilities to do such a thing, and churches weren’t one of them.

“Imagine for example, a restaurant. It’s not designed for people to sleep in. Well, apparently neither is a church or a warehouse. They aren’t fit for humans to sleep in but we want to be able to provide an emergency relief in an emergency situation.”

It sparked a long debate within the city to change that code rule.

"There wasn't any space in the code for inclement weather moments or disasters like when it drops below freezing," Walker said.

After going through multiple reviews by various committees over the months, a proposal was approved by the council on Wednesday that will allow certain groups like churches to act on an emergency basis to house the homeless during inclement weather without penalty.

However, toward the end of the meeting, a stipulation was brought forth adding a buffer zone that excludes organizations within a half-mile from the central business district of downtown. The zone includes OurCalling.

The organization's leader said they are planning to challenge it.

Last November, wind chill temperatures dropped down into the single digits, prompting the city to open the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center to open its doors for the first time to house the homeless overnight. About 200 to 250 individuals were taken in, but there was a strict cutoff point of 8 p.m. and after that, everyone else was turned away, Walker said.

That caused an influx of homeless people, many of them elderly, to walk to one of the next closest facilities they could find: OurCalling. The organization said it opened it's doors to bring them inside, doing so again during another cold snap in February.

Now the organization said it wonders what it will be able to legally do in the coming months as temperatures drop. Walker said he predicts the city is as much as 1,000 beds short heading into the cold weather season, even if the convention center opens to the homeless again.

“We’re here because we want to make a difference, we want to serve people that can’t serve themselves, that have no other options," he said. "Our shelter beds are very small in number and the number of people that need those beds is very great."

NBC 5 reached out to the city of Dallas for comment and was issued the following statement:

Dallas’ Office of Homeless Solutions will carry out the policy decisions of the City Council. Sheltering everyone without a home in inclement weather is always challenging, but we are confident in our partners and expertise and will make every effort to protect our most vulnerable neighbors when temperatures drop.

Meantime, the city of Dallas has also decided to contribute a certain share of CARES Act money to help house the homeless.

The city is working with the Catholic Charities Dallas to help buy a hotel on I-635. It would be converted into a shelter for people who have become homeless due to the COVID-19 crisis and then it will transition into supportive housing for the chronically homeless.

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