Dallas Debate Over Allowing Churches as Inclement Weather Homeless Shelters

Several churches already serve as temporary shelters, contrary to city rules

Churches offering to house homeless people on frigid nights in Dallas confronted officials at a City Council briefing Wednesday over rules that would forbid churches from serving as shelters.

More than 4,000 homeless people are on the streets of Dallas County in all sorts of weather according to the latest count. Existing homeless shelters are always near capacity.

The number of homeless people has been growing the past few years, as officials debated solutions to the problem without adding much additional homeless housing capacity.

Oak Lawn United Methodist Church on Oak Lawn at Cedar Springs is one of the faith based institutions that already opens doors to homeless people on hot days or frigid nights.

"We have a mission in the neighborhood to be a church that opens its doors no matter what," said Senior Pastor, Reverend Rachel Baughman.

In freezing weather, the church also serves meals and allows peoples to stay the night.

In the past year Baughman said the church sheltered more than 200 homeless people on 16 freezing nights with the help of 80 volunteers and donations from surrounding restaurants.

"We did all of this without incident," Baughman told the City Council.

Baughman was frustrated by a plan to require special use permits for locations to become inclement weather shelters. City officials said it would be necessary to apply a code that forbids shelters near churches, which would in turn forbid churches from becoming temporary shelters.

"This city will not deny us the right to religious expression and freedom," Baughman said.

One alternative was changing the code to allow shelters at church locations, which Councilman Adam McGough opposed.

"We change something that could potentially have really drastic impacts in all of the areas of the city that could cause additional unwanted or unknown problems," McGough said.

The other option was allowing churches to apply for special use permits to be temporary inclement weather shelters without actually being considered a permanent shelter.

"They're going to be sheltering these people regardless of what we do, so we need a robust system of inspection, of making sure that minimum standards are met," said City Council Member Philip Kingston. "If we can get the details right and we have our partners in place like Reverend Baughman, then I think we're going to have a pretty nice system of emergency shelter at very low cost to our taxpayers."

Last year the City Council strongly rejected an earlier temporary homeless shelter plan to use four city recreation centers at a time for 90 days, rotating to different rec centers around the city. The inclement weather shelter plan was the replacement. But it is just one of four tracks the City of Dallas has been pursuing to address the issue of homelessness.

Mayor Mike Rawlings said solutions for inclement weather shelters are much easier than the bigger challenges, like building new permanent supportive housing.

"We need institutions that deal with substance abuse and mental health, and this is a scourge on this city that will be here forever if we continue to talk this way," Rawlings said.

City Council Members instructed their staff to pursue the option of special use permits for churches that wish to help the homeless without making the churches actually be considered shelters.

"It's time for us to step up to the plate, move this along, because I don't want people to say on my watch that we didn't address this issue when we had an opportunity to," Councilman Casey Thomas said.

The goal is having more temporary space available for homeless people before cold weather returns.

"This is a Good Samaritan act, and this is the work we need to be doing, so let's figure out how to do it," Rev. Baughman said.

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