A record number of homeless people were reported in the 2021 point-in-time count for Dallas and Collin County, released in a report by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance on Tuesday.
The annual count of Dallas and Collin County homeless people helps document the need so that MDHA can apply for federal money to combat homelessness.
The 2021 number on February 18 for both counties is 4,570, of which 465 were in Collin County.
It is just above the 4,538 reported in 2019 and well above 3,798 reported by MDHA in 2017. The 2020 count was 4,471.
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Of this year's total, 1,432 are unsheltered homeless. Nearly 500 are in transitional housing and 2,611 are in an emergency shelter.
Difficulties in Counting
Because of the complications brought on by the pandemic, there's concern the numbers might be higher than what was obtained in the 2021 report.
“Poverty and homelessness is the storm that nobody sees," said John Siburt, president and CEO for affordable housing non-profit CitySquare, in the State of Homelessness Address on Tuesday. "The pandemic awakened everybody to our shared humanity and really put us all in a level playing field. It cultivated a new sense of empathy and urgency around poverty and homelessness."
COVID-19 increased the problem by putting more people out of work. It also made it impossible to gather the hundreds of volunteers needed to conduct face-to-face counting.
Then came a winter freeze in the very days the count was scheduled in February. It sent some homeless people into warming centers instead of accurately counting them as unsheltered outdoors, which is another detail in the homelessness data.
Some shelters had burst pipes, which caused people to be moved around and could have lead to a further distortion of an accurate count. MDHA said if not for the winter storm, they estimate at least 600 people would have been added to those unsheltered numbers.
Either way, the numbers still demonstrate an urgent need for affordable housing in the Dallas area.
“The long and the short of it is that we need more affordable housing units. MDHA is actively working to incentivize landlords to work with our homeless collaborative programs. Long term as a community, we have got to figure out how to increase affordable housing development,” said Peter Brodsky, MDHA's new board chairman.
As a land developer and businessman, Brodsky oversees redevelopment of the Redbird Mall in Southern Dallas. He previously volunteered as Chairman of the Dallas Animal Shelter Advisory Commission, which was tasked with addressing severe problems with stray animals. That problem is much better than it once was in Dallas.
In his new role, Brodsky spoke on the efforts to grow rapid rehousing.
“As first-time homelessness increases, we have got to work hard to increase our inventory of interventions like rapid rehousing," he said. "Thanks to available funds from the Cares Act, last year our system has gone from 18 rapidly housing projects in the beginning of 2020 to 47 projects now in Dallas and Collin counties. These programs have helped to house 1,000 people already."
Additionally, MDHA announced on Tuesday the formation of a 'Homeless Collaborative' between Dallas and Collin counties. They'll be gathering more organizations, nonprofits and city leaders across the region to target some specific goals in the years to come.
"The key to this work is our collective will to engage with the system, empower our workgroups, and line up on priorities. We will amplify what we know works, rethink how we prioritize populations and streamline the way we allocate resources. All to meet our goal of ending homelessness," said Ashley Brundage, the board chair for the Dallas & Collin Counties Homeless Collaborative.
In MDHA's presentation Tuesday, Dallas city manager TC Broadnax said the pandemic helped everyone realize the importance of coming together in new ways.
“The silos that we used to operate in, they were no longer going to allow us to have meaningful impact when it came to addressing homelessness," he said. “So what we began to do was tear down all of the walls and barriers that we had with our service providers and partners. It allowed us to really figure out how the city could approach it in partnership, more so than just a conduit for resources."
The new collaborative will work with groups like Matthew 25:35, who are handling the battle against homelessness on the frontlines.
Noticing the growing problem on the side of the road, Matthew 25:35 started off as a group of volunteers with extra food from a gathering and turned their effort into a charity named for a bible verse about feeding the hungry. The nonprofit now works to provide supplies for homeless people and weekly meals prepared at members’ homes.
“We saw that it was a great need for the critical homeless to be able to start providing those meals on a weekly basis, but we’re looking to go beyond just weekly. If we can start doing this as a daily thing then we know we’re doing what we’re supposed to do,” said volunteer Marvin Bernard.
Volunteer Carlos Miller said m25-35.org had been working on its own with fundraising and manpower, but they see a greater need and support the call to join forces with MDHA.
“That makes a lot of sense and that’s good. We count it as a blessing because it seems like a door just opening. Where we weren’t able to reach for the door that we needed, it’s like it’s just opening for us,” Miller said. “It’s not a time for us to just think about ourselves, because if we live in this city and we understand that there’s a homeless condition in this city, then that condition is a condition that affects us.”
Diving Into Data
MDHA is also creating a new database where individual organizations can report information on the number of homeless they serve. This will help them stay organized while applying for crucial federal dollars to continue their work year after year.
“We all know we can’t manage what we don’t measure,” Brodsky said. “It’s to everybody’s benefit to participate because the better we get, the more federal funding we get. And that’s more money for us to continue our work.”
The data will help the collaborative understand where they need to focus their energy.
“I think homelessness is another one of those markers that, as we look at the homeless population here in Dallas, the data already reflects where we need to at least exert more energy at and where we really need to go and use our service providers to lean in to reach these individuals in the areas that we know our hardest hit," Broadnax said.
This year, MDHA counted 370 homeless veterans. More than 550 homeless had children, with 52% of those families being Black.
Overall, the data skews toward more of the homeless population being Black and male.
“We cannot walk away from today without recognizing and naming the fact that systemic racism is reflected in homelessness. Black men or disproportionately represented," said Brodsky. “We are digging deeper into this metric to examine racial disparity in these numbers. We know that it takes African-Americans longer to get into housing and we are working hard to understand where exactly in the system they are being treated differently."
The MDHA is also working on improving the return to homelessness rate. Currently, about 21% of clients that are placed in housing return to homelessness.
"The better we get at assessing clients' needs and matching them to the right type of housing, the more our rate of returns to homelessness will decrease. And reducing inflows helps reduce the rate of homelessness," said Brodsky. "We have already seen a decrease in the rate of returns from clients who are placed in permanent supportive housing. For instance, only 4% of the veterans we placed returned to homelessness in 2019."
The homelessness problem has only increased in Dallas as some other cities have made more progress. Former Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings appointed a commission to investigate solutions after he had served as a leader of MDHA before being elected as Mayor.
The City of Dallas still has some bond money available that voters approved for homeless housing. And COVID19 federal relief money helped Dallas buy several hotels as temporary patient housing, which will transition to homeless housing in the future.
Click below to read the latest 2021 PIT Count report and the 2016 report from the Rawlings commission that recommended many of the same solutions Brodsky is advocating today.