This Texas homeless response system is housing more people per month than ever before

La Maison is seen Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, in Dallas. The affordable housing development was created for people who were homeless and who are living with AIDS or HIV. (Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
La Maison is seen Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023, in Dallas. The affordable housing development was created for people who were homeless and who are living with AIDS or HIV. (Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

DALLAS -- Once without a home, Diamond Wallace, 30, is glad to have a daily bath, personal privacy and a safe place to rest his head each night. When his grandmother died about four years ago, he lost his housing and then his hope.

"I was kind of destroyed and broken in pieces," Wallace said.

Three weeks ago, Wallace finally moved into his one-bedroom apartment in Old East Dallas with the help of the Stewpot's housing team.

"You don't have to keep looking over your shoulder, wondering if somebody's going to try to steal your things," said Wallace, one of the thousands of people rehoused this year by the homeless response system serving Dallas and Collin counties.

In 2019, the system housed about 80 people a month. Today, about 207 unhoused residents a month find a home, says Housing Forward, the lead agency for the system.

Joli Robinson, president and CEO of Housing Forward, says a robust and collaborative system -- infused with more money, technology and staff -- is able to efficiently house more people than ever before and keep them housed with a more than 85% retention rate.

"Addressing homelessness is not just tied to a moment or initiative," Robinson said. "It is the daily work by thousands of people across Dallas and Collin counties, the amazing partners and cities and small agencies run by volunteers."

BEFORE TRANSFORMATION

Before the homeless response system went through a transformation during the COVID pandemic, unhoused people often had to be proactive and know where to go to get help, Robinson said.

This meant more time and effort on the street for people in crisis who had to overcome transportation barriers to see case managers and make appointments to find housing.

Housing Forward and its 130 partner organizations that make up Dallas and Collin counties' continuum of care saw a big boost in both local and federal, as well as public and private funding, starting in 2021.

The city of Dallas and Dallas County backed a $72-million rapid rehousing initiative in August 2021, which ultimately housed more than its goal of 2,700 people by the end of the year.

Housing Forward has expanded the goal to include a total of 6,000 people housed by 2025.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development granted the Dallas-area system a $22.8 million grant in February to house the unsheltered population and a $9.3 million grant in September to address youth homelessness.

HUD also increased Housing Forward's annual funding by 20% to $22 million in April to help the local rapid rehousing efforts and permanent supportive housing initiatives.

With the increase in funding and staff over the years, Housing Forward and the City of Dallas have partnered to increase the street outreach and encampment decommissioning efforts, which includes workers talking to unhoused neighbors about permanent housing solutions.

"We're literally going out to people living in encampments," Robinson said. "We're bringing the system directly to you."

People experiencing homelessness who are veterans or youth or disabled have different programs that fit their needs -- and there's dozens of nonprofits across the Dallas area that provide specialized case management and rental subsidies for those individuals," Robinson said.

"The reason why we're seeing those numbers is because our system is doing a greater job at assessing an individual's needs and then plugging them into the appropriate intervention that meets their needs," she said.

LANDLORD ENGAGEMENT

The nonprofit's biggest muscle at the moment is its centralized landlord engagement team, which has been working to build up the system's capacity, bringing online sometimes dozens of units from landlords.

In 2019 and earlier, all the service providers -- like the Bridge Homeless Recovery Center and Family Gateway -- would have their own case managers engage with landlords, forming a few relationships that often resulted in only a handful of units at a time.

Once the landlord engagement team came online in 2021, Housing Forward saw the number of units available each month increase exponentially, Robinson said.

"Those direct service providers still have their relationships, but we're bringing units into the system at scale," she said. "Our team is bringing in 60 to 80 units through a contract with a landlord that they've been engaging regularly."

The infusion of $10 million in private funds through the 2021 rapid rehousing initiative helped pay landlord incentives and other risk mitigation fees, with the financial and staffing capacity the homeless response system lacked years ago.

The landlord team also focused on retention and relationship building with housing providers, which includes education on the robust case management that comes with their new tenants.

"Our landlords now are coming back to our landlord team and saying, 'I have four more units coming online in the next month,'" Robinson said. "So not only are we supporting case managers, we're supporting landlords and helping ensure that we are continuing to create a pipeline of units being added into the system."

The Housing Forward team also uses more technology that cuts down on application and searching times for unhoused clients, said Sara Craig, the nonprofit's vice president of development and communications.

"Instead of having to spend half a day visiting five apartments and filling out applications, we can do it sitting with the case manager," Craig said.

With the security and stability of a home, Wallace is now interviewing for jobs and hoping to save up money for a car. He wants to be a cook one day, putting to use his past experience with a family catering business.

"With having my own place, it's a better outcome [at interviews] because I'm clean. I look nice," Wallace said. "When I go to interviews they're talking with me, understanding my life situation, instead of looking down on me for my appearance."

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