Verify: Closing Dallas' homeless camps

I never know where a great Verify Road Trip topic will come from. 

This time it came just after eating lunch.  I’m walking back to the car and a lady rolls down her car window and shouts, “Hey, Verify!”

That’s how I first met Felecia Burns, of Dallas.

In the parking lot, she starts telling me about a homeless encampment two blocks from her house, where dozens of people live under a bridge.

“There's drugs, it's an eyesore, there's trash,” she says as I pulled out my phone and started recording.

Felecia is asking this: Why can’t the City of Dallas close the homeless encampment in my neighborhood?

Let’s start with some background.  A year ago the City of Dallas shut down a Tent City of about 240 people.  Some of those residents found permanent housing.  But many scattered and some ended up two blocks from where Felecia Burns lives.

“I live in the South Boulevard, Park Row Historic District,” Felecia says.

She drives past the nearby homeless encampment everyday but she's never been inside. 

So, I'm taking Felecia to see it for herself.  She’s immediately upset to see the living conditions under the freeway.

“This is America.  This is Dallas.  Big D and people have to resort to living like this,” she says.

This guy Antonio Howard comes up to us.  He's saying he got out of prison six months ago and been living under this bridge for the last 40 days.

“Did you say you want to live her until you get yourself together?  If someone can provide housing for you, would you rather have an apartment or housing?” Felecia asks Antonio.

“Right now, I'm where I want to be.  I don’t like being homeless. But right now it's convenient for me. Temporary,” Antonio says.

After meeting Antonio, Felecia reflects.

“To hear him say he's okay with living in a tent.  I can't wrap my head around that.  I'm not going to accept that's the truth.  I really don't think that's the truth,” she says.

I want to show Felecia homeless camps are spread all over and not just in her neighborhood.  So next we got into a van with Dave Hogan, the City's Crisis Intervention Manager.

“If indeed we did close that encampment the people would tend to scatter out into the neighborhoods.  Instead of one large encampment you'd have many smaller encampments,” Hogan tells us.

So, closing a camp may cause more problems.  Plus, the city burned through all its housing and shelter resources when it moved people out of Tent City.

“If I had 150 homeless people that were willing to go to some kind of permanent shelter or full time living situation could you handle them?” I asked Dave.

“Right now we don't,” Hogan said.

“Can't take 150 people,” I said.

“No, we wouldn't be able to take them right now,” he added.

Cities try to help the homeless problem by handing out Section 8 vouchers.  That's where the government pays the rent. 

On our tour we meet Gary Moore, who’s visiting his daughter who lives under a bridge.  He's telling us about this problem that many landlords won't take the vouchers.

“What are some of the reasons they've been given?” Felecia askes.

“Past criminal convictions.  Past rental history. Stuff like that. No one is addressing those issues,” Moore said.

Again, Felecia reflects: “It's sad and then at the same time we have City officials that promised to do certain things and it doesn't seem like it matters to them,” she said.

Now, I’m taking Felecia to go see Larry James.  He runs a non-profit called City Square that provides housing to working-poor families and homeless. 

We're talking 600 furnished apartments that people can permanently call home and access social services, if they need them.  The problem is, there just aren't enough of them.

“Landlords in are not under any obligation or any legal requirement to accept the payment of homeless person to lease an apartment. That's what we call payer source discrimination.  It's a huge problem,” Larry says.

And it’s not just about housing for people under the bridges.  The City estimates it has more than 10,000 homeless residents.  In the meantime, about 8-million dollars’ worth of vouchers go unused every year because no landlord will take them.

“If I were to go to my city council person what would be the single most important question I could ask her?” Felecia asks Larry.

"Tell them we have to have an ordinance that makes payer source discrimination, discrimination,” Larry says.

And right there, in Larry's office, I'm seeing Felecia's opinion take a turn.

“It’s not about closing the encampment anymore,” she says.  “It's about finding a permanent solution.  That's where I'm coming from now.  I have a broader viewer.  Like the kids say, I'm on ready-set-go,” Felecia says.

Now Felecia wants to be part of the solution.  So I take her to see her council member, Tiffinni Young, to find out what the city is doing about getting landlords to take those vouchers. 

“We have an issue in the City of Dallas called Nimby-ism.  Not in my backyard, where people don't want to accept the vouchers.  It may not be because of drug use or mental health.  It's simply that they have a Section 8 voucher,” Young said.

“Do you support an ordinance that would require landlords to take those vouchers?” I asked Young.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

As our journey ends, I think Felecia and I learned a lot on our fact-finding mission.

“I’m not going to lie.  I still want the encampment out. But I don't want it done the wrong way,” she said.

There are big problems in these camps like drug abuse and mental illness.  But now she sees the lack of housing options for homeless people is at the heart of a problem. 

But don't take my word for it, take hers.

© 2017 WFAA-TV


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