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One year later: COVID-19's impact on Dallas' largest homeless shelter

In transitioning from an overnight shelter to a round-the-clock operation, Austin Street Center firmed up its mission to help clients stabilize their lives.
Credit: Byron Harris
What used to be a sea of beds is now cubicles. Men and women are in separate sections of the facility

DALLAS — On a typical afternoon outside the Austin Street Center a couple of years ago, folks would line the sidewalks of Hickory Street. Garbage bags slung over their shoulders, hand-me-down wheeled luggage behind them, they’d begin gathering around two in the afternoon waiting for a place to sleep that night.

Although most of the same people sought shelter there every night, it was a "lurch from one day to the next" existence. They’d check in every afternoon, get assigned one of nearly four hundred beds, unpack their necessities, search for sleep, and then be forced to leave the next morning. 

Austin Street was an overnight emergency shelter.

Now it is a twenty-four hour a day emergency shelter. Clients get three meals a day instead of one. They have a transportation link, “The Connector” to take them to daily appointments. They have onsite health care. 

A lot of these services were planned or in place when COVID-19 happened, but the crisis has locked them into the system.

It has not been easy.

“It’s like getting smacked upside the head by a two-by-four, drinking a Monster energy drink to recover, and then having to do it all over again,” says Austin Street’s CEO Dan Roby.  

Credit: Byron Harris
Dan Roby in his office at Austin Street Center

Roby, 42, is a husky guy with a quick smile. He was named non-profit CEO of the year before the pandemic. That said, COVID was still a jolt to him and ASC, which houses more homeless people under one roof than any other place in Dallas.

“It’s been a lot of change. How do you safely support your staff? Make sure you’re providing the appropriate safety measures for your clients while not neglecting our mission? While at the same time making sure the money didn’t dry up," said Roby. "We’ve changed our whole model, essentially.”

First, the shelter had to build barriers to the virus. Social distancing, masking, sanitizing--all had to be applied to a client base whose age and lifestyle made it among the most vulnerable to the disease.  

Testing had to be initiated but is far too expensive to execute on a weekly basis. Clients are monitored and those with elevated temperatures are quarantined on site and referred to a third party if their symptoms worsen. 

The single-floor, warehouse-like structure, which used to be a sea of beds, has been broken up into cubicles. But more space per person meant a reduction in beds. Austin street now has 250 beds, down from 391.

“Now, you have a bed until you leave,” says Roby, noting that the goal is not to provide a permanent residence but to put clients on a path to acquire a home of their own.

There’s an onsite medical respite program, a partnership with Texas Health Resources, that provides a full-time nurse and regular visits by a physician. It was in the works before the pandemic but is now integrated into ASC. 

Historically, one of the health indices of a homeless person is how often he or she visits an emergency room, a costly and inefficient way to deliver health care. With a nurse in the building that problem is alleviated.

Credit: Byron Harris
A patient waiting to see the nurse.

In transitioning from an overnight shelter to a round-the-clock operation, ASC took the opportunity to firm up its mission: to not be a “homeless” shelter but to concentrate more on helping clients get a job, stabilize their lives and find a place to live. 

The number of case managers who help clients achieve that goal has doubled since 2018, from four case managers to eight. This year the center hopes to place 407 people in housing, up fivefold in the last six years.  

“The fact that we had fifteen folks getting housing in December really blew my mind,” Roby says. “We had people on Christmas Day, new staff that were helping people move their belongings into their new apartment, giving them their key…..the team here is incredibly dedicated, and does amazing work. And I’m in awe of them every single day that I’m here.”