This town has a new way to fight homelessness with COVID help

Read Stateline coverage of inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

DALLAS — In March 2020, when the pandemic first hit, Raharish Velu was living on the streets of downtown Dallas.

“They rounded us all up and took us to hotels,” Velu said of city officials and social workers. “We were all tested and I tested positive so I couldn’t leave my room. But once I got better, they let me out.

Velu, 70, returned to the streets where he had lived for more than 20 years, but found survival was harder than ever. Shelters are still full as they have had to reduce capacity to adapt to social distancing guidelines, he said, and the streets are increasingly crowded.

“Every day someone new comes along,” he said this week as he sat on a bench in Akard Plaza, just outside City Hall. “I would say most have lost their jobs or gotten sick, but they’ve never been here before. It’s pretty bad.

Since the start of the pandemic, states and localities across the country have received billions in federal aid to help reduce homelessness. But most regions have been slow to get the money to those who need it, like Velu, largely because the huge influx of dollars has outstripped agencies’ capacities. Still, some have seen progress: In the Dallas area, more than a dozen nonprofits and government agencies joined forces last summer to launch a new program using federal aid, aiming for successes that other localities could replicate.

The goal of the new Dallas REAL Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative is to place 2,762 homeless individuals and families into permanent housing by September 2023. An estimated 4,570 people were homeless in the area in March 2021, up by 3% from 2020. Rapid Rehousing is a national, federally funded program designed to reduce the length of time a person is homeless by providing housing before other social services.

“This is the most ambitious plan to address homelessness that Dallas has seen,” said Sarah Kahn, program manager at Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which leads the initiative and is the largest nonprofit organization. local non-profit providing services to the homeless.

“I mean, this is a historic level of new resources and new dollars coming into our community which is used to operating on a scarcity model and often fighting for crumbs. We have a very, very large amount of resources that we need to act quickly.

Federal assistance has come primarily from two existing programs, the Emergency Solutions Grant and Emergency Housing Voucher programs, but relatively little money has been spent so far.

As of Jan. 6, less than a third of the $4 billion in emergency solutions grants had been spent nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And just 11.6% — or 8,110 of 69,810 — emergency housing vouchers had been accepted by landlords nationwide as of Jan. 18, according to HUD. States have until September of this year to spend the emergency grants and until September of next year to use their housing vouchers.

Challenges elsewhere

California, which has the largest homeless population in the country, illustrates the difficulties.

A state auditor’s report found that the California Department of Housing and Community Development did not give its partners access to the first round of federal emergency solutions grants until December 2020, seven months after the announcement of federal funding. This is mainly because the ministry lacked the capacity to manage the grants and failed for a full year to hire a contractor to run the program, according to the report.

That $315 million was 25 times the department’s typical annual allocation, noted Geoffrey Ross, its deputy director of federal financial aid. The department’s private partners have struggled to increase housing capacity while adhering to pandemic safety guidelines, he said.

The Dallas area was also slow to withdraw money, but the new initiative helped.

The city of Dallas received $19 million in emergency solutions grants through the CARES Act and 490 emergency housing vouchers through the American Rescue Plan Act, worth about $8 million, according to HUD data. The city used 26 vouchers and last week spent about $10 million of its funds and allocated the remaining $9 million, according to Christine Crossley, director of the city’s Office of Homelessness Solutions.

“I think most cities and most organizations have this problem where it’s amazing to have this money, and it’s needed, but there’s also only a limited number of contracts and programs that anyone can hold in a year,” she said. “And you can hire more staff, but it’s also COVID and there’s a shortage of people, so it’s kind of, well, we can spend it, but we might not be able to spend it all. simply because it’s so much money to spend in such a short time.

History of the Stateline

“We don’t have much, but this is our home”

The initiative’s total budget is $72 million, including $50 million from federal relief funds, $12 million in emergency vouchers allocated to Dallas, Mesquite and Plano, and $10 million in funds from from private donors, including the Meadows Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, and Lyda Hill Philanthropies. (Lyda Hill Philanthropies has also donated money to The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline.)

Private donations are used for landlord incentives, including extra rent, deposits or money for repairs, according to Crossley.

One of the biggest problems nationwide is that landlords don’t want to rent to people using housing vouchers because they often lose money waiting for housing authorities to inspect their rental units and process the lease, according to Myriam Igoufe, vice-president. Policy and Development Research Fellow at the Dallas Housing Authority.

On behalf of the initiative, Igoufe and his team were tasked with creating computer software to coordinate all agency efforts while streamlining the application and housing process. Last summer, they spent more than a month working 13-hour days to program content management software that could seamlessly coordinate 15 agencies and around 100 social workers.

“We knew we were designing something from scratch that other people were going to look at and say, ‘Look, this could be done’ or ‘See, we shouldn’t try to do this, we should use our money to something else”. ‘”

Before this new system, it took weeks or months to get emergency voucher recipients into a rental property. But now it only takes a few days.

“Without this investment in technology and automation, this wouldn’t be possible, not at this rate,” she said of the initiative.

Joel Martinez Gregorio, 60, lost his home after contracting COVID-19 and being hospitalized for three weeks. He has been living on the streets since September.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

“A safe place to sleep”

Near the corner of Cadiz and South St. Paul streets on Monday, a large crowd of homeless people began setting up camp as the sun began to set. Joel Martinez Gregorio, 60, leaned against a building while weaving a belt with neon-colored laces.

He said he has been living away since being hospitalized for three weeks with COVID-19 in September and losing his job. It is the first time in his life that he is homeless.

“It was tough,” he said. “I tried to find work but it’s difficult because I can’t sleep and I spend a lot of time trying to find something to eat.”

He said people on the streets were talking about a new program that pays people’s rent for a year.

“That would be a godsend,” he said. “If I had a safe place to sleep and leave my stuff, I know I could get back on my feet.”

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