CitySquare ceremonially unlocked the doors on Sept. 8 to the Cottages at Hickory Crossing, a housing project more than 10 years in the making that will get 50 of the most chronically homeless people in Dallas off the streets.
The Cottages, a complex of 50 fully outfitted, 400-square-foot houses, will not only provide permanent homes to their new residents, but also, CitySquare hopes, provide a roadmap to developing a Housing First approach to homelessness across Texas.
The model that “the solution to homelessness is homes,” a line echoed by both Mayor Mike Rawlings and County Judge Clay Jenkins at the unlocking ceremony, sounds simple – but getting people into homes is anything but.
Rawlings, who created the Dallas Commission on Homelessness after Dallas shut down Tent City in May, is pushing for the city to find a long-term solution to Dallas’ homelessness crisis, which he has called a humanitarian issue.
“The growth of Dallas has created a growth in homelessness,” he said. “If we’re economically growing, shouldn’t everyone be okay?”
But because the poverty gap is growing too, this isn’t the case.
Larry James, CEO of CitySquare, which operates 500 homes across Dallas, called building projects like the Cottages “a slow solution.”
“It takes time to design, it takes time to fundraise, you get opposition in neighborhoods,” he said. “We’re looking for landlords and homeowners who will allow us to rent.”
Out of the hundreds living homeless in Dallas with a serious mental illness (at least 600, according to a census in January 2016), the new residents at Hickory Crossing were chosen based on a list of 300 using data from Dallas County, Parkland Hospital, and the county jail identifying the residents of Dallas who use the most public services.
The 50 selected from this list after an interview process are, therefore, not only the most needy but also the most expensive people in Dallas. Jenkins estimated they have cost taxpayers on average $40,000 a year per person just by spending time in jail, or in the hospital, or needing emergency services – which means it is far more expensive to leave people on the streets than to give them homes.
“It’s very utilitarian,” James said. “We’re going to save the county $25,000 per person annually by housing them in the project.”
The Cottages were designed and financed through a public-private partnership between Dallas County Criminal Justice Department, UT Southwestern, Metrocare Services, Central Dallas Community Development Corporation (CDC), and several community donors and churches including Highland Park United Methodist Church (HPUMC) and Preston Hollow Presbyterian Church Foundation (PHPCF).
HPUMC donated $100,000 through their outreach budget, paying for two of the houses to be built; later, they fundraised within their congregation to outfit 33 of the 50 cottages. PHPCF also financed the building of one house.
James, who has been with CitySquare since 1994, says the state could make more impact in alleviating poverty and homelessness by increasing the budget for housing and for mental health. In an interview on Channel 8 on May 1 after the closing of Tent City, he also advocated regulating payday lending, expanding Medicaid, and working on prison reform and the release of prisoners.
Every resident of the cottages has a mental health diagnosis and many have served jail time.
“These are some of the most vulnerable and weakest people in the county,” James said.
John Greenan, executive director of Central Dallas CDC, said having a permanent home gives people control over their futures. “They lose that on the street and they need to regain it in order to regain their lives.”
Metrocare Services will be available on campus every day to provide mental health assessments and counseling. The Cottages are conveniently located across the street from CitySquare’s Opportunity Center, which offers job training, and a bus stop that connects to downtown in 10 minutes.
While plenty of support is available, the most important thing the Cottages give residents is autonomy.
“They are free to build their lives,” Greenan said. “However they want.”