On a cold and wet January night, Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance (MDHA) volunteers fanned out across Dallas to conduct the annual Point-In-Time count and census of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons. The census is required by the federal government and provides valuable information to help understand the extent and changing nature of homelessness in Dallas. MDHA ultimately uses the data to complete a needs assessment for the community and encourage the development of programs to fill service gaps for the population experiencing homelessness. The information complied during the census is also used by several other groups, including local nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups, media outlets and various departments in federal, state and local government agencies.
The Real Estate Council (TREC), which is an ongoing supporter of the Point-In-Time count, sent several teams into the community to help collect the valuable data. This year’s scope was larger and more encompassing than previous years. MDHA’s new executive director, Cindy Crain, felt past counts underrepresented Dallas’ homeless population. Volunteer constraints previously limited efforts to overnight shelters and targeted outdoor locations. The count this year utilized partnering agencies to collect data from overnight shelters and focused MDHA volunteer resources on surveying the unsheltered homeless population spread out all over the community.
MDHA’s volunteer base nearly doubled this year from 287 to 550 volunteers, allowing a more extensive effort to canvas the community for previously undetected homeless encampments. The city was split into 200 sections and volunteer teams of three to five persons searched these areas for the unsheltered homeless. After a brief training session at City Hall, volunteers headed to their assigned areas to find the homeless population in parks, under bridges, inside vehicles and other potential encampment areas.
We utilized a similar survey form this year, totaling 36 questions designed to capture demographic and personal identification information. We also asked detailed questions about health, mental health, military service, reasons for becoming homeless, surveyed their immediate basic needs and asked if they would like a follow up visit from a Street Outreach Worker.
While the questions were the same as in years past, this experience showed a different side of homelessness to me. The interviews I previously conducted were in overnight shelters and were with people experiencing homelessness for a week or a month at a time due to an unforeseen bill, temporary unemployment, or resurgence of an addiction that disrupted their life. My experience this year was with a homeless population that experiences homelessness on a chronic level and had been on the streets for upwards of a year.
The story that stood out to me the most this year, was a gentleman that had effectively given up on seeking assistance or searching for permanent housing. Within a short period of time, he lost his electricians license, fallen behind on rent payments and wound up on the street. As he began to reach out for assistance, he was required to provide a valid form of identification. As he worked through the renewal of his driver’s license, the payment of a twenty-year-old fine from another state surfaced and required settlement before renewal could take place. With his limited resources, he was unable to work through the system and eventually gave up, headed back to the street and stopped seeking future assistance. It made an impact on me that the relatively simple process of identification renewal could completely derail someone’s efforts to get assistance.
I carried a preconceived notion of what I would encounter with the chronic homeless population. This volunteer experience helped me put a face to chronic homeless and surprised me with how willing and eager the majority of the homeless population were to tell their story. I walked away from this experience with a better understanding of why this vulnerable portion of the population needs a guiding hand to help lead them back into society. As in previous years, I left knowing how blessed I am and hoping our efforts would help further our understanding of the nature of homelessness in Dallas.
MDHA will present the results of the survey in their annual State of Homeless Address on Tuesday, March 22. MDHA welcomes interested TREC members to join them for the address at Goodwill Industries of Dallas from 9:30-11:30 a.m.