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The Surprising Face of the Homeless in North Texas

Despite a thriving local economy, the number of homeless families and children in North Texas continues to rise. And they’re not all panhandling—they’re at work, at school and on the playground, going unnoticed and, sometimes, unhelped.

Tracy Cross, whose name has been changed at her request, and her husband worked hard to make ends meet and cover their monthly expenses. Although both were employed, the cost of food, clothing and school supplies for their three children, ages 15, 13 and 7, maxed out their income. “There were days where I had to choose, were we going to pay rent and not eat? Or, were we going to pay for gas, so my husband could go to work?” Cross recalls.

When the couple came up short on rent, they were evicted from their Dallas apartment. They ended up living with a nearby relative. “My kids were sleeping on the floor, and we were sleeping on a mattress,” Cross recalls.

Unfortunately, the Cross family story is increasingly common in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

A Silent Epidemic

More than 63,000 people in Denton County live below the poverty level, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That number includes 10 percent of the county’s children. Rates elsewhere in North Texas are even higher: About a fourth of Fort Worth and Irving children live below the poverty level, and nearly 38 percent of Dallas children. Families in poverty are much more likely to become homeless—in fact, families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.

Although the tally of those without permanent housing in Denton, Tarrant, Dallas and Collin counties fell slightly from 2016 to 2017, according to data released from the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) homeless census, thousands more are likely unaccounted for, experts say. They’re not sleeping under bridges or panhandling. Instead, they’re in school and at work during the day and couch surfing or staying in budget hotels at night.

“What is interesting about [homeless] families with children is that you almost never see them out in the public eye,” notes Ellen Magnis, CEO of Family Gateway, a Dallas shelter that serves families with children. “And for good reason—they’re afraid. So, they’re super hard to count,” she says.

The U.S. Department of Education’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act defines homeless children and youth as individuals who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes
being doubled-up (i.e., staying in the home of a friend or relative), living in a transitional or emergency shelter, living in an unsheltered situation (e.g., sleeping in a car, abandoned building or outdoor encampment) or staying at a hotel, motel or trailer park.

Earlier this year, Dallas ISD reported that the number of homeless children had reached “catastrophic levels.” More than 3,700 homeless children attend school in Dallas ISD alone, and another 1,283 are enrolled in the Fort Worth school district. Plano ISD reported 457 homeless students for the 2014–15 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, with Lewisville ISD and Frisco ISD counting 684 and 207 homeless students, respectively.

“We track the number of homeless students that we serve, and we’ve seen that number double since 2014,” says Tasha Moore, a licensed master social worker and chief strategy officer for secondary campuses with Communities in Schools North Texas (CISNT) in Lewisville.

Not only are these kids at high risk for health issues, developmental delays and problem behaviors, but Texas Education Agency (TEA) data indicates that homeless children are five times more likely to drop out of school. And over their lifetime, they will cost taxpayers $530 million, due to costs associated with medical care, shelter and associated services, as well as law enforcement expenses and lost tax revenue, according to a report out of the University of Texas at Austin.

Causes of Homelessness

With the economy in North Texas booming, how is it that so many parents and children find themselves without a stable roof over their heads? Unemployment is less than 4 percent in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Dallas Regional Chamber predicts wage and salary employment to grow by 2.3 percent for the Dallas-Plano-Irving area and nearly 2.1 percent for the Fort Worth-Arlington area over the next five years.

But wages are not rising at the same rate as housing costs, experts say, and the lack of affordable housing throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area leaves those who previously were just getting by without options.

In fact, by far the most common driver of families ending up on the street is the disparity between wages and housing prices. The rental vacancy rate in Dallas was only 8 percent in 2014, according to a report from the New York University Furman Center, meaning landlords have little incentive to keep rents low or to rent to individuals without a strong credit history.

Families who experience homelessness typically have been on the edge of poverty, and a single turn of events can leave them unable to make rent or pay the mortgage, Magnis explains. “Somebody got the flu, and the parent who’s an hourly worker doesn’t have sick leave, or they had to stay home and take care of their kids,” she says. A week without pay for a family with no savings or safety net can mean having to choose between buying groceries and staying in their home.

Other likely circumstances include an unexpected layoff or job loss, divorce, even an expensive car repair.

“It’s estimated that if you’re working in a minimum wage job here in Collin County, you need to be working 20 hours a day to sustain a basic living,” says Rick Crocker, CEO of Samaritan Inn in McKinney, the county’s only residential homeless program. The shelter served 623 residents last year, 150 of whom were children. However, due to a lack of space, Samaritan Inn also turned away 2,400 individuals who qualified for the program. The need, notes Crocker, is overwhelming, and the number of families without a permanent place to stay is on the rise.

Protecting our Youth

The effects of homelessness can be devastating for children, especially younger ones who trust and rely on their parents to provide a sense of safety and security.

“We see the same issues with children who are homeless as we see in children who are abused,” Magnis says. “They’re traumatized by the experience and they need time to recover.” Similar to victims of natural disaster, they often find themselves left with only the few belongings they can carry with them as they move from one living situation to the next.

The toxic stress of homelessness, combined with poor hygiene and malnutrition, puts children at increased risk of illness. Theimpact is especially dire for children younger than 6, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The group says homelessness during early childhood increases the odds that a child will develop stress-related chronic diseases later in life. Similarly, the experience of being without a stable home can also cause delays in a child’s social and emotional development. Not surprisingly, these factors often affect a child’s performance at school.

“It’s harder for those students to find a rhythm and to find consistency and reliability,” Moore says. Frequent moves to unfamiliar places can cause them to be extremely anxious or mistrustful, and those behaviors play out in the classroom. “They get in trouble a lot, or they might jump or shake at a noise,” she says. Due to limited access to computers, a lack of parental guidance and unstable living conditions, children experiencing homelessness routinely fail to turn in their homework or they frequently fall asleep in class.

“Then there are just general things around social interactions, as far as being able to shower [and] having clean clothes, that affect students’ relationships with their peers,” Moore notes. When a child wears the same outfit every day, for example, they may be teased by other students, and their self-confidence starts to break down. “They won’t want to come to school, and their attendance will decrease, along with their academics,” she says.

Stopping the Cycle

As the numbers of homeless children and families has continued to rise in recent years, local elected officials have stepped up their efforts to address the problem. In Dallas, Mayor Mike Rawlings and other community leaders formed the Dallas Commission on Homelessness in May 2016, following the closure of “Tent City,” a sprawling encampment under Interstate 45 near downtown where disease and crime ran rampant. The commission engaged the local community to help develop viable solutions that would both address and prevent homelessness. Mirroring effective practices of other communities to reduce the homeless population, the efforts include financing strategies, strong leadership and accountability, and most important, a push to increase affordable and supportive housing.

Central to the initiative is the use of technology to convert to a community-wide Homeless Management Information System and coordinated entry system to match clients with housing and related services. Likewise, federal funds and federal housing subsidies will be combined with local investments to add a minimum of 1,000 new permanent supportive housing units within the next four years.

Similarly, the city of Denton created a task force to explore improving and expanding housing solutions for the homeless there. Working in conjunction with the Denton County Homeless Coalition, the task force outlined a three-step strategy to address the issue,
including creation of a new homeless shelter, allocation of federal funds to develop transitional housing and creation of a new coordinator position to implement the plan in conjunction with participating nonprofit organizations.

“What we’ve been trying to figure out is, How do we make sure that people are getting the resources they need when they need them and that what we do helps them get out of the cycle?” says appointees to the Denton County Homelessness Leadership Team. Other participants include other elected officials and board members and staff from local nonprofit groups and health care facilities.

“The challenge with homelessness, especially when you deal with it at the scale of a city, is you kind of play Whack-a-Mole,” he adds, noting that closing encampments like Tent City often results in homeless individuals simply moving to nearby towns.

The county recently implemented a new coordinated entry system, which enables local social services agencies that deal with homelessness to share information through a single database. The approach lets the agencies refer those in need to the right resources without duplicating efforts and tracks people through the system more efficiently to ensure their long-term success.

And Tarrant County has adopted strategies to ensure that no resident goes without shelter. Most recently, the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition (TCHC) made the decision to merge its board of directors with that of
Continuum of Care, reorganizing the two entities into one high-functioning board that can more effectively drive change. TCHC has begun implementation of a coordinated entry system that can rapidly identify and assess individuals and families in need and deliver appropriate housing solutions in Tarrant and Parker counties.

Providing a Hand Up

Meanwhile, local nonprofits and social service organizations continue to do what they can to provide help for families on the brink of homelessness and those without a stable roof over their heads. Interfaith Family Services, for example, not only offers free child care and career services but also financial coaching for participants in its Hope & Home program, which provides 25 fully furnished apartments as temporary housing for homeless families. Residents meet with on-site volunteers to learn about money management and career development and receive the accountability and support they need to begin a new chapter in life.

“For every paycheck they receive, [program participants] put 30 percent toward their savings,” says Destiny DeJesus of Interfaith Family Services. The funds can help residents get into an apartment after leaving the program. “Once they graduate, our screening coordinator reaches out to see whether they are still saving, what type of job they have, and how much they’re making so we can make sure they’re still on the right track,” she says.

At City House in Plano, homeless children are provided new clothing, personal toiletries, transportation to and from school, and mostimportant, the stability of a nurturing environment. In addition to teaching children basic etiquette and personal grooming, the staff strives to instill in them a sense of value and self-respect. “We focus on dignity, and teaching that they’re worth having a brand-new set of socks and underwear and T-shirts,” Executive Director Sheri Messer says.

Through the combined efforts of state and local elected officials, social service organizations, nonprofit charities and hundreds of selfless donors and volunteers who are willing to give their time and means, homeless families—and especially homeless children—in the Dallas-Fort Worth area now have more opportunities to access the resources they need and break the cycle of poverty. Achieving a lasting solution will still take time, as cities address additional obstacles that keep families stuck in the cycle of poverty, such as the lack of public transportation and limited options for affordable housing. Even so, community involvement and public-private initiatives are gaining momentum and making a difference.

Cross says that families who find themselves in a situation similar to hers, without permanent housing, need to keep the faith and be willing to ask for help. The Cross family is currently in one of the 30 rooms at the Annette Strauss Family Gateway Center and will receive vouchers for permanent supportive housing once they leave the program. “They really did get us from being homeless to having a place to live,” Cross says.