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 case 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, went back on the streets where he’s lived for more than 20 years, but found that survival has been harder than it’s ever been. Shelters are always full because they’ve had to reduce capacity to accommodate social distancing guidelines, he said, and the streets are getting crowded.
“Every day someone new arrives,” he said this week while sitting on a bench at Akard Plaza, just outside City Hall. “I’d say most lost their jobs or got sick, but they’ve never been out here before. It’s getting 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 areas have been slow to get the money to those in need, like Velu, in large part because the huge influx of dollars has overwhelmed 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 the federal aid, aiming for successes that other localities could replicate.
The goal of the new Dallas R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative is to place 2,762 people and families experiencing homelessness in permanent housing by September 2023. An estimated 4,570 people were without homes in the region as of March 2021, up 3 percent from 2020. Rapid rehousing is a federally funded national program designed to reduce the amount of time a person is homeless by providing housing before other social services.
“This is the most ambitious plan to curb homelessness that Dallas has seen,” said Sarah Kahn, chief program officer at Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which leads the initiative and is the region’s largest nonprofit organization providing homeless services.
“I mean, this is a historic level of new resources and new dollars coming into our community that’s used to running on a scarcity model and often fighting for scraps. We have a very, very large infusion of resources that we need to move quickly.”
The federal aid came mostly through two existing programs, the Emergency Solutions Grants and Emergency Housing Vouchers programs, but relatively little of the money has gone out 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 only 11.6 percent —or 8,110 of 69,810—of 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 next year to use their housing vouchers.
California, which has the country’s largest homeless population, illustrates the difficulties.
A report by the state auditor found that California’s 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 federal government announced the funding. That’s mostly because the department lacked the capacity to manage the grants and failed for a full year to hire a contractor to run the program, the report said.
That $315 million was 25 times the department’s typical yearly allocation, noted Geoffrey Ross, its deputy director of federal financial assistance. The department’s private partners struggled to expand housing capacity while meeting pandemic safety guidelines, he said.
The Dallas area likewise lagged in getting money out, but the new initiative has 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 some $8 million, HUD data shows. The city has used 26 vouchers, and as of last week spent roughly $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 issue where it’s amazing to have this money, and it’s needed but there’s also only so many contracts and programs anybody 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 all of it simply because it’s just so much money to spend in so little time.”
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 private donors including the Meadows Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber and Lyda Hill Philanthropies. (Lyda Hill Philanthropies also has donated money to The Pew Charitable Trusts, which funds Stateline.)
Private donations are being used for landlord incentives including extra rent, deposits or money for repairs, according to Crossley.
One of the main problems nationwide is that landlords don’t want to lease to people using housing vouchers, because they often lose money while they wait for the housing authorities to inspect their rental units and process the lease, according to Myriam Igoufe, vice president of policy and development research at Dallas Housing Authority.
On behalf of the initiative, Igoufe and her team were tasked with creating computer software to coordinate all the agencies’ efforts while streamlining the application and housing process. They spent more than a month last summer working 13-hour days to program content management software that could seamlessly coordinate 15 agencies and some 100 caseworkers.
“We knew we were designing something from scratch that other people were going to look at and say, ‘Look it could be done’ or ‘See, we shouldn’t be trying to do this, we should use our money for something else.’”
Before this new system, it took weeks or months to get emergency voucher recipients into a rental property. But now it takes only a few days.
“Without this investment in technology and automation, this would not be possible, not at this pace,” she said about the initiative.
‘A safe place to sleep’
On Monday, near the corner of Cadiz and South St. Paul streets, 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 out of neon-colored shoelaces.
He said he’s been living outside since he was hospitalized for three weeks with COVID-19 in September and lost his job. It’s the first time in his life that he’s been homeless.
“It’s been rough,” he said. “I’ve been trying to find work but it’s hard because I don’t sleep and I spend a lot of time just trying to find something to eat.”
He said people on the street have been 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 to leave my belongings, I know I could get back on my feet.”