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Can Cottages Cure Homelessness? Dallas Project to Offer Answers

What does it take to end chronic homelessness? Some researchers say the answer is simple: Give the homeless a home.

But what does that cost? And where does the money come from? And will it make a difference not only in the lives of the homeless but in the pockets of taxpayers?

A pilot project in Dallas might hold the answers to some of those questions. Fifty men and women are set to move into basic, 400-square-foot cottages on the edge of downtown Dallas beginning in February. The Cottages at Hickory Crossing, a new model of permanent housing in North Texas, cost $6.8 million to build, including $1.1 million for the purchase of land.

Every year thereafter, it will cost roughly $1.1 million for expenses — from staffing to medical care to property upkeep.

Much of the money to support the cottages and their residents will come through the federal government. Some will come through donations and other private assistance.

Advocates say it is an investment worth making.

“You have to agree as a community that this is something that people value,” said Sam Tsemberis, a psychologist who studies homelessness and founder of New York-based Pathways to Housing. “Do you want your community to have no one on the street, especially people who are most vulnerable, people who are sick?”

“You are already paying a lot more than this if you just leave the person homeless. And then their quality of life is terrible and your quality of life is terrible. Nobody is winning.”

More than 3,100 people are homeless in Dallas and Collin counties, according to one count this year by Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. Of those, 615 were chronically homeless — meaning they’ve been homeless more than a year and have a disability, such as mental illness, drug addiction or a physical issue.

The number of chronically homeless people rose by 26 percent from 2014 to 2015, according to the alliance.

Over the past decade, the alliance has worked on a plan to end chronic homelessness in Dallas and Collin counties by this year. They fell short of their goal and now hope to reach it by December 2017, said Cindy Crain, the alliance’s president and chief executive.

Crain sees the cottages as a part of the solution but says there’s a lot of work to do. She estimates it will take 1,200 housing units to end chronic homelessness in Dallas. The problem? One-bedroom apartments and low-rent units are hard to find, especially in Dallas’ hot real estate market.

There’s also a need for landlords willing to rent to people with limited income and rocky pasts. Chronically homeless tenants need regular support from social service agencies to keep them from returning to the street. And they need neighbors who don’t fight their arrival.

The Cottages at Hickory Crossing will become home to 50 people who come from some of the toughest backgrounds. Each resident has a severe and persistent mental illness such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. And each has a history of involvement in the criminal justice system. They are the “frequent fliers” of the jail and hospital.

The cottages were built as a demonstration project, but they could be hard to replicate. More than $7.6 million was raised through private and public gifts, including $1.5 million from the city and $1 million from Dallas County. Donors have purchased pillows, lamps, plates and other household goods. Volunteers will teach hobbies and lead classes, such as yoga and model airplane making.

The cottages will have on-site medical care and round-the-clock security. They will provide intensive support for 50 people who are in danger of dying on the street.

Property upkeep and security will be covered through vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The cottages are expected to operate with a slim profit, money that will carry over for costs in future years, said John Greenan, executive director of Central Dallas Community Development Corp., which will act as landlord for the cottages.

Support services will be pricey. Medical care, substance abuse counseling and other assistance that stabilizes residents will cost an estimated $688,000 each year. Those costs will be covered by private donations and grants and some state funding.

If residents have any income, such as Social Security or a disability payment, 30 percent of monthly earnings will go toward the cottages. But that money won’t be enough to cover a significant part of the cottages’ operations.

Michael Przekwas, a land use consultant who lives in the Cedars near downtown, said he finds the $6.8 million cost of 50 homes hard to justify when there is so much need for the larger homeless population.

Larry James, chief executive of CitySquare, the nonprofit that will manage the cottages, acknowledged the high upfront cost, but he believes the cottages will save money over time.

Each of the residents currently costs county taxpayers more than $40,000 every year for a variety of services, from 911 calls to ambulance rides to stays in the jail, he said. With a permanent home and support system, services for each person should fall to less than $15,000 a year, James said.

“The question is would you rather me put them out on the streets of Dallas or work with them toward recovery?” he said.

James hopes the cottages show that permanent housing makes financial sense, and inspire the city and county to fund more of it.

A psychiatrist and professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center will study the cottage residents’ outcomes for the next three years. Dr. Madhukar Trivedi will track their health, visits to the jail and emergency rooms, police interactions and community engagement.

Neighbors say they’ll watch the cottages closely, too.

Przekwas and Tanya Ragan, a commercial real estate developer downtown, have been frustrated by the concentration of homeless people in the central city. They say loitering and panhandling have hurt residents’ quality of life and slowed real estate development. They’re not sure whether the cottages will help solve the problem, or compound it.

Ragan questioned the cottage’s location, just a short walk from a large homeless encampment known as “Tent City.”

Ragan and Przekwas said they’d like to see more permanent housing for the homeless in Dallas, but they’d like for it to be spread throughout the city.

They have the same goal as Dallas nonprofits and homeless advocates. The question is how to achieve it.

Twitter: @melissa_repko


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