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Dallas’ ban on churches sheltering homeless won’t be lifted in time for winter

Ahead of anticipated freezing temperatures Monday and Tuesday nights, Dallas officials scrambled before they decided to open the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center to shelter those living on the streets.

But the city continues to struggle with long-term fixes. And a zoning restriction that prevents faith-based organizations from offering emergency shelters to the homeless in inclement weather won’t make it to the Dallas City Council for a vote until spring — nearly a year after a draft ordinance was first proposed.

Monica Hardman, director of the Office of Homeless Solutions, said the code is currently very restrictive, and lifting the ban requires creating new policies “out of scratch."

Dallas hasn’t added a shelter bed in over a decade. The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance reported more than 4,500 homeless people during its count early this year -- a 19% increase compared to four years ago.

“There’s really not an easy way to create any type of shelter, period,” Hardman said. “For me I have that burden of, let’s move as fast as we can. Let’s get it done. There’s some things, unfortunately, that we can’t speed up.”

That process includes a new chapter in the city code, zoning changes that go through the City Plan Commission and council approval.

In the meantime, those code restrictions haven’t stopped churches from opening their doors to the homeless. Currently the city requires that overnight shelters remain at least 1,000 feet away from a church, residential district, elementary or secondary school, historic district, public park or another shelter. Organizations or churches would also need a special use permit.

Short-term solutions

Dallas officials throughout the weekend prepared to offer an overflow shelter at the downtown convention center, which plans to hold about 240 people. Rocky Vaz, director of the Office of Emergency Management, said the city has about 600 cots and hopes to secure another 500 from county and state agencies.

This process wasn’t new to the Office of Emergency Management, Vaz said, which offered more than 3,600 people shelter after Hurricane Harvey. But it’s the first time the city has ever opened up the convention center to homeless people, not just those displaced, during severe weather.

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The shelter requires further coordination with city staffers, who will help check people in with an intake system and background checks. They’ll be offered some food and coffee in the morning. Violent offenders won’t be allowed in, officials said. Vaz said the single men will be kept on a separate floor from families.

OurCalling, a religious organization that provides a daytime outreach center on Cesar Chavez Boulevard, also sent out a message to its network of over 10,000 homeless people in the area, according to a press release Monday. The last point-in-time count totaled 4,538 homeless -- up 9% from the year before -- including 1,452 unsheltered people in Dallas and Collin counties.

City officials are still planning their next steps after this week. The Citizen Homeless Commission’s subcommittee on short-term solutions began to discuss Dallas’ options, which could include offering an emergency shelter at one site in a downtown location.

Offering one central site, like the convention center, had been a concern for Chad Crews, the former chairman of the commission. He said that ignored a large part of the homeless population that are spread throughout a sprawling city.

But Walker said it’s better than nothing. He said he supports efforts the city would take to offer those on the streets any kind of shelter -- one that’s more appropriate than his outreach center.

“We don’t want to be a shelter. We’re not a shelter. But we’re going to keep our doors open 24 hours if people are dying on the streets," Walker said. “I support the idea of homeless people having a warm place to go when it’s freezing. I don’t care what [the city does], really don’t.”

More flexibility

When a cold front hit the city Halloween night, places like the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church and OurCalling operated regardless of the city code’s limits. Other churches throughout the city quietly open their doors, avoiding attention or code violations.

Oak Lawn United Methodist Church opened its emergency cold weather shelter last week on Wednesday and Thursday nights for the first time this cold season. The church converts into an overnight shelter on nights when temperatures dip below freezing.

Dallas’ homeless filled the 80-bed makeshift shelter to capacity. They dined in the church’s fellowship hall, eating goulash one night and pulled pork with rice and beans the next. Church volunteers laid out board games and screened the movie Coco for the homeless.

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Rachel Baughman, reverend at the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, has also been actively pushing for the city ordinance to change to allow churches like hers more flexibility when it comes to supplementing aid to Dallas’ homeless.

But the process just hasn’t moved along fast enough, she said, adding that to her as a faith leader, offering shelter to the homeless is a “moral imperative.”

Wayne Walker, OurCalling’s executive director, still keeps the code violation -- which the city served him in February 2018 -- tacked to the wall in his office, as a reminder of his “moral obligation” to keep doors open. OurCalling never got another code violation.

Walker said the city’s plan to open up the convention center was a good first step. But city officials asked OurCalling to continue to open that night, with the convention center as an “overflow” option if other shelters run out of room. Vaz said the city won’t turn anyone away, even if they exceed the 240 number they plan to have.

Emergency shelters for severe weather aren’t the only restrictions faith leaders want to see changed.

The Oak Lawn church this past summer welcomed a bus load of about 55 asylum-seeking migrants who traveled to Dallas from an El Paso migrants shelter. In preparing to receive the group, church members and volunteers converted the basement area to include spaces where migrants could get a medical check-up, rest, eat and get a change of clothes.

Though the space had cots and migrants easily could have stayed overnight at the church, Baughman said the city ordinance prevented the church from hosting them overnight. The migrants had dinner and then spent the night at a bloc of hotel rooms that were donated by a hotel association.

Baughman added that the need to provide shelter isn’t going to disappear. All she wants is a bit more flexibility to act when needed.

“We can be a resource provider. It’ll makes a big difference if the city starts seeing faith efforts as part of the solution here and not just our shelter community,” Baughman said. “It’s time for churches and faith communities to be included in that conversation.”

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The zoning change to allow faith-based organizations to offer emergency shelters is scheduled to be briefed at the City Plan Commission late November, then considered on the agenda in December.

The ordinance will then have to be considered at the council’s Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee before it makes it to the full council.

Dallas City Council member Chad West, who heads the committee, said he believes the timing of the ordinance “could’ve been handled better.”

“I am fully confident that we can work through any differences to finally get this thing passed and passed quickly,” West said Friday. “I wish we’d had more time, but frankly, we’re dealing with the cards that have been dealt.”

Hardman said she tried to explore other routes for the ordinance to make it through the council by winter, like an emergency declaration. At the local level, an emergency declaration by the mayor would’ve been temporary. Hardman said staffers had drafted an ordinance a month after the council briefing in May.

“I think everybody’s been working as quickly as possible to move things through,” Hardman said.

But Walker said the city’s response to helping the homeless hasn’t been fast enough. Because city officials are concerned with “attracting” more homeless people by providing services, they have failed to support people who are currently living on Dallas streets and aren’t going away, he said.

“There is no other group of citizens in this city that if they were in crisis, the city would move this slow on,” Walker said. “These are citizens of this city, and they are in crisis. And it’s appalling that we can’t find a safe place for them to go.”

Updated 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2019, to include more information about the convention center after a press conference.

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