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DALLAS (CBSDFW/1080 KRLD) – During Monday’s City Hall announcement of a new Homeless Commission, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said investigating where other cities have found long-term solutions will be part of the new panel’s charge.

Austin is one of those cities.

With a homeless population that is much higher both numbers-wise and percentage-wise than Dallas’, Austin has been searching for viable options for decades. Local organization, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, has been part of the solution hunt and brought the Austin City Council an idea about ten years ago that everyone balked at at first – open a trailer park for homeless people.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes CEO and President Alan Graham’s vision of a trailer park eventually evolved into a little village of mirco-homes called Community First!, which opened last month.  Austin city regulations prohibited tiny home construction and there was a fair amount of NIMBY push back from neighborhoods,  so Graham  found a property just outside Austin’s city limits, on the south eastern side. Community First! Village is privately funded.  There is government participation in the form of a  Capital Metro bus service extension to the property and through the government benefits the residents receive.  People apply for a home in Community First! and they pay rent, which averages around $300 a month. There is a garden, a market and Alamo Drafthouse has built an outdoor movie theater.

Alamo Drafthouse Community Theater

Alamo Drafthouse Community Theater

“We’re an incredible asset to the community,” says Graham.  “People in the neighborhoods are coming to become a part of us and we love it – they love it.”

The question is, could a tiny house village find support in Dallas?

As in most cities, the vast majority of Dallas’ homeless services, soup kitchens, outreach centers are downtown and in the surrounding areas.  Residents living in pricey condos and town homes in the redeveloping Cedars and Farmers Market neighborhoods have moved into what has long been the domain of people living on the streets and under overpasses.  Tent City under Interstate-45 , which was cleared out last week, is in The Cedars.

“I just want to be clear that no one in the neighborhood is against or has any disdain for homeless people,” says Cedars Neighborhood Association President Michael Sitarzewski.   “It is really the crime and ecosystem that surround it that we have a problem with.” Frequently, he says, developers are stood up by potential clients who do not get any further south than the tents and  drugs deals and loitering around Heritage Village Park near I-30 and St Paul.

City Square on Akard, a stone’s throw from the former Tent City encampment, is hoping to have  around 50 tiny houses available in the coming months for people who are now living on the street. But, population estimates from the Dallas Metro Homeless Alliance‘s post-Tent City closure report show that the need for some sort of housing for the chronically homeless is beyond the space available at City Square’s center.  Unofficial census counts at two of the three new encampments south of downtown Dallas are around 200. More people are likely living in different spots north of I-30 in eastern sections of the city. Now-former Tent City residents who live in the encampment under I-30 at South Haskell Avenue tell KRLD one of the benefits of that location is easy access to the Sante Fe Trail hike and bike path, which connects to the greenbelts surrounding  White Rock Lake.

Sitarzewski is pushing for  the city of Dallas to look seriously at using the old Hensely Field as a location for an organized encampment. The now-abandoned airfield was established by the city of Dallas in 1929 in what is now Grand Prairie. Much of the property attached to the actual airfield is leased to various branches of the military. The vision for the potential “Dignity Field,” as Sitarzewski calls it, is somewhat similar to Community First! in Austin.  Tiny houses would be available –  but tent camping would be allowed. ” There are a lot of people who live in encampments that don’t want a house,” says Sitarzewski.  “And I think this is a fundamental disconnect between our services and what the homeless people want.”

Tent City being cleared out in Dallas . Many area homeless moving to other camps nearby. (Photo Emily Trube)

Tent City being cleared out in Dallas . Many area homeless moving to other camps nearby. (Photo Emily Trube)

While a lack of affordable housing and/or landlords willing to take housing vouchers are major factors in people funding themselves forced to live on the streets, there are other, stronger, undercurrents at work when it comes to the chronically homeless. Mental illness, depression, years behind bars and the effects of drug or alcohol addiction are huge factors that over time can result in an inability or lack of will to participate in “normal” society.  Graham says that finding livable solutions for the chronically homeless, many times, is not a matter of asking them to change, but rather, ” to leverage the gifts that they already have.”  In Community First! that means contributing to the village by working in the garden,  selling produce in the market or learning or practicing a craft or trade through the Community Works! program.

Graham says that every major city in Texas has sent a representative to see in person what Mobile Loaves and Fishes has put together, with the exception of Dallas.  During yesterday’s news conference, Mayor Rawlings said that the Henlsey Field idea was one of several that the panel will be considering, so it is possible a field trip to Austin could  be in the commission’s future.

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