A Better Way
by John Siburt, CitySquare President and COO
A recent report by The Dallas Morning News shows what we at CitySquare have been seeing for years: that for too many in Dallas, poverty is both a result of mental illness and a barrier to its treatment. The report found a massive imbalance in the number of 911 calls for behavioral health emergencies between southern and northern Dallas. When these calls are answered, it’s often left to police to arrest or detain the mentally ill. Witness the criminalization of a health emergency.
For the poor, such an arrest creates even more obstacles to reintegrating into their communities after the health crisis. But the criminalization of poverty doesn’t stop there. As it has in years past, the increase of panhandlers in Dallas is becoming noticeable, unsettling many residents. Calls for more arrests are already beginning. Each arrest costs taxpayers around $400. A few hours in jail and the panhandler is back on the street. The cycle appears to be endless. In February of 2016, 226 panhandlers were arrested. The cost to taxpayers: $90,400. The result: a full year later with no fewer panhandlers and community frustration has yet to subside.
The burden on our emergency responders, the loss of taxpayer money, the frustration of residents and business owners who encounter neighbors begging for help: it all shows that the struggle of poverty isn’t limited to the poor.
When anyone in our community is faced with poverty, all of us are. Public officials know they must respond, but they don’t always know how.
CitySquare knows a better way. For more than two decades, we’ve been responding to poverty. Today, we are reaching deeper into our community than ever before with programs that are producing truly astounding results. As the largest provider of permanent supportive housing in Dallas, CitySquare is breaking the cycle of poverty and prison by providing housing with access to supportive services including mental health and substance abuse treatment. Our approach is more effective than the well-intentioned but wasteful catch-and-release programs that saddle the mentally ill and chronically homeless with additional obstacles to stability and success.
With your support, CitySquare will show Dallas a better way.
Working with neighbors seeking economic stability, CitySquare’s Financial Empowerment (FinPow) program offers coaching to help individuals save money and locate financial resources to build personal wealth. “The idea is to help our neighbors escape asset poverty,” explains program manager Kassidy Birdsong.
Many of these neighbors are re-entering the community after incarceration. “Because they often lack the credit history to access better priced products, they’re at risk of relying on things like payday lending or rent-to-own schemes,” says Birdsong.
Economically, these individuals are among the most vulnerable in the community. Through financial coaching, Birdsong’s team helps them make choices that better serve their financial goals while avoiding potential traps. And as traps go, it’s hard to beat payday lenders.
Gerald Britt, Vice President of External Affairs at CitySquare, says predatory companies like payday lenders sell themselves as financial service providers or consultants to the poor, but end up ensnaring neighbors in a debt trap that ultimately feeds the poverty/prison cycle.
“We have stories of people who have lost homes, cars and even jobs while making good faith efforts to pay back payday and auto title loans,” says Britt.
Once neighbors lose their home and job, they might be forced to sleep on the streets and resort to panhandling. Because basic human activities like sleeping or using the bathroom are criminalized for the homeless, they’re likely to begin running afoul of the law again.
It’s a frustrating cycle for an organization fighting poverty, but Birdsong and her team aren’t backing down from their mission. In fact, they’ve had some astounding success through the use of financial and resource coaches. She points to David, a neighbor who asked us not to use his last name.
Last year, after his release, David secured a job with a construction company in Dallas. Working with CitySquare’s FinPow coaches, he was able to save enough money to purchase a used truck and build his personal savings to $8,000.
“That means in less than a year, David increased his net worth by about $13,000 and is no longer considered asset poor,” says Birdsong.
Birdsong and her team use David’s story to encourage other neighbors. “When people come to FinPow, they’re eager to provide for themselves and their families,” she says.
Unfortunately, that’s the same reason they go to payday lenders.
CitySquare CEO Larry James says that understanding the financial system is essential, but it’s not enough. “Right now, that system is one where it’s perfectly legal to prey upon the poor,” says James.
But he and his team want that to change. In January, CitySquare released its list of legislative priorities for 2017. As in years past, the list includes stricter regulations over the payday lending industry.
Though the Texas legislature has yet to take up the issue, James says CitySquare isn’t holding back. “While we work to help neighbors understand the system, we’ll also be working to change it.” Click here to learn more about CitySquare’s advocacy work.
When neighbors can’t make their way to CitySquare’s Opportunity Center in southern Dallas, its Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) meets them where they’re at in the community. Often these meetings happen under bridges and in makeshift encampments: tent cities, as they’ve come to be known.
Program manager Deanna Adams’ team of just seven provides services to the entire Dallas metro area. From June to August of 2016, HOT placed 75 neighbors into permanent supportive housing, reducing the chronically homeless population of Dallas by 15 percent. “That was a big success,” Adams says.
Her team is energized by its recent successes, but she says they suffer no illusions about the challenges before them, particularly when it comes to housing neighbors who have been released from prison.
“There’s a gap between when people are released or put on parole and when we encounter them,” says Adams. She explains that community organizations and case workers aren’t provided with information about whether people received mental health services in prison.
To connect neighbors with those services, her team has to start over from scratch to assess each individual’s need. In the meantime, many neighbors unintentionally brush up against the criminal justice system.
That’s because law enforcement regularly issue citations for behaviors associated with homelessness. The charges are typically minor and include things like trespassing, loitering and using the bathroom in public.
Oddly, these charges can actually be helpful when Adams and her team need to prove that someone is homeless so that the person can qualify for assistance.
“Sometimes we can use criminal records for documentation of homelessness because there are certain tickets our population gets that are considered proof they’re sleeping on the streets,” says Adams.
In other words, until someone begins receiving services from a case worker, a criminal record may be the only proof they have that they are indeed homeless and in need of assistance. Ironically, once neighbors end up getting assistance, many apartments and landlords won’t even consider an applicant with a criminal history.
According to Adams, that’s not the major concern. “Landlords won’t generally reject someone for these minor citations and violations. They’re going to reject people for things like aggravated assault,” she says. “But a lot of our neighbors have those charges too.”
That doesn’t mean that even a minor criminal record won’t eventually become a problem. “Even if you’re able to find a home, keeping it is going to be a challenge because many employers won’t even consider an applicant with any kind of a criminal history,” says Edd Eason, Assistant VP of Housing at CitySquare.