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Closing a “Tent City” is Not a Solution to Homelessness

Closing a tent city is a reaction to an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the area. It is a response from a city struggling to create real solutions to the problem.

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The City of Dallas recently announced a plan to close a tent city that is home to more than 200 homeless people. Unfortunately, Dallas is not alone. Cities across the country struggle to address homelessness created by federal policies such as deinstitutionalization of persons experiencing mental illness, cutbacks in the social safety net, rising incarceration rates, and the failure to adjust the minimum wage to keep pace with the cost of living.

But closing the tent city is not a solution to homelessness.

Before to the 1980s, we did not have the kind of mass homelessness we now experience because there was more affordable housing available. According to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, there was a surplus of 300,000 affordable housing units in 1970.

But in the 1980s, affordable housing began to disappear as the federal government cut funding for housing assistance. By 1985, there were 8.9 million poor renters in need of housing but only 5.6 million units available, a shortfall of 3.3 million units. By 2009, the shortfall in affordable housing units had increased to 5.5 million units.

Dallas’ decision to close the tent city is controversial, but was not done without thought or planning. Without question, a large homeless encampment can bring significant challenges and threats to the safety of its residents. Ultimately, the emergence and growth of a tent city is an indicator that a community’s current system for preventing and responding to homelessness is inadequate.

When cities struggle to respond to homelessness, they are more likely to resort to punitive measures. This trend has resulted in laws that prohibit panhandling, loitering, and sleeping or camping outside.

Like other cities, Dallas recently launched an aggressive initiative to arrest and fine individuals for panhandling. This comes even after considerable pushback challenging the legal and moral grounds for criminalizing homelessness. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice declared it unconstitutional to ban people from sleeping outside and recently issued a statement calling the criminalization of homelessness unacceptable.

Experts have advocated against these practices because they fail to address the root causes of homelessness. In fact, such measures can make ending homelessness more difficult because the associated fines and criminal records create additional barriers to finding employment, securing housing and accessing other public services.

It’s clear that the number of homeless people in Dallas has challenged the city. Although closing the tent city is not a solution to homelessness, it does present Dallas with an opportunity. Something is clearly not working when so many people are left unsheltered.

Creating additional shelter beds is a temporary answer to meet demands. But in order to end homelessness in Dallas, the solution must include permanent affordable housing with appropriate support services to keep people in stable and safe housing.

To ensure success, any plan city leaders employ should commit more resources to strengthen existing cross-sector collaboration and support efforts to enhance communication among stakeholders.

Effective collaboration should include homeless residents of Dallas, housing providers and developers, the local homeless services continuum of care, local social service and health care providers, and government officials. Strong community partnerships can be leveraged to increase housing, strengthen services and service coordination, increase funding, and build public support.

Additionally, a strong street outreach initiative is key to reaching unsheltered individuals before large encampments develop. Rather than criminalizing homelessness, law enforcement should be trained to provide outreach and connection to services.

Closing a tent city is a reaction to an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the area. It is a response from a city struggling to create real solutions to the problem. And, it is a reaction to the unsettling sight of homelessness in the community. But it is not unique to Dallas. Austin, Houston, San Antonio and other communities across Texas face similar challenges.

Closing a tent city will do nothing to end homelessness in Dallas. Unless adequate resources can be found to develop permanent solutions to this problem, another tent city will probably emerge somewhere else. Committing to the goal of ending homelessness will make the tent city obsolete.

Cal Streeter is the Meadows Foundation Centennial Professor in the Quality of Life in the Rural Environment in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin. Amanda Aykanian is a doctoral student the School of Social Welfare at the University of Albany. Heather Larkin is an associate professor in the School of Social Welfare at the University of Albany.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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