Tense joint meeting reviews the stubborn problem of homelessness in Fort Worth

03/26/2014 10:21 PM

03/27/2014 10:34 AM

During a strained meeting about the concentration of the city’s homeless population on East Lancaster Avenue, members of the city’s Advisory Commission on Ending Homelessness accused the City Council Wednesday night of not doing enough.

And a few City Council members committed to doing more.

Andy Taft, a member of the commission, compared the city’s $5.4 million spent on animal care and control with the $2.3 million spent on the city’s homeless plan.

“We ask you to prioritize human beings at least on par with dogs and cats,” Taft said to cheers from the standing-room-only crowd at First United Methodist Church in downtown Fort Worth.

Councilmen Danny Scarth and Sal Espino, however, said that was not a fair comparison because programs for the homeless receive federal and private money in addition to the city’s contribution. In 2007, a total of $31 million was spent on homelessness in Tarrant County, according to the commission’s report Wednesday.

“If I thought we could [end homelessness] with an extra $3 million or $4 million a year, I can guarantee you I could get that sold — were it that simple,” Scarth said.

Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who represents District 8 and all of the shelters concentrated on East Lancaster, however, said the city was not doing enough.

“We can bicker and go back and forth about all of this and it still does not end homelessness … . I am really, officially, pissed off,” said Gray as the crowd cheered, hooted and whistled, drowning out the rest of her sentence.

“If we have got to take care of dogs, cats, goats, pet pigs, and whatever we do at the shelter, we can do the very same for the most vulnerable here in our city. And they may not have started out here, but guess what, they are here now,” Gray said passionately.

Commission’s recommendation

The gathering was a joint meeting between the 21-member advisory commission and the City Council.

In presenting the commission’s report to the council, Taft said the city needs to spend about $6 million annually to end chronic homelessness. A chronically homeless person is someone who has a disabling condition and has been continuously homeless for at least a year, or homeless at least four times in the past three years, according to the U.S. Department of Housing.

The chronically homeless cost the city and the organizations dealing with the homelessness the most money because they use most of the emergency services and are most visible, said Otis Thornton, director of Directions Home, the city’s 10-year plan to make homelessness rare, short-term and nonrecurring by 2018.

In fiscal year 2011, 232 homeless patients accounted for 2,000 hospital admissions at John Peter Smith Hospital and cost the system over $10 million, according to Thornton’s presentation.

Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., said the council faces and sometimes caves to political pressure of a “not in my backyard” mentality when dealing with affordable housing developers.

The report urged the council to take five actions:

• Prioritize homelessness as if their own loved ones were homeless.
• Create a special task force to look for funding, similar to the arts funding task force last year.
• Embrace dispersed housing.
• Encourage developers to build new affordable housing units and support them.
• Take political pressure off council members facing an affordable housing complex in their district by allowing them to vote no, while the rest of the council votes for the development.

Scarth said the issue is personal and he teared up as he remembered former Councilman Chuck Silcox, who died in 2008 and who was a proponent of the Directions Home plan. Silcox reportedly had a family member who was homeless, and Councilwoman Gyna Bivens said her brother is formerly homeless, too.

Scarth said he was also concerned by how few of the members of the commission live in east Fort Worth or own a business there.

“We have political pressure from all of our districts, but as someone who grew up on the east side of Fort Worth, how much of this advisory committee lives in east Fort Worth? It is a pretty small number,” Scarth said.

Several residents spoke at the meeting, which lasted for nearly three hours, some urging city officials to disperse the shelters and homeless services throughout the entire city.

Mayor Betsy Price said the city will form a committee to address the issues brought up at the joint meeting.

“There is much passion in this room, with excellent conversations and great ideas. Dollars alone won’t solve it. If they did, the $31 million would have made an even bigger dent in the problem than we see,” Price said.

Price said she hopes to hear back from the committee in about six months.

The city’s plan to end homelessness

Council members asked for the joint meeting in 2013 and then again at their Feb. 4 housing and economic development meeting where council members expressed concern about budget priorities, the progress of the plan, the availability of housing in Fort Worth and what the city should be doing to help.

There are seven strategies in the city’s homeless plan and it has 92 different action items, or a “to-do list” for several organizations, including the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, area nonprofits, the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition and churches.

The plan calls for increasing the supply of permanent supportive housing, expanding services for the homeless linked with accountability, developing and operating a central resource facility, expanding homelessness prevention initiatives, supporting existing homeless efforts, mitigating the negative community impacts of homelessness and leading, educating and advocating for change.

The goal of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition, which also runs the Continuum of Care for Tarrant County, is to end chronic homelessness by 2015.

Chronic homelessness in Tarrant County increased by 60 percent since last year, according to numbers from the 2014 Point in Time Count, and it is estimated that the county needs an additional 643 beds for the chronically homeless and an additional 145 beds for homeless veterans if it wants to get those individuals off the street by 2015.

A lack of affordable housing

A study released by the National Low Income Housing Coalition on Monday and presented at the meeting found that a person making minimum wage in Fort Worth would have to work 100 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom, fair-market-value apartment for rent in Fort Worth.

According to HUD, residents are paying too much for housing if more than 30 percent of their gross income is going toward a home, and they are severely cost-burdened if more than 50 percent of household income goes to rent or a mortgage.

In Fort Worth, 49 percent of households are cost-burdened, and an additional 16,695 affordable units are needed for the poorest population, or those living on 30 percent of the area median family income. For a family of five, 30 percent of the area median income is $21,350.

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