This City Has a New Way to Fight Homelessness With COVID Aid

By: - January 19, 2022 12:00 am

Read Stateline coverage of the inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

DALLAS — In March 2020, when the pandemic first hit, Raharish Velu was living on the streets of downtown Dallas.

“They rounded us all up and took us to hotels,” Velu said of city officials and case workers. “We were all tested, and I tested positive so I couldn’t leave my room. But once I got better, they let me out.”

Velu, 70, went back on the streets where he’s lived for more than 20 years, but found that survival has been harder than it’s ever been. Shelters are always full because they’ve had to reduce capacity to accommodate social distancing guidelines, he said, and the streets are getting crowded.

“Every day someone new arrives,” he said this week while sitting on a bench at Akard Plaza, just outside City Hall. “I’d say most lost their jobs or got sick, but they’ve never been out here before. It’s getting pretty bad.”

Since the start of the pandemic, states and localities across the country have received billions in federal aid to help reduce homelessness. But most areas have been slow to get the money to those in need, like Velu, in large part because the huge influx of dollars has overwhelmed agencies’ capacities. Still, some have seen progress: In the Dallas area, more than a dozen nonprofits and government agencies joined forces last summer to launch a new program using the federal aid, aiming for successes that other localities could replicate.

The goal of the new Dallas R.E.A.L. Time Rapid Rehousing Initiative is to place 2,762 people and families experiencing homelessness in permanent housing by September 2023. An estimated 4,570 people were without homes in the region as of March 2021, up 3% from 2020. Rapid rehousing is a federally funded national program designed to reduce the amount of time a person is homeless by providing housing before other social services.

“This is the most ambitious plan to curb homelessness that Dallas has seen,” said Sarah Kahn, chief program officer at Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which leads the initiative and is the region’s largest nonprofit organization providing homeless services.

“I mean, this is a historic level of new resources and new dollars coming into our community that’s used to running on a scarcity model and often fighting for scraps. We have a very, very large infusion of resources that we need to move quickly.”

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