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Volume 10, Issue 1, 2010   Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas

Notes from the Field: Interview with City of Fort Worth's Homelessness Program Director


Otis ThorntonIn March the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas interviewed Otis Thornton, Homelessness Program Director at the city of Fort Worth, to discuss the fundamentals of homelessness and efforts to combat it.

Dallas Fed: How many people are homeless and how long, on average, are they homeless?

Otis Thornton: On Jan. 29, 2009, a point-in-time count identified 2,181 homeless people in Tarrant County—down 19.5 percent from 2007. The Tarrant County Homeless Coalition used this snapshot to estimate that 5,012 people would experience homelessness countywide during 2009. Fifty-two percent of homeless adults are disabled, 13 percent are veterans of our armed forces and 25 percent of the homeless are children under the age of 18. Our ability to collect, deduplicate and analyze data continues to improve through the use of our homeless management information system; however, statistics on the average length of time people are homeless remain difficult to reliably establish.

Dallas Fed: Which demographic groups are disproportionately homeless?

Otis Thornton: The only characteristic shared by all homeless people is poverty. A disproportionate number of African-Americans are poor, and they are also overrepresented among the homeless population. People who earn less than 30 percent of area median income are disproportionately vulnerable because their purchasing power is scarcely enough to cover basic expenses.

Dallas Fed: Why are they disproportionately vulnerable?

Otis Thornton: There is a shortage of quality, affordable, accessible housing for people living in poverty. In 2007, the need for housing of this type in Fort Worth was estimated to exceed $1.8 billion.

Dallas Fed: What are the trends you are seeing in homelessness? How have they changed over the past several years?

Otis Thornton: From January 2007 to January 2009, homelessness decreased by 19.5 percent in Tarrant County. In Fort Worth, resources have been targeted to provide housing and services for the chronically homeless. Our experience mirrors that of other cities across the nation that are seeing fewer chronically homeless individuals. As the number of people with extensive barriers to housing declines, the overall system can more efficiently house people with less extreme levels of need. At the same time, however, women and children have become the fastest growing proportion of the homeless population. Overall, the formula is pretty simple: more housing, less homelessness.

Dallas Fed: What are the economic impacts of homelessness?

Otis Thornton: Great question! In 2007 we studied how our community addresses homelessness and the cost of our efforts ("The Cost of Homelessness in Tarrant County, Texas, Fiscal Year 2007"off-site PDF). A conservative accounting of expenses totaled just under $31 million. Approximately two-thirds of this investment went to reactive solutions, such as publically-funded care at the emergency room. Clearly this was a very expensive and unsustainable model.

Now we take a largely proactive approach by investing heavily in permanent, supportive housing—which consists of a rental subsidy and professional case management—and that helps people get off the streets and stay off the streets. This strategy generates a better return on investment because it saves lives and embodies better stewardship of public funding and charitable contributions. We have also found that this strategy helps neighborhoods that historically had a high number of homeless people now attract reinvestment dollars.

Dallas Fed: How has the recession affected homelessness?

Otis Thornton: There have been two major impacts: capital flow and employment. The primary source of capital to develop permanent supportive housing—the critical path to ending chronic homelessness—is the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. As demand for credits has eroded with profitability, new projects have been suspended or marooned on the drawing board.

The recession has also strained the employment prospects of low-wage workers. People are settling for reduced hours and lower-paying jobs, while opportunities for people with the fewest skills or the spottiest resumes become extremely scarce. According to a recent study from Northeastern University, the poorest people in our nation confront an underemployment rate of 20.7 percent and an unemployment rate of 30.8 percent. Locally, our work readiness program has served over 2,000 people since it began in the summer of 2007, but the placement rate has fallen from 34 percent in 2007 to 11.6 percent in 2010.

Dallas Fed: How are the city of Fort Worth and your local partners helping individuals exit homelessness?

Otis Thornton: In the summer of 2008, the city of Fort Worth adopted a ten-year plan called Directions Home to guide the city's proactive investment in housing and services that are focused on ending homelessness (www.directionshome.org). The vision of the plan is to make homelessness rare, short-term and nonrecurring within ten years, and we really do believe that is possible. Our city council has leveraged local investments in supportive housing, case management, mental health and substance abuse services with state, federal and private dollars to great effect.

Dallas Fed: What are the city of Fort Worth and your local partners' biggest successes in addressing homelessness?

Otis Thornton: Through our partnerships with the United Way of Tarrant County, the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition and other community- and faith-based organizations, we have launched an ambitious array of new programs that complement existing efforts to make positive, measurable impacts.

Our partnership with the University of Texas at Arlington Community Service Center provides us with program evaluation data that enable consumers, funders and the public to track our progress. In the first nine months of our programs, for example, 265 individuals obtained housing as a direct result of our efforts, and participants in our permanent supportive housing program increased their self-sufficiency by an average of 48 percent. (Program evaluations are available at www.uta.edu/directionshome.)

Dallas Fed: What are the city of Fort Worth and your local partners' biggest challenges in addressing homelessness?

Otis Thornton: The creation of additional units of quality, affordable, accessible housing in this economy is a daunting challenge. Coordinating new programs, disseminating best practices and maintaining the effort in the face of shrinking public budgets and private giving are also great challenges. However, I find a great hopefulness remains among providers and policymakers.

Dallas Fed: What are the city of Fort Worth's plans for the future in addressing homelessness?

Otis Thornton: Look at our 10-year plan to eradicate homelessness at www.directionshome.org. To see the impact that we have made to date, see the University of Texas at Arlington's website at www2.uta.edu/ssw/csdc/dh/reports.htm.

Dallas Fed: What other organizations are addressing homelessness at the state and national levels?

Otis Thornton: See the Texas Homeless Network at www.thn.org, the National Alliance to End Homelessness at www.naeh.org, Common Ground www.commonground.org and the Corporation for Supportive Housing at www.csh.org.

—Elizabeth Sobel Blum

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e-Perspectives, Volume 10, Issue 1, 2010

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