For 20 years, Alexandra and Paul Hostler have raised their children and grandkids along Quail Trail near the River Oaks neighborhood. They’ve always had the same neighbors. Now, they’re preparing for a new one.
The development moving in across the street is called New Leaf Community Services. It’s subsidized housing, called Permanent Supportive Housing, for the chronically homeless. It’s millions of dollars and years of work in the making. The development is tailored to fit in with the surrounding neighborhood. It includes 12 structures meant to look like single-family homes that will house 48 residents.
It’s part of an approach to homelessness that emphasizes housing first, while also offering services to help integrate people into a community through opportunities like job placement and health care services. It’s also a model that, along with other approaches, could prevent Fort Worth from falling into a worsening cycle of homelessness seen around the country.
One of the future residents, Lorenzo Williams, has been homeless since 2017. The 65-year-old has struggled with drug addiction and, as a result, he’s been in and out of jail. While incarcerated in 2019, he suffered a series of heart attacks. He was given a heart monitor but didn’t have a place to plug it in, so social workers arranged for him to move into New Leaf at the end of the month.
“I’m really blessed and joyful,” Williams said.
Only people who have been experiencing homelessness longer than a year and have some underlying disability are eligible to be placed into New Leaf.
“We’re well-positioned to be able to do this again, to capitalize on one-time funding to make something that’s going to house people over the course of 20 or 40 years,” Tara Perez, manager of the city’s homelessness management program, Directions Home, said.
Residents across the street from the development are less excited. A subsidized housing development already exists in their neighborhood, which they said hasn’t caused them any problems. But lack of communication from the developers of the new housing project has them scared of potential issues, they say.
“We’re OK with giving people a chance,” Alexandra Holster said. “Our concern is the criminal element.”
New Leaf is following Fort Worth Housing Solutions Permanent Supportive Housing Tenant Selection Plan, which rejects any applicant who is a registered sex offender or has been convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine. Case managers also reject anyone who they believe might pose a threat to the community.
A silver bullet?
Homelessness in Tarrant County is down 40% compared with a year ago. The decrease bucks state and national trends. Lauren King, executive director of the Tarrant County Homelessness Coalition, manages about 40 partner agencies and collects data on homelessness in Tarrant County.
City and county governments have received $63 million and counting for rent assistance programs. Meanwhile, Housing and Urban Development allocated more than $13 million to Fort Worth alone to address homelessness during the pandemic and more is coming.
The funds allowed local organizations to fast-track the opening of Casa de Esperanza, a 119-unit assisted housing community that is now the city’s largest permanent supportive housing project.
Five miles away from Quail Trail sits the Palm Tree Apartments. Flora Brewer purchased and developed the 24-unit permanent supportive housing. It serves as a testing ground for the development of New Leaf.
“We had an immediate reduction in police calls and crime. These folks have become good neighbors, and it’s an example of how we can franchise people,” Brewer said.
Janice Michel, a resident of Oakhurst near the Palm Tree Apartments and a retired zoning commissioner, said the project has made a positive impact on that community.
“It was just awful” before Brewer purchased the site, she said. “She bought that building, and paid to refurbish the whole thing and bring it up to code,” Michel added.
But she isn’t sure if that scenario could be replicated across the city. She would be opposed to a similar development being built in her own neighborhood, for example.
“That’s a touchy, touchy, touchy situation,” Michel said. “When I was on the Zoning Commission, we never had neighborhoods come in and say, ‘Oh, please put something like this in our neighborhood.’”
A variety of factors contribute to the success of efforts to reduce homelessness in a community.
“The key to having success and these types of ventures, is that you have to have community buy-in,” said Abraham Benavides, a professor at the University of North Texas who studies how local governments respond to problems, including homelessness.
Local governments can learn from past mistakes to find innovative ways to address homelessness in the future. Benavides said governments should avoid the large public housing developments that resulted in increasing public health crises in large cities.
“Sometimes our policies are, ‘OK, we want to help people,’ (but) can be misguided when we try to build something without thinking in a future sense,” he said.
DRC Community Solutions to End Homelessness works with other organizations around Tarrant County to address the issue of homelessness. The organization tries to do outreach with the broader community through events like “First Fridays,” which focus on one issue related to homelessness to create a more informed community.
“Because the more people that have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of this phenomenon, the more people we have that are likely to contribute to a political community dialogue on homelessness,” Executive Director Bruce Frankel explained.
Still, there is opposition.
“There are some individuals that say, ‘Hey, not my backyard,’” Benavides said. “‘That’s a wonderful idea, but go build it somewhere else, or go do it over there.’”
Along with doing community outreach about homelessness to residents of Tarrant County, DRC provides services like health care and community integration to support the housing developments.
Frankel said they’ve learned lessons from Casa de Esperanza and Palm Tree that they will take into New Leaf.
“We’re finding that our permanent supportive housing programs are more and more looking like assisted living facilities,” Frankel said.
This type of solution specifically targets the most visible form of homelessness. It houses the people who one might see typically seeking shelter outdoors on Lancaster Avenue or in downtown Fort Worth and redistributes them to neighborhoods around the city.
It’s not the only solution addressing homelessness, though. Most people experience homelessness temporarily.
About 33% of people experiencing homelessness in Tarrant County have been homeless for less than a month. Fewer than 10% have been homeless longer than a year.
The 300 to 600 chronically homeless are the most disruptive. Often, their best option is permanent supportive housing, according to city leaders. Frankel said analysts found if the city could provide 1,200 to 1,400 units of supportive housing, then Fort Worth could stay ahead of the homelessness problem before it gets worse.
“If San Francisco had set aside 1,200 to 1,400 units for permanent supportive housing, it’s not likely they’d be in quite the shape they’re in right now,” Frankel said.
City, county and nonprofit agencies have an opportunity to use federal funds to chip away at that goal. The city plans to apply for HOME-ARP funds. The federal money, allocated through the American Rescue Plan, could potentially allow the city to rapidly develop 150 units of permanent supportive housing around the city.
Fort Worth likely won’t be able to apply to those funds until fall. But with access to federal funds, the city could quickly develop affordable housing that takes 30% of a resident’s income and supplements the rest with funds from HUD.
But there will still be barriers to creating more affordable housing around the city. Finding sites to place these developments is difficult because they have to be within walking distance of public transportation and nutritious food. If the site isn’t already zoned for multi-family housing, it will have to go through the long process of being rezoned.
“It’s been a challenge, to say the least,” Tom Purvis III, a real estate developer who has worked on the project, said.
A key element of addressing homelessness in local communities is partnerships between county and city governments, as well as local nonprofits. The coordination is required to receive funding from HUD, but it’s also the best practice to address the many facets of homelessness.
The development of New Leaf used private funds for 65% of the project; the remaining 35% was publicly funded. Developers leaned on deep ties to nonprofits like First Presbyterian, which contributed $1 million to the project.
“I give everybody right now high marks for working well together,” Frankel said.
District 2 Councilman Carlos Flores has been an advocate for New Leaf.
“It takes combined efforts to address the overall issue of homelessness,” Flores said.
The congratulations leave out people like the Hostlers who, after living in the same house for more than 20 years, are concerned about what a high number of formerly homeless people living in their neighborhood could mean. To them, permanent supportive housing is not the perfect solution.
And it also isn’t Lawrence Williams’ perfect solution. Despite being grateful for his new home, he’s concerned about the amount of time it could take him to get all the way from his new home back down to the Southside, where his family lives, if there is ever an emergency.
“I thank God for all that has been done on my behalf,” Williams said. “But it all goes back to the transportation thing because all my family is on this side of town — the distance is a long way.”
But even with the concerns, the people who are leading the fight against homelessness in Tarrant County insist that supportive housing is one of their most effective tools. This tool could soon be sharpened and refined with the help of federal funding.
“What we’re doing is producing very incremental effects, and this is not going to be solved overnight,” Flores said. “We’re not going to hit zero all of a sudden, but if we trend in that direction, then we’re doing something right.”
Rachel Behrndt is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.