Next spring, on a 3-acre strip of land near the intersection of two Dallas highways, just south of the Deep Ellum neighborhood, Keith Ackerman will help kick off a radical experiment in helping the city’s homeless population.
The Cottages at Hickory Crossing development, which will consist of 50 tiny homes measuring 400 square feet each, looks and sounds like a miniature subdivision – exactly what Ackerman, the executive director, aims to create. But there’s a lot more to it than placing cute buildings and manicured lawns near a crook of land between I-30 and I-45. The former social worker and therapist sees this project, a collaboration between area nonprofits, as a socially, morally and financially sound investment. By creating a model community that offers round-the-clock, on-site care to the neediest of the city’s homeless population, many of whom struggle with drug addiction and mental health issues, it’ll provide space to recover and thrive, all while saving the city a considerable amount of money. An area of town once known as a “shooter’s gallery” for heroin users may become a model for helping some of those addicts recover.
“By putting people into a housing environment where they have case management support, they will no longer resort to county services at the same volume,” says Ackerman. “We’ve done a case study that shows it’s going to cost less. The goal—and I don’t mean to sound morbid—is for people to be able to die at home, to give them a place to live so their last chapter is much better than the previous few.”
When Hickory Crossing opens in a few months, each resident will have their own cottage.
The idea for Hickory Crossing was inspired by another at-risk population, evacuees from Katrina who came to Dallas. Initially conceived of by John Greenen, executive director of Central Dallas Community Development Corporation and architect Brent Brown of buildingcommunity Workshop, the tiny house concept would have provided a quick method of creating individualized shelters for a large population. By the time they had devised the concept, it proved too late to roll out for Katrina evacuees. But it proved readily adaptable to the at-risk homeless population.
Organized in clusters, the cottages—which BC Workshop designed to include a kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom, along with sound attenuating walls to block highway noise—will be arranged around a town green area and community center, which will include a clubhouse, library, computer lab and meeting room for AA meetings, along with offices for social workers, nurses and psychiatric case managers. Residents will be invited to help with the 50-by-30-foot community garden and apiary, and take advantage of the granite path encircling the property, interspersed with fitness stations, a numerous organized group activities. Built with LEED certification in mind, the development will offer numerous transportation options, including a nearby light rail stop, access to DART buses and a set of shared bicycles that can be rented out.
Ackerman, who has spent his career at positions that intersect with the homeless population, from being a psychiatrist to working in halfway homes to recently serving as the Chief Operations Officer for local anti-poverty organization CitySquare, believes providing all these amenities can not only help some of the neediest, but also improve the bottom line. The problem of chronic homelessness in Dallas isn’t any different that other metropolitan area. Of the roughly 6,000 homeless in the city at any one time, 2,000 are chronically homeless, and within that group, a smaller population who may have a mental illness is significantly at risk, and require robust case management to get back on track. They’re also the segment of the homeless population that ends up utilizing the most government resources, such as emergency medical services. Ackerman and CitySquare did the math: on average, those living on the streets cost the city $40,000 annually. Having the same at-risk homeless person living in a cottage at Hickory Crossing costs just $15,000 a year.
“If we give them a place to live, and they have all the resources on campus, then we could make a serious impact on this very vulnerable population,” Ackerman says. “Some people just don’t have the ability to graduate from a program themselves, and can end up dying on the streets. I truly do see people living here for the rest of their life. We project just a 15 percent turnover annually.”
That concept and philosophy of giving the homeless a place to stay as quickly as possible as a means of assistance and empowerment, known as housing first, has been used by other institutions and organizations, such as Common Ground in New York, which transforms old hotels into permanent housing environments for homeless. Hickory Commons breaks ground by including a 24-hour medical and psychiatric care center on premise.
Ackerman wants to stress that this isn’t free housing. Residents, who will be drawn from the homeless population based on a risk assessment survey seeking only the most vulnerable, will have open-ended leases as long as they follow the rules, and have to live alone, without children or spouses. Housing will be based on a voucher model, like Section 8, and everybody living here will have to contribute 30 percent of their income, whether it’s work income, disability or benefits payments. The $6.8 million project, a public-private partnership mostly funded by individual donors and private foundations—the city and county of Dallas pitched in $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively, from their existing budget for homelessness—is envisioned as a long-term investment.
Ackerman believes the numbers will add up. But just as importantly, he sees Hickory Crossing as the basis for a positive community. There’s a reason why the main building is being called a clubhouse, why picnic tables and grills will be spread across the lawns, and why the staff will include a “concierge.” It’s about making a home.
“You know that Bible verse, where it says ‘do unto the least of these my brethren?’” Ackerman says. “That’s who we’re helping.”