Local NewsHomeless Outreach Group Asks City of Dallas to ‘Resolve Catch-22’ Outlawing Temporary Shelters Near Downtown

Other than in certain city-owned facilities, temporary shelters cannot operate within a half-mile of downtown Dallas.
April 14, 2021
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In 2018, when Dallas pastor Wayne Walker got a land-use violation ticket from the city for keeping the doors of homeless ministry OurCalling open around the clock in the cold, he framed it for his office.

Now, litigation may continue in a spat between OurCalling and the City of Dallas over a land-use ordinance that criminalized their 24-hour open-door policy during the February freeze.

As winter neared in 2020, the city council passed an ordinance that set up an application process for “temporary inclement weather shelters” (TIWS). In other words, the ordinance lets the city authorize groups like OurCalling to take in people seeking shelter during dangerous weather events like freezes or heat waves. Walker claims the ordinance was motivated in part by OurCalling’s advocacy to avoid another land-use code violation like the one the city issued in 2018.

However, the city also tacked on a proviso: these temporary shelters cannot operate within half a mile of downtown Dallas outside of certain “city-owned facilities” like the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. Since OurCalling sits inside this half-mile buffer zone, this clause made the group’s actions during the February freeze potentially illegal.

Attracting national attention, OurCalling led homeless aid efforts during the freeze in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and left their own doors open through the night when the sheltering population overflowed, apparently violating city law.

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“When we ran out of space, we just kept our doors open. And then when we had too many people that we could handle when the big freeze came, we called the city and said, ‘Hey, give us the keys to the convention center. Dad, let me borrow the car, I promise we won’t wreck it.’ And you know, we stepped into the convention center with about 100 people on the first night and ended up having 1,300 there,” Walker said.

“And we are convicted, because of our faith — when Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself — we don’t want to close our doors and watch people walk outside and know that they’re going to be exposed to the harsh elements.”

After the city council passed the rule prohibiting temporary shelters from operating within a half-mile of downtown, Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Adam Medrano explained that the buffer zone is meant to encourage more shelters elsewhere.

“We are listening to our constituents, we have enough shelter Downtown. We do. This was supposed to spread it out throughout the city,” Medrano said.

In response to the “Catch-22” in the city charter, OurCalling’s legal counsel — religious liberty advocacy group First Liberty — sent a letter to Dallas asking the city to allow OurCalling to extend its operating hours during emergencies or at least let the group apply for a TIWS permit.

“OurCalling worked with Dallas to try to come to something that would work for everybody. That was supposed to be a permitting program that was tasked in November, but the city council added a buffer zone that essentially freezes out entities or organizations like OurCalling that operate within half a mile of the downtown area,” attorney Lea Patterson explained.

“The situation that OurCalling is in right now is that we sent a letter to the city asking them to essentially do the right thing and resolve this Catch-22. There’s really nothing in the zoning ordinance to prohibit what OurCalling does, but the city seems to interpret that to the contrary, so we’re asking them to either fix that interpretation or allow them to apply for a permit.”

The City of Dallas responded to The Texan but said it is not the policy of the city attorney to comment on pending litigation.

Despite the apparent “Catch-22,” the city has enjoyed an otherwise harmonious relationship with OurCalling. The city’s Office of Homeless Solutions frequently works with the group in homeless outreach.

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Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell

Isaiah Mitchell is a reporter for The Texan, a Texas native, and a huge Allman Brothers fan. He graduated cum laude from Trinity University in 2020 with a degree in English. Isaiah loves playing music and football with his family.

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