DART Cares program aims to help unhoused residents find shelter – MMHPI – Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute
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DART Cares program aims to help unhoused residents find shelter

This article was published by KERA News on September 14, 2023.

Beginning next month, Dallas Area Rapid Transit will begin testing a program to respond to the needs of riders experiencing homelessness.

The goal of the DART Cares program is to get riders who are struggling with housing — especially those who depend on buses and trains for shelter — on-site care and ultimately, into more stable situations.

This year’s point-in-time count found just over 4,200 people experiencing homelessness in Dallas and Collin counties — but that number could be higher.

“DART’s always been concerned and been trying to help those who are experiencing homelessness,” said Brad Cummings, vice president of Business Services for DART. “Our board and our CEO have established over the last few years a really large drive to increase the safety, reliability and cleanliness at our system and have been able to put money where that purpose is.”

Starting out, the $1.6 million dollar program will have two mobile teams and two rail teams, each consisting of a paramedic and a DART police officer. The mobile teams will also include a behavioral health clinician.

The rail teams will patrol DART’s light rail stations throughout the day with a wireless device, like a tablet or smartphone, on hand to provide virtual access to a clinician, housing referrals and veterans’ services.

“We really wanted to help those who are experiencing homelessness or behavioral health concerns get access to the tools and resources that exist in the community to help and assist them instead of utilizing DART as just the place to be,” Cummings said.

Researchers at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute designed the Cares program after looking at similar programs like the MARTA Hope program in Atlanta and “street medicine” initiatives in Austin, which have been shown to decrease police contacts and increase residents’ quality of life.

“Sometimes these health care needs can contribute to pain and chronicity that can unfold in behavioral patterns that lead to a high number of law enforcement contacts and we want that to stop,” said B.J. Wagner, senior vice president of health and public safety at the Meadows Institute.

The new program comes at challenging time for DART.

After dropping during the pandemic, ridership is back to about 70% of pre-COVID levels, said DART spokesperson Gordon Shattles — but with that come more complaints and security concerns.

The number of high priority crimes reported on DART increased 20% between 2021 and 2022. Those crimes include everything from assault and robbery to drugs and vandalism.

DART Police Chief Charles Cato said the No. 1 category of calls that officers respond to involves someone with a mental health crisis. Sometimes, he says, it involves a crime.

“We have a number of thefts and assaults that are directly related to the unhoused population victimizing each other, stealing each other’s things or becoming involved in disturbances which results in assaults because of disputes that they’ve had,” Cato said.

He says the agency is tasked with seeing to the needs of all of DART’s riders.

“So from a law enforcement perspective, it’s not a crime to be homeless, or poor or mentally ill, or any of those things,” Cato said.

Cato says the Cares program ultimately aims to reduce the number of incidents while getting homeless riders connected to resources.

Wagner with the Meadows Institute says she hopes DART will be a leader among transit agencies across the country in addressing homelessness.

“We hope to help that this program will help those folks find housing if they wish to do so temporary shelter if they wish to do so reconnect with their family members if that is a desire and achieve have a higher level of quality of life through achieving a higher level of health,” Wagner said.

If successful, the agency will expand the program to three mobile teams and three rail teams.

Read the article on KERA’s website.