Episode 44: CitySquare's CEO Larry James Part 2

George Mason and Larry James from CitySquare talk about how faith leads people to address poverty and into a relationship with the poor.

James shares with us some surprising statistics about the impact that being housed can have on a person’s life: “87% of the homeless people on the streets today can largely stabilize on their own if they had permanent supportive housing.” His organization, CitySquare, takes the housing first approach and has seen remarkable transformations in the community.

Listen to the podcast, read through the transcript below, or click here to view the video.

George Mason: How does faith lead you into relationship with the poor and how does it change not only the poor, but those who enter that relationship? We'll be talking with Larry James, CEO of City Square about just that on Good God coming up.

George Mason: Welcome to Good God. I'm George Mason, your host and I'm pleased to welcome Larry James to our show. Larry, great to have you with us.

Larry James: Thanks George.

George Mason: Larry is the CEO of City Square, a human and community development corporation that is at work all through the Dallas area in our community, for the wellbeing of people, especially those who are more challenged in terms of their opportunities, whether, educationally, materially, housing. And Larry, housing is something I think we should really talk about because it is a pernicious challenge in every urban center in this country, and you had been at work trying to address this in certain ways. We know that there has been a traditional approach that, when someone finds himself or herself homeless, there is this effort to get them into shelters and then to transitional housing. And, often there's a drug or rehab program, but often there are stays in the county jail. And it's just sort of a back and forth, a matter of charity and benevolence and you have to sort of earn your way toward a home. This is a catch 22. It's a never ending cycle it seems that people can't seem to break out of. What have you been learning over the last decade or so that has changed your understanding of how communities can address homelessness?

Larry James: Well, that's a very provocative question. It's kind of interesting. City Square last year served over 40,000 different people, over 90% of whom were not homeless. So our main focus happens to be the working poor. The folks that are in masses and are often overlooked. But setting that aside, Tom Dunning and others encouraged us to enter the fray of homeless housing because we were doing workforce housing. Our housing company has produced almost a thousand units of workforce housing. We shifted slightly, or I guess you get better say expanded our focus to include some homeless issues and we have learned a lot. We now have over 700 units of housing devoted to formerly homeless people in permanent supportive housing units. They're are scattered all over the city. In some cases we have concentrations of maybe 30 units in a 500 unit development. 25, 10, some single folks in different apartments. So we've been working now for almost a decade to understand this problem.

George Mason: Let me stop you there just in order to define terms a little bit. You've used language of workforce housing, sometimes called affordable housing. And you've used the term permanent supportive housing. So as I understand it, Dallas is a city that lacks about 30,000 units of affordable housing. Is that still-

Larry James: That's what City Hall says.

George Mason: Okay, so you think it's even more than that.

Larry James: Could be more than that. It's hard to measure.

George Mason: So when people are trying to understand that, try to imagine that what we're talking about here is people who are actually having jobs. They work often for minimum wage or a little bit more than that. And their families just barely can make enough to meet their bills and sometimes can't. But in order for them to rent an apartment, to have a place to live it, it takes so much of their income to, to find a place that often what happens is they have to leave the city and then they need a car because they don't have public transportation. That car may not have insurance. Then there may be issues with regards to a child gets sick and there's no support. So we have a kind of flow of problems because the people who work in a certain area can't live in that area.

Larry James: Correct.

George Mason: And so the idea is, how do we have different levels of housing within the urban center? And we're lacking that particular thing.

Larry James: Huge problem.

George Mason: It's a huge problem. And it's one that I think our council has tried to address with developers, a certain amount of affordable housing be included in new projects and things of that nature, but it's really difficult to accomplish.

Larry James: With varying degrees of success has that policy been fulfilled.

George Mason: Right, right. There's a lot of pressure about increasing property values, making sure that people feel safe in their neighborhood and people have sometimes rational and sometimes irrational fear about all of that.

Larry James: And you know, one of the things we've discovered is the hourly wage required to lease a livable, underline livable, one bedroom apartment is almost $17 an hour.

George Mason: And the minimum wage is ...

Larry James: 7.25.

George Mason: Seven dollars and 25 cents. And some cities have been taking it upon themselves to increase that, as much as to I think about 15, $17.

Larry James: There are some that I ... The city of Dallas has done some of that, and they're just below $11 an hour for city employees.

George Mason: City employees.

Larry James: They have no authority to do it ... Have no authority in Texas.

George Mason: Right, right. Okay. All right. So that's affordable housing, not the focus of what we're talking about here, but when you use the language of permanent supportive housing, that's a very descriptive term. So say something about that.

Larry James: Okay. So of our 700 plus apartments, all operate permanent supportive housing strategies, and they also employ a housing first theory, which simply means if you're homeless, you're housing ready. You don't have to jump through any hoops that we create. There are no requirements to get into our apartments other than just the standard leasing requirements of any lease agreement. And we wave criminal backgrounds in many cases, in some of these apartments. People do really well once they're housed. So that's our basic philosophy. Housing first. We don't have any transitional housing units.

George Mason: Okay. So let me be the offended person who says, "This is contrary to American meritocracy, to the idea that every person should be personally responsible and earn the right to have anything that no one is owed by their neighbors, a house or a job or something of that nature." And so are we undermining a personal responsibility here, are we creating a further culture of dependency in which we are saying to people, "Your behavior doesn't matter," and doesn't that reduce the sense of dignity that comes from personal achievement and work and all of those things.

Larry James: So I can launch off into that direction and talk for a long time about this sort of inadequate definition of morality, that does not take into account life circumstances, health issues, our economic system and the way it's structured. I can go for a long time talking about all that. But when people say that sort of thing to me, I try to shift to the economic argument, which is really underneath a lot of it. And I asked ... I state a fact and I ask a question.

Larry James: The fact is we can save the county millions of dollars a year by going ahead and housing people immediately. Because once we get them housed with a permanent supportive housing strategy, we can reduce their admissions to the ER, we can begin to work with them at their decision on their issues, whatever they might be, we can stop all the trips to jail, and I'll say more about that in a minute but that's a fact. The question is, would you rather have homeless people, like you've described them, like you understand them, would you rather have them on the sidewalk or in my building?

George Mason: Well, so especially if it's economically beneficial to the tax payer.

Larry James: The county has a list of the 300 most expensive consumers of services in Dallas County, among the homeless. 300 names. Those individuals average costing Dallas County over $42,000 annually, per person.

George Mason: And that's because of the cost of jail.

Larry James: Yep.

George Mason: And the cost of ER visits, of emergency paramedics, and of all these sorts of social services. Mental health services.

Larry James: All that. And so we can house a person for well under $15,000 a year and provide all the services and save the county now $25 to $30,000.

George Mason: Okay. So when it's a housing first understanding, you take a person who is chronically perhaps dealing with mental health issues, often bipolar or schizophrenia, these sorts of things, addiction to drug and or alcohol, who has a limited demonstrated capacity to care for themselves.

Larry James: Correct.

George Mason: And you hand them a key, and you say, "You are now a homeowner."

Larry James: Yes you are.

George Mason: "And this is your key and you don't have to answer to anyone. However, we have on this floor or in this neighborhood, we have some people who are going to look after you and see to it that you get your medication, that you're taking your medication, that you know how to access mental health resources, that when you're in trouble you have someone to call, that you are eating your meals and taking care of yourself." And what happens if that occurs?

Larry James: 87% of the homeless people on the streets today can largely stabilize on their own if they had permanent supportive housing.

George Mason: Wow.

Larry James: It boils down to choice. We're not going to make you do anything you don't want to do. We're here as concierge to help you achieve the goals you set for yourself. And there's really only one rule for you. Once you get in the development, there's just one rule. Be a good neighbor.

George Mason: Yes.

Larry James: If you're still struggling with alcohol, struggle inside your house, don't bring it under the common areas. Know however, that in your struggle, we're right here, one step away and we're willing to engage you in that problem, but you've got to make the choice. And that's just how it works anyway.

George Mason: Right.

Larry James: And so-

George Mason: And that's really true, whether they're on the street or in a permanent supportive housing setting, but at least when they're in a permanent supporting housing center, they are freed from the vulnerability that the street represents, from the need to beg, to bother businesses and individuals and neighbors and also to cost the taxpayers enormous amounts of money.

Larry James: Exactly. I know one thing really for certain. I have to eat every day. I can't go very long without that. And I have to take care of my bodily functions every day. And if I have nowhere to go literally, and nothing to nourish me in a consistent way, I'm going to be a problem and I'm going to have problems.

George Mason: There is an acronym that we're familiar with that many people need to be introduced to. And it's a concept that many people have to come to grips with I think in our community. It's called NIMBY: not in my backyard. There were a lot of people who agree with the kinds of things we're saying and would say, "You know, that makes a lot of sense." And then we ask them to approve the building of these permanent supportive housing units in their community and immediately the NIMBY-ism takes place.

Larry James: That's right. So in 20, almost 25 years, we have never done a housing intervention either through leasing or through construction where we didn't have a fight over that, what you just described. We've been run out of more neighborhoods than you can imagine, with just even the idea. I understand the idea is rooted in a lack of understanding, a lack of experience, a lack of exposure. One of the things that drives our gaps that we mentioned earlier in this community really has to do with not knowing one another. Once you get to know Blue, or Terry, or Donna, you have a different conception of who homeless people are.

George Mason: Right. They are human beings with names and stories just like ours.

Larry James: Exactly.

George Mason: And so let's pick that up after the break. We're going to talk a little more about City Square.

Larry James: Good, good.

John Seibert: One of the challenges we face in the fight against poverty is that it is such a big, broad problem, that it can be overwhelming to people. Can I really make a difference? Is that something I can really impact? And the answer is yes. My name is John Seibert. I am president and chief operating officer at City Square. The mission of City Square is to fight the causes and effects of poverty through service, advocacy and friendship. The service takes the form of about 17 different programs. Advocacy takes the form of different forms of community organizing and are really speaking up for neighbors in poverty. And then really the key, the secret sauce to who we are at city square is friendship. City square is a really in the people business. And so our fight against poverty is all about relationships and investing in people. There are no clients, uh, there are only neighbors and we're all in this together as friends and in community is one. And so I think when we focus more on recognizing our shared humanity, that's when poverty doesn't stand a chance.

George Mason: We're back with Larry James. Larry, we were talking about Permanent Supportive Housing and addressing homelessness. And I think the question is, there are challenges obviously to accomplishing all of this, but there are models that you have piloted including the cottages at a Hickory Crossing, which were extremely expensive modeling, pilot modeling, and I know that you've been able to drive the cost down now of how to do that. But what have we learned about this approach, this housing first approach, and what stands in our way, to really making a tremendous dent in the social problem of homelessness?

Larry James: I think it's two or three issues. One is funding, which you mentioned, and we do know how to drive the cost down. However, the cost will always be regards this too high by some people who feel like a shelter is good enough. We have the philosophy that says if you can't put a photograph or a picture or a painting on the wall, you're not home. And so shelter is not enough. A shelter is not housing. It's temporary, it's emergency. It's wonderful, it's a blessing that people need to have, but it should be short term. The other is the philosophy that says we're going to give an accord that everyone ... The opportunities we ourselves have to deal with our problems. Give you an example.

Larry James: I ask people often how many, what's the percentage of alcoholics in America who are housed? I would posit way over 90%.

George Mason: Wow, yes.

John Seibert: They're just lawyers and pastors and doctors and airplane pilots. But we don't make a deal about their stuff because they're in their house taking care of it. What makes us think that a guy or a gal on the street with nothing can overcome their addiction, their alcoholism, without some kind of intervention? And housing acts as an intervention.

George Mason: Okay.

Larry James: I can't tell you the number of people who have sobered up and gotten back to health, or at least on the road to health, once they got housed.

George Mason: Right. So some of this is money, as we mentioned, and one of the things it's always perplexed me about Dallas, and it's not just Dallas, it's every major city. We have extraordinary philanthropy that is present in our community. We have an arts district that is second to none. If we need to raise three billion dollars to create a world class arts district, and we have, and it is remarkable, and it is a gift to the city, and I have no truck with that. Member of museums and like to go and am proud of all of that. How is it though that when we think about the nature of what makes for a flourishing community, we don't have some philanthropists who are going to say, "If we could address things at the bottom, the way we address things at the top, with the same level of passion and philanthropy, we could have an extraordinary city. Where are those philanthropists who would say that?

Larry James: That's a wonderful question. Very insightful. I'll tell you where they are. They're divided. They're working separately. Not intentionally. They're not against unification of effort and alignment. There's just no one who stood up ... Your first question was, where's the philanthropist who calls for this approach to this problem like the arts district? That's the question. We need to move beyond this individual largess in charity to a unified effort.

Larry James: I was in Seattle years ago, and in Seattle the Gates family has called together all the major foundations in the community. They meet once a month to coordinate and align philanthropic investment to achieve measurable goals that had been decided by the group itself. Which is really wise. We don't have a coordinated effort among our really encouraging philanthropic community. There are philanthropists who care only about this. And yet we just ... They haven't come together, like I think they would even want to. No one's called them to that.

George Mason: Well, and I think we both know about the potential for that to happen and there are people who could make that call and who could bring people together around that. So in thinking systemically about this though, I've just talked about philanthropy as if that's an answer to this, and it is a significant answer to it. But there's also a political dimension to it. There's a question of what we actually need to see all of that transformation. And it moves beyond charity, doesn't it?

Larry James: Yeah.

George Mason: Charity and justice have to work hand in hand somehow.

Larry James: That's right.

George Mason: Distinguish those two things for me.

Larry James: Well, charity is the largess of a heart moved by love and sympathy to engage episodically. Justice is all about systems and policies that make a nation, a community, a congregation of faith, wherever, work the way that it works, or not. And so we have to move beyond charity, as John Perkins says, to real community development, and that's going to include some disruption and some advocacy for systems change.

George Mason: What would be some examples of how policy changes at the city or county level in communities? Laws, policy changes, ordinances, things of that nature. What would be some examples of how Dallas could change if we did this?

Larry James: You'd have to work in some broad areas like wages, income, development, wealth development, and we've had some experiences with that with very poor people who learned the skills to save and to develop some basis of wealth. Payday lenders need to go. Those kinds of institutions that exploit and pray on the poor. Children need to be cared for. Education needs to be fully funded and expanded in terms of investments. Public health. There's no reason in the world why Texas shouldn't have expanded Medicaid. CHIP, it just kind of goes on and on. We have the vehicles and the models. We probably need some new ones, we need some revisions back to your research based decisions, but no one ... It's not, that's not correct, not no one, but the majority of us are not thinking in systemic terms these days. We're thinking more in terms of the individual.

Larry James: And I'll tell you, I think it's theological. I believe that we are shaped by a caricature of Calvinism.

George Mason: Calvinism. Just describe that a little bit.

Larry James: Well, the idea that there are an elect, right? And the evidence, or the mark of election is guess what, wealth.

George Mason: Wealth, yes. That's historically been ...

Larry James: And so you know-

George Mason: In other words, if I'm doing the right thing, God will prosper me.

Larry James: Exactly.

George Mason: Which the corollary is, if I find myself in poverty, I must be doing the wrong thing.

Larry James: Yeah, exactly. And I am the wrong person.

George Mason: Yes.

Larry James: I'm on the wrong side of that great divide.

George Mason: Yes.

Larry James: When in Matthew 25 Jesus turns all that upside down really, doesn't he?

George Mason: Yes.

Larry James: And he says, "I am in fact people you consider to be less." And so it's part theological. It's always been curious to me that poverty would grow in Dallas at the rate that it's grown while the economy is booming and while we have a church or a faith community virtually on every corner. The urban institute issued a study in the last month that ranked 274 cities on several axis of inclusion. So there was a study that they'd measure the inclusivity of cities in the United States. 274 cities are analyzed. Dallas finished 274th out of 274.

George Mason: Well.

Larry James: So we have work to do here in terms of including one another in these discussions to change this system while we are maintaining our charitable hearts and our openness to one another.

George Mason: Wow. I think one of the hopeful things I see about that is that there does seem to be a new generation of religious leaders that is calling attention to this, that is willing to step up and say, "This is not acceptable in a city known for its faith communities." That-

Larry James: And it's wealth.

George Mason: And it's wealth. Absolutely. I think on the other side of that too, we're seeing that the city has recognized that if you want to attract a company like Amazon, for instance, for it's second headquarters, they are looking at these kinds of things to see how do people at each economic stratum live. What's the quality of life in a city? And we seem to have judged Dallas, historically, on the basis of how many billionaires we're making. Of how much wealth we're creating, without looking at the total sense of community and what's taking place there.

George Mason: So my hope is, at least, that some of these factors economically are going to drive us to pay better attention to that because it's going to be, otherwise, a continuing decline or increase in that wealth gap that exists.

Larry James: Yeah, that's absolutely correct.

George Mason: Yeah. So Larry, what are some of the greatest challenges you think Dallas faces now? You've just mentioned this quality of life one. We've talked about homelessness, we've talked about some of the investments that need to be made. If you were to say, "Dallas is my home, this is the place I live, my faith calls me to be involved in this," as we know it does. And people are watching this and listening to this. What would you say is crucial that if we could turn this in Dallas, in the next decade, what would you say would be important?

Larry James: We need to double down on our efforts in public education.

George Mason: Public education, OK.

Larry James: To give the children that are in our schools a chance to really succeed. But we must understand that their low performance in standardized testing, that gives us this data we need, is linked more to poverty than any other factor. The children of the poor have many, many, many times fewer experiences than the children of the rich. And I've got story after story after story that validates that. The quality of education in DISD for example, I believe have evidence and just anecdotal siting that it's improving.

George Mason: It's improving dramatically. Absolutely. Improving dramatically.

Larry James: And some of that's due to volunteers who come in. Some of that's due to changes that have been made and how teaching staffs are assigned and managed and all the rest. But we needed to do more of that. And at the same time, we need to figure out ways to bring experience, ordinary common day, the experiences. There needs to be an experience quotient figured out, so that my grandchildren and all their wonderful experiences are not far, far ahead of the children of the poor, simply because my grandchildren and can afford the experiences they can't.

George Mason: I think that this is one of the places where I hope conservatives and progressive people who are having conversations about this can learn to find some common ground. So education's crucial for everyone. You talk about the greatest deficit being poverty.

Larry James: Yes.

George Mason: Most of my conservative friends say the greatest deficit is in families, in terms of family involvement, investment, moral foundation, those sorts of things. But-

Larry James: I would agree with that, if you can afford it.

George Mason: Well that's what I'm trying to get to is some of these factors are related to the poverty factors and vice versa, that in fairness, there are a self management issues that do come with poverty, but the way out of poverty is also through an increased capacity for self management and for discipline and all of that too.

George Mason: But it's not either or. It's both of these things together. And we can't just give up on a whole educational system just because we have analyzed or diagnosed it in a particular way, and we can't get other people to agree with us.

Larry James: Totally, totally agree. And these children are in fact our children. And if one of our children is not doing well, then we all need to rally and figuring out what we can do to help that child succeed.

George Mason: I think if we could have the idea that yes, my children are my children and I love them particularly because they are my children, but because I am a child of God, there really is no such thing as other people's children.

Larry James: That's exactly right.

George Mason: Yeah. Larry, thank you so much for-

Larry James: Oh thank you so much for having me. I appreciate you more than you know.

George Mason: Thank you. Okay.

Jim White: Good God is created by Dr. George Mason, produced and directed by Jim White. Guest coordination and social media by Upward Strategy Group. Here's grateful appreciation to Evolve Technology for location and production facilities. Evolve Technology for all audio, video and lighting design. Enjoy more, think less, with Evolve. See their great work at evolvedallas.com. Thanks to Wendy Crispin caterer for guest parking accommodations.

Jim White: Good God. Conversations with George Mason is the podcast devoted to bringing you ideas about God and faith and the common good. All material copyright 2018 by Faith Commons.

John Seibert: One of the challenges we face in the fight against poverty is that it is such a big, broad problem that it can be overwhelming to people. Can I really make a difference? Is that something I can really impact? And the answer is yes. My name is John Seibert. I am president and chief operating officer at City Square. The mission of City Square is to fight the causes and effects of poverty through service, advocacy and friendship.

John Seibert: The service takes the form of about 17 different programs. Advocacy takes the form of different forms of community organizing and really speaking up for neighbors in poverty. And then really the key, the secret sauce to who we are at City Square, is friendship. City Square is really in the people business. And so our fight against poverty is all about relationships and investing in people. There are no clients, there are only neighbors, and we're all in this together as friends and in community as one. And so I think when we focus more on recognizing our shared humanity, that's when poverty doesn't stand a chance.

Good God Project