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How Houston Cut Its Homeless Population by Nearly Two-Thirds

Houston has created a real system to address homelessness, aligning city, county and nonprofit efforts. That innovative program is now under threat, due to changes in leadership and funding.

Jackie Urbina, a counselor with Houston's Coalition for the Homeless, helps a woman named Alice sort through her things before getting a ride to a shelter.
(Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
In  Brief:
  • Over the past dozen years, Houston has driven down its homeless population by 64 percent, including a 17 percent reduction last year.
  • Its success is built on a system that coordinates public policy with 100 different nonprofits.
  • But a major source of federal money is running dry and experts are nervous about what a mayoral handover might mean.

  • The need to be needed is profound. A woman named Anita had no bed, but she wanted her dog to have one. She’d been sleeping on a pair of couch cushions under a highway overpass, a few miles west of Houston’s downtown. On a 93-degree day, a pair of outreach counselors convince her she’d be better off coming in out of the heat to stay at a shelter.

    They tell her she has to pick and choose among the possessions she’s stored in multiple shopping carts nearby. She can only fill two blue bins, which they provide. Anita devotes most of that limited space to bulky items for her dog, Lily — a bowl, a dozen cans of food and a padded dog bed. Anita keeps barely anything for herself, including her purse, some cigarettes and her prescription meds.

    Although the counselors are from Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless, Anita gets a ride from the public paratransit service, which will take her to a shelter run by another nonprofit, while Lily will have to go for shots at the Humane Society before they can be reunited in an apartment to be paid for by yet some other agency.

    This type of tag-team approach is common in Houston. The Coalition for the Homeless is the lead agency for The Way Home, a collective effort to address homelessness that involves Houston, Harris County, two neighboring counties and no fewer than 100 separate nonprofits.

    Houston has accomplished something practically no other jurisdiction has done. It’s created a true system to combat homelessness. Not that long ago, Houston and Harris County, their housing agencies and dozens of separate nonprofit groups barely spoke to one another about what they were trying to accomplish. By this point, close coordination has become a habit, with duplication and wasted effort, to an impressive extent, wrung out of the process.

    “The working relationship between the city and the county in addressing homelessness could not be better,” says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Instead of a hundred NGOs competing with each other, we’ve kind of pulled them all together. They’re now operating under a single umbrella, The Way Home.”

    That might sound like so much happy talk, but Turner’s got the numbers to back up any boasts. A dozen years ago, Houston had the sixth-largest homeless population in the country and was designated a “priority community” by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — not a happy distinction. Since then, Houston and its partners have reduced the homeless population by 64 percent, with a 17 percent drop over the past year. There used to be 8,500 people on the streets on any given night, but now Houston’s homeless population stands at 3,200, with all but 1,200 of them in shelters.

    Houston Becomes a Model

    Such results have attracted notice. Houston has become a sort of Mecca for officials from other cities looking for strategies to fight homelessness, receiving visits in recent weeks from the mayors of Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, among multiple other jurisdictions. Dallas and Collin County, which employed architects of the Houston approach as consultants, saw their chronic homeless population fall by 32 percent over the past year. “Houston is one of the real bright spots around the country,” says Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. “Houston is often looked at as a model for how you can pull all the pieces together to solve homelessness.”

    No one in Houston would claim that they’ve solved homelessness. And the city has some advantages that others don’t. Although rents have gone up, it’s still a lot cheaper to provide housing in Houston than in coastal cities such as San Francisco or L.A. People who work on homelessness in Houston bristle at the suggestion that the city’s famous lack of zoning has anything to do with their success — there was no zoning back in the dark “priority community” days, either — but it does take away a pain point that in most cities allow NIMBYs to object when an apartment building serving homeless people might be going up.

    Houston has made the most of what it has — not only through “deep collaboration” among various government and nonprofit entities, as Olivet puts it — but with almost laughably little cash. Texas spends almost no money on homelessness; the state devotes just 7 percent as much to its major homelessness programs as California does, per unhoused person ($806 versus $10,786). Houston itself devotes no general fund dollars to homelessness programs, while Harris County puts in just $2.6 million a year, and only for the past couple of years.
    New Hope Housing's Harrisburg location, a short light-rail ride from downtown Houston, offers 175 studio units — all but 15 of them owned by voucher recipients.
    (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
    What the city and its partners have done is make smart use of federal money. That reliance now leaves some people in the area nervous. Houston has been able to house an additional 12,000 individuals thanks to extra federal funding from COVID-19 programs. That money, some $25 million a year, will dry up next year.

    Houston’s emphasis is on getting people into their own individual apartments. On average, a year later, 90 percent of them are still in those homes. That costs roughly $18,000 a year, per person. The city has concluded it’s a good investment. Letting people stay on the streets costs three or four times as much, between jail time, emergency room visits and the rest. But the money sent to landlords has to come out of its own accounts, not from projected savings from other departments.

    Making the choices that ultimately led to a successful system has required both political will and perspicacity. Houston’s model has survived through two mayoral administrations, but Turner is term-limited this year and no one is 100 percent confident his ultimate successor, from a field of more than a dozen candidates, will follow the same approach with the same ardor. In addition, Mike Nichols, the president of the Coalition for the Homeless and leader of The Way Home, will retire this year. “You’d have to be naïve not to be nervous,” says Kelly Young, CEO of Career and Recovery Resources, a homelessness service provider.

    Everyone recognizes the known unknowns of the challenges being presented by changes in leadership and loss of funding. Last month, the Houston Endowment, the largest local philanthropy, gave $15 million in grants to the Coalition for the Homeless and three other nonprofits as a “call to action,” says Ann Stern, its president. “If we don’t keep building on the gains we’ve had, shame on us, because we know what to do,” she says.

    Serving the Right People

    Since the age of 12, Tevin Johnson has been in and out of jail and juvenile detention centers. Turning 30 in prison, he decided he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life “in a box,” in no small part because he missed having a relationship with his daughter. “I do what I do now for myself and for my daughter, because now I can send my baby money,” he says. “I ain’t got to worry about when I’m going to see her or when I’m going to talk to her.”

    Seeking a clean break from his gang and his old life, Johnson left Lubbock for Houston. It was rough at first. He spent some time under a bridge. But Houston turned out to be a good choice. He connected with a nonprofit called SEARCH Homeless Services, which sent him to one group that got him into temporary housing, as well as Career and Recovery Resources, which hired him to work on a landscaping crew that it runs with city funding. “I had a gentleman who had attempted murder charges,” Young says. “He applied multiple times, and I don't care what anybody says about second chances — who’s hiring him?”

    In most places, homeless services are heavily Balkanized. Different groups tend to cater to different populations. No one likes to say it openly, but some populations are more sympathetic and thus easier to raise money to support. People may have great reasons to give money to help veterans or children aging out of foster care, but the reality in Houston, as in many other jurisdictions, is that the vast majority of the homeless population is made up of single men of color. Making real progress in reducing homelessness means addressing their needs.

    The old way of doing business was “great for the organizations,” says Young, who used to run Houston’s AIDS Foundation. Dealing just with people with HIV/AIDS, she could pick whom to help from a relatively limited pool. She got to decide whether they’d fit in her program and whether she could offer them a bed. “That may seem like it makes sense, because I’m the service provider,” she says. “The problem is, then people were kind of handpicking who got in their program and that made their program look better. And then there was this whole group of people who weren't getting served at all.”

    As things stand in Houston now, a group like SEARCH will do intake and determine whether a person is eligible for housing or other programs. Their information is entered into a database that presents the case manager with a dashboard of options, much like booking a flight on Kayak or Expedia. If the person is eligible, they’re sent over to whatever nonprofit has a bed available — and that nonprofit has to take them in. “There has to be a high level of coordination,” says Marc Eichenbaum, the mayor’s special assistant for homeless initiatives. “One of the main keys of this is when somebody comes in, they have to take their hat off from whatever their organization does and think about the larger community.”
    Houston's Way Home approach has been institutionalized to the extent it can survive changes in leadership, says Mike Nichols, who'll soon retire as its CEO.
    (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)

    Here’s How It Happened

    Getting leaders of different organizations to stop thinking so much about their own missions and join a larger team wasn’t an easy sell. Many groups resisted the idea, some publicly complaining that whole approach was a terrible mistake, to the point of running op-eds in opposition in the newspaper. But Annise Parker, who was serving as Houston's mayor back when HUD issued its bad grade, knew things had to change.

    The issue was both personal and professional for her. She’d adopted and fostered children, including a teenage boy who was homeless when she took him in. “It wasn’t so much that we got dinged by HUD. It was more that I couldn’t understand why we weren’t making progress,” Parker recalls. “We had a lot of resources going into it — we were spending $100 million a year just on emergency room visits for chronically homeless people.”

    HUD’s criticism came with some help attached, including technical assistance. (Parker ended up hiring the top national adviser who'd been sent to Houston to oversee homeless programs for her.) The Obama administration made ending veterans’ homelessness a major priority, and Parker took up its challenge of housing 100 veterans within 100 days. As things turned out, the city was able to house 357 veterans in that short timespan.

    That success ended up becoming the pilot program for everything that followed. Houston adopted the Housing First Model — getting people into housing without first worrying about whether they were sober or had met other criteria to qualify. The city's mayor is one of the strongest in the country so Parker made sure the different fiefdoms at city hall were giving this issue the attention it needed. Then she turned her focus to the private sector. Parker made it clear that if nonprofits wanted to receive federal funds, they’d have to get on board with The Way Home model.

    “What I found, and I think this happens in most cities, is we have a lot of great organizations and agencies doing important work in very narrow areas, and they’re operating in parallel to each other but not converging on the problem,” Parker says. “I used a lot of political capital to push people into making a more coherent system.”

    Despite the initial resistance, demonstrated success brought more groups onboard. The number of people living on the streets or lacking shelter started to go down and then kept going down, although it plateaued ahead of the added injection of COVID-19 funds. “When I came in, in 2016, the model appeared to be working,” Mayor Turner says. “The numbers were trending in the right direction, so I decided to invest even more in the model.”

    Houston Exceptionalism

    In order to receive most federal funds, metropolitan areas have to adopt a model known as Continuum of Care (CoC) — a communitywide plan to deliver services to homeless people. In theory, that means there should be coordination everywhere. In practice, the CoC is usually run by nonprofits that fight for resources among themselves and seldom have the political savvy to get what they need out of cities and counties.

    Counties often think of homelessness as the city’s problem. For the city itself, homelessness touches practically everything it does — parks, health, finance, sanitation, schools — yet, public housing authorities often fail to see their role as addressing homelessness. “Most housing authorities don’t work closely with the CoC,” says Charley Willison, a public health professor at Cornell University who studies homelessness. “It seems really obvious, but it doesn’t happen often.”

    While there may be a lack of coordination to promote housing and homeless services, there’s no end of opposition. Everybody is supportive of reducing homelessness, but nobody supports having the homeless in their neighborhoods. Lawsuits to block construction are routine in places like Seattle and Los Angeles.

    The dynamics are a little different in Houston. When she was hatching her homelessness plan, Parker created an advisory council made up of some of the heaviest hitters in town — the heads of the downtown development authority, the Astros baseball team, the Catholic and Episcopal dioceses, and the Houston Endowment and the like. They not only helped with fundraising, but provided political backing for the mayor to pursue a long-term strategy. While business groups in many cities push for more enforcement, The Way Home receives continued support from major banks, oil companies and even oil-producing nations with ties to the city.

    The cops play a different role, too. Police in cities such as San Francisco and L.A. have portals on their websites that make it easy for residents to lodge nuisance complaints against homeless individuals. The Houston police don’t offer such a service. In fact, the force has its own homeless outreach team and will issue identification cards, which landlords will accept, to individuals who’ve lost their IDs.

    “For us in Harris County, our primary focus really stems from knowing that in policing these days, we're on the front lines of three key issues: mental illness, addiction and poverty,” says Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. “And so I think it’s important for us to recognize that it really is a public health issue: How can we better develop those systems of care, to better route people where they may need to be, rather than just looking at it through the lens of policing.”
    With limited funds, hard choices have to be made, says Marc Eichenbaum, Mayor Turner's point person on homelessness. That's where political will comes in.
    (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)

    Closing Encampments

    The police issued 1,400 citations for encampment violations last year, up from just 63 in 2018. They will clear out encampments entirely, but only in close coordination with the broader homelessness effort.

    The largest encampment in the city, with about 70 individuals, sits just south of the baseball stadium. It’s about to be cleared out, but the planning has been going on for weeks. Counselors from various entities have been working with individuals to line up housing for as many as are willing. Many people who resist shelters will happily claim an apartment. As the date approaches, law enforcement becomes a stick: Holdouts are warned the police will be clearing them out if they don’t come in. Since 2021, Houston has decommissioned more than 90 encampments that were “home” to 600 individuals, with 90 percent of them going into housing.

    Targeting highly visible and highly concentrated pockets of homelessness is a political necessity. Driving east from City Hall on San Jacinto Street, Eichenbaum says what he notices are all the blocks with no homeless people. But he knows that’s not what the public sees. You don’t have to spend much time in downtown Houston before seeing apparently homeless people pushing carts or picking cans out of the trash. They stand out more than they might in most cities. Restaurants and retail are underground in downtown Houston, the heat driving businesses and most pedestrian traffic down into tunnels. “We could house 5,000 people in one year and the public may not see or feel a difference at all,” Eichenbaum says. “We can house 5,000 people in one year and all the encampments would still be there.”

    With limited funds, prioritizing the most visible, dense homeless populations means some people are inevitably left to struggle in the heat. A 29-year-old mom named Simone was assessed for housing one Wednesday morning by Joshua Davis, a counselor at a nonprofit called The Beacon. She’d spent the previous night at a friend’s house, but says she has no idea where she’ll end up sleeping that night.

    That’s not good enough — or, actually, bad enough. Davis tells Simone about a program that will provide housing for 90 days, but there’s a 90-day wait to get in, and she’d have to get a job to qualify. She bites her lip in quiet disappointment. “If you have to be sleeping outside, you can go for longer-term housing,” Davis tells her. “If you do have to start sleeping outside, let me know.”

    Bracing for a Change

    People are sometimes said to fall into homelessness, unable to make rent or spiraling downward because of a medical bill or broken-down car. Many, like Simone, will be able to stay off the streets thanks to support from friends and family. Some will wear out their welcomes. Once they’re on the street, getting their lives back in order becomes a much bigger challenge.

    That’s why Houston concentrates its resources on getting people into housing. The Way Home promises landlords not only guaranteed rent payments, but that case managers will address any issues that come up, from lost IDs to substance abuse. The question now is whether Turner’s successor will follow the same road map. New mayors are generally not fond of continuing the pet initiatives of their predecessors. And, where there’s been success, there’s a tendency to grow complacent and turn attention to other problems that can feel more pressing.
    After HUD criticized Houston, local leaders knew something had to change or Houston would "end up being considered one of the worst places regarding homelessness," says Kelly Young, CEO of Career & Recovery Services.
    (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)
    When Annise Parker was looking to change direction, she sent a delegation to Denver, which at the time was considered the model city in addressing homelessness. Now it’s a cautionary tale. Denver’s new mayor, Mike Johnston, came to visit Houston to study its approach just before being sworn in. On his first day in office, he declared homelessness an emergency and his city’s biggest challenge. “If any mayor says that they are satisfied with what they have done with homelessness, watch their numbers go back up,” Turner says.

    State Sen. John Whitmire, the most likely candidate to succeed Turner, says helping the homeless will be a top priority in his administration. For a model, he points not to the city’s own success, but rather a program in San Antonio called Haven for Hope, a 23-acre campus that concentrates on addressing mental health, substance abuse and other problems. It provides temporary shelter, not permanent apartments where residents’ own names are on the lease, which is The Way Home approach.

    “Houston has been successful in getting many of our homeless into housing and services, but too many people are still on the streets,” Whitmire says. “For those who are homeless due to mental health or substance abuse issues, I will work with institutions to increase services to them. A program like this would require fundraising, which I know how to do.”
    Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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