Seeking Shelter/Seeking Solutions: Is Houston, Texas, a model for ending homelessness in Anchorage?

Officials from around the country visit Houston to learn how it moved thousands of homeless people into permanent housing.
Officials from around the country visit Houston to learn how it moved thousands of homeless people into permanent housing
Published: Aug. 28, 2023 at 7:17 PM AKDT
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HOUSTON, Texas (KTUU) - An in-depth investigation into the homeless crisis in Anchorage led reporters at Alaska’s News Source to the Lone Star State in search of answers. Many city leaders consider Houston, Texas, a model community when it comes to finding solutions to homelessness.

New research has shown that both cities share a similar number of homeless residents, but Houston consistently receives much more in federal funding to help its homelessness crisis.

A team of reporters spent a week investigating what works there and how Anchorage might benefit from it.

Houston officials say they’ve found a way to bring the community together and set clear priorities. They claim it’s led to a 70% drop in the number of homeless people on the streets.

They are people just like John Nickles, who spent ten years of his life homeless, living mainly in an abandoned house.

“It was a struggle, but I never gave up hope,” Nickles said.

Nickles is a military vet who fell on hard times and essentially gave up on life.

“In my situation, I’m a widower and I lost my wife,” Nickles said. “I went into a depression, a deep depression.”

After struggling to find odd jobs to make ends meet, the struggles of being homeless eventually took their toll on Nickles.

“Alcohol, marijuana, and pills,” he said when asked about what drugs he consumed.

Soon, just finding enough to eat became a daily challenge.

“Go down to the restaurants after closing and literally get the food that they were discarding,” Nickles said. “Out of the dumpsters.”

But Nickles eventually found help through a community program that helps homeless people transition from the streets to permanent housing.

“The services are out there if you want them,” Nickles added.

For the past seven years, Nickles has been living in his own apartment in Northwest Houston. It’s not congregate housing — where homeless people are grouped together; it’s an apartment complex where he feels right at home.

“I have a roof over my head, as you all can see, it’s a nice apartment,” Nickles said.

Tammy Dempsey also found permanent housing through Houston program, the Coalition for the Homeless, which brings together charitable and service organizations as well as government officials from the city of Houston and three counties.

Dempsey has been living in her apartment just outside of Houston in Conroe, Texas, for the past five years. Before that, she said she spent a year and a half in the woods, camped out in a tent.

“I don’t think I’d be alive if I didn’t get into a place,” Dempsey said. “The streets were not made for me.”

Dempsey now lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her small dog, Rosey. Like Nickles, her rent is paid through the homeless coalition. She also lives on disability.

The city’s focus on permanent housing, combined with supportive services, help people to apply, qualify, and stay housed.

“I have a place to live, and see my plants growing,” Dempsey said. “I have Rosey here, go and make dinner. Sit and go to sleep and not have to worry that somebody is going to come and hurt you, or sleeping under a bridge.”

SEARCH Homeless Services worked through Houston’s coalition with John and Volunteers of America Texas worked with Tammy.

But the question remains — what can other cities learn from Houston about homelessness?

In Anchorage, officials recently announced that in 2024, the city will have over 300 new apartments ready for people to move in. But, unlike Houston’s leaders, Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson says permanent housing should not be the city’s responsibility.

“I think the taxpayer should only be involved in the sheltering process because it’s a public safety issue,” Bronson said. “You know, if you freeze to death on the street, that’s a public safety issue. A shelter keeps them from doing that. Now all the hotel conversions and the housing, the nonprofits are taking care of that, and they should.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s focus could not be more different. He says his community’s decision to pour public funds into permanent housing — and empower one agency to oversee the effort — has led to moving thousands of people off the streets and has kept them in housing.

“You have all of these nonprofit partners in this space — let’s say about 100 of them — that are working in alignment under the umbrella of the Coalition for the Homeless, ‘The Way Home,’” Turner said. “And the center, the city of Houston, is right there at the heart of it.”

Anchorage Assembly Chair Christopher Constant wishes Bronson shared that vision.

“I believe that for every dollar we spend on shelter, we should spend 10 dollars on housing, and that’s the bottom line,” Constant said. “Because every dollar we spend on shelter is a missed opportunity to actually end the problem and not just perpetuate it forever.”

Constant feels there’s a better way to invest those dollars.

“Housing units. Hotel conversions. Getting people off the streets permanently instead of putting them in a temporary environment in which they’re stuck in the crisis,” Constant said.

The mayor says the municipality must focus on the crisis and finish the navigation center at the corner of Tudor Road and Elmore Road. Anchorage has seen 29 confirmed outdoor deaths this year, already breaking the calendar year record. Bronson says a large shelter and navigation center would reduce the risks.

“A shelter would avert all this. That’s the reality. I know it’s political, but so be it, you know,” Bronson said. “I really don’t care. I’m just looking for solutions and now I’m, my back is against the wall. Go ask the Assembly and go ask the ACEH.”

The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness, or ACEH, is a nonprofit group that coordinates homeless services.

Rocky Redding remembers what it was like to be on the streets of Anchorage for eight long years.

“Cold, and everybody’s out to get you, basically,” Redding said. “And there’s not very many people out there to help you.”

Redding lives at the Aviator Hotel in Anchorage but is moving to the Golden Lion Hotel. It’s not what he considers permanent housing, but as he struggles to stay drug-free, it’s a place he can focus on getting back what he lost and giving back to his community.

“Yes, completely clean and completely with all my family,” he said. “And help others.”

Elizabeth Parish was living in an RV in Anchor Point before moving to Anchorage, where she said she lived in shelters for years. Before finding housing, Parish was using drugs.

“Been clean and sober for over three years now,” Parish said.

She’s an example of someone who got help finding permanent housing in Anchorage. Parish now holds down two jobs to make ends meet.

“I work at Subway, and I also babysit for a living,” Parish said.

Parish lives in a studio apartment. It’s temporarily subsidized by a nonprofit, but soon she’ll begin paying her own rent. She’s grateful for the help she received but said Anchorage needs to do more for others who are less fortunate, citing a lack of resources in the municipality.

“Not enough consistency in the system that we live in that allows permanent housing situation — not just temporary, but permanent,” Parish said.

But city leaders in Anchorage are still disagreeing over the fundamental question of what type of housing to provide.

“I don’t think we should be building homes for people; I think the nonprofits should be doing that,” Bronson said.

Constant said that was “manufacturing a fantasy.”

“We don’t need fantasy, government by fantasy here,” he said. “We’ve seen enough of that in this national discussion over the last few years.”

Until there is a consensus, Parish’s call for a consistent policy is just wishful thinking. Meanwhile, in Houston, Turner offers a warning.

“You know, politics has a way of permeating everything,” Turner said. “They have to align and not be competitive, because it takes all of us who are working in this space in order to be successful in housing a person, or a family who — for whatever reason — they have landed on our streets.”

Houston has one agency — the Coalition for the Homeless — that oversees coordinates and disperses funding to 100 different groups that all work together towards the goal of creating permanent housing. The community does have a navigation center, but it’s only used as a temporary shelter for individuals before people are placed in permanent housing.