Seeking Shelter/Seeking Solutions: Unlike Anchorage, Houston, Texas homelessness plan is laser-focused on a single goal

Houston officials say they’ve reduced homelessness by 70%
Houston officials say they’ve reduced homelessness by 70%
Published: Aug. 29, 2023 at 8:00 PM AKDT
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HOUSTON, Texas (KTUU) - Government leaders from all across the country visit Houston, Texas, each year to learn what that city has done to get homeless people off the streets and into permanent housing. Many consider Houston the model city when it comes to finding solutions to homelessness.

Houston officials report impressive success when dealing with their city’s homelessness issues. Although they’re careful not to claim to have solved the problem, the program they call “The Way Home” does appear to have made dramatic improvements in getting homeless people into permanent housing.

Nereyda Uresti braves the sizzling summer heat as she hits the Houston streets first thing in the morning. She works for the Houston Coalition for the Homeless.

“It’s hot out here, it’s like a hundred and something [degrees],” Uresti said. “It’s hot.”

On this day, her job is to locate a number of homeless individuals who have already indicated they’re ready to get off the streets.

“This whole week we’re doing the 290 closure,” she says. The 290 is a busy stretch of freeway in Houston.

Coalition workers are decommissioning homeless encampments in the underpasses of the 290 freeway. That means they’re helping move homeless people off the streets after days of preparing to place each of those individuals in shelters.

On the first day, police notify folks living in these small encampments that they have to move elsewhere by the end of the week, and then a service agency will provide them with additional help. Next, Houston Coalition for the Homeless workers meet with those people to explain what their options are. The team targeted 10 underpasses on this day in late July. They are all places where Houston has made it illegal for the homeless to camp — since the city has alternative shelter space available.

The coalition has a years-long system in place that compiles the paperwork needed to process these individuals. Over the course of a week, caseworkers have been filing this paperwork behind the scenes, working with homeless people to find them a better place to live. The first person they find is Wendell Hall. He’s been on the streets for two years, often panhandling at a busy intersection. When the team approaches him — he’s eager to leave.

“Basically, you’re like a child because people are taking care of you,” Hall said. “You know, I like my own money, I like my own place.”

Hall’s paperwork was completed beforehand so he’s good to go. A taxi waits nearby to take him to a shelter.

“Today, he’s going to the navigation center, and he’ll be going there for maybe, approximately a month or maybe less,” Uresti said. “As soon as his apartment’s ready, he’ll be enrolled into a housing program, be provided everything that he needs. If he needs healthcare or mental health [care], they’ll be people onsite there that’s able to assist him with that.”

That means Hall will soon be entering permanent housing.

“So, it’s a very collaborative approach between the public sector, the private sector, nonprofits all working together, moving in the same direction,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Mayor Turner and the community have an extensive team of people to help combat the homeless situation. He says they all work together towards one common goal.

“You really have to look at it as, this is a crisis of humanity, that in many cases where either we have failed them, or we simply haven’t provided the necessary resources to transition them — but this is a very solvable problem,” Turner said.

Marc Eichenbaum is the mayor’s senior advisor on homeless issues. He said the city places an emphasis on housing the homeless above simply sheltering them.

“We are not a sheltered-based system, we are a housing-based system,” Eichenbaum said. “We base these decisions, not because it’s in some progressive or liberal playbook, we look at the data. In fact, as a city, we look like a business does at [return on investment]. We have limited funds for a major problem out there. So where can we invest those dollars to get the biggest return for that investment? And the data shows it’s housing.”

“We have over 100 different agencies all working together on one united plan, with shared goals and shared strategies to ultimately move the needle on reducing homelessness,” he added.

Eichenbaum says Houston is unique because every agency works under one umbrella, which is led by the Coalition for the Homeless. Each agency also shares the same data and information about every homeless individual on the streets.

“That coordinated access system is embedded at all of our shelters, it’s embedded at our soup kitchens, it’s embedded at our divergent facilities,” Eichenbaum said. “Even our outreach teams have it on tablets, and they’re out in the field assessing folks for housing through coordinated access.”

Mike Nichols is the coalition’s CEO. His group oversees homeless programs throughout Houston’s tri-county area.

“When people say, ‘How do you solve homelessness?’ The answer is housing. Housing, housing, housing,” Nichols said.

Since 2012, the coalition has reported assisting 28,000 homeless people, who were taken off the streets and placed into permanent housing. Nichols believes the coalition’s overall vision has led to its success.

“A decision was made that we would house the most vulnerable people first. The most vulnerable people, people most likely to die on the street,” Nichols said.

“We’ve cut the number of individuals on our streets by more than 70%,” Eichenbaum said.

But housing the homeless takes housing.

Houston officials say they not only have to build new units, but also locate affordable rentals throughout the area. That’s something many other cities have found challenging.

“Do they have available housing, not just affordable housing, but available housing?” Nichols said. “Do they make the permitting so rigorous and so impossible that you can’t build? Is it so expensive that you can’t build?”

Although Houston has received many accolades for its work, not every organization is singing its praises. According to some, while the city’s focus may remain on housing the homeless, many other services get overlooked, such as food.

Shere Dore volunteers with the Houston nonprofit organization, Food not Bombs. She’s critical of Mayor Turner’s administration.

“There is a huge disconnect between the mayor’s office and the homeless community down here on the streets. You know, it’s been seen over and over again,” Dore said. “So, I’m happy to say that we got quite a few homeless off the street, but 60%, there’s just absolutely no way.”

However, Wendell Hall is getting off the streets — and will now have a chance to rebuild his life.

“I got to keep the faith and that’s what I did,” Hall said. “I never gave up on faith. You know, I could have been worse off than that but something told me to just hold on, hang in there.”

“As long as he keeps doing his stuff, doesn’t break the lease or anything, he can have housing for as long as he needs it,” Uresti said.