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Shawn Vestal: A road map for the ‘Houston way’

In a little over a decade, the Houston metro area has seen a 64% reduction in homelessness and has moved more than 25,000 people into housing. More than 90% of those people have remained housed, according to the city’s homeless nonprofit.

What’s working in Houston?

According to people there, it boils down to having a truly coordinated, collaborative system. This may sound obvious or cliched, but the Houston model is based on deep, broad collaboration – it’s not regular meetings of a handful of elected officials, but deeply aligned efforts among more than 100 different players, from the worlds of government, business, religion, philanthropy and service providers.

And it’s not just talk.

“It’s more than just coming together – it’s acting together,” said Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor of Houston on homelessness initiatives. “Action is the key.”

Here are a few key characteristics of the Houston program:

A centralized, coordinated response

Houston created a nonprofit, the Coalition for the Homeless, that organizes the efforts of all the players and sets common goals. It also collects data, measures outcomes and holds projects accountable.

The coalition oversees more than $55 million in public funds – much of which goes to separate agencies in the form of grants, which come with strings attached. Aligning these funds and fitting together the different providers to create a unified whole takes an enormous amount of effort, Eichenbaum said.

Any given project, such as a permanent supportive housing facility, for example, may involve several different providers, each of whose funding comes with different requirements and criteria.

Houston did not raise taxes or make large new public investments – it achieved efficiencies and eliminated duplications through the unified system, Eichenbaum said. The coalition oversees more than 30 grants from five major funders, and they all come with specific conditions.

“The complicated nature of that situation intimidates jurisdictions,” he said. “But there is no other way.”

Political leadership

Though the system is not run out of City Hall, it was created and sustained through political campaigns led by Houston’s mayors and other elected leaders. It took leadership, expertise and pressure.

This is particularly important as a catalyst for moving different parties forward at the front end and building coalitions across factions, and for moving from talk to action.

In the Houston system, political leaders remain crucial in maintaining and sustaining support for the system – in terms of working with landlords to persuade them to open rentals for folks with housing vouchers, for example, Eichenbaum said.

Housing over shelter

Shelters are necessary, but only as a front door into a system toward permanent housing. For every dollar you spend on a shelter, you should spend four to 10 times more on permanent housing, Eichenbaum said.

Houston’s system does not involve one or two different housing options. It involves many routes out of homelessness, which can be tailored to the individual’s needs. This includes shelters for different parts of the population, permanent supportive housing, which include intensive wraparound services, and rapid-rehousing programs, which direct people who may need less assistance toward subsidized, market-rate apartments.

It includes day-services centers where people may get food, treatment, and other help, and specialized diversion centers for homeless people who are arrested, helping to move them toward housing.

It is a housing-first model – that begins with putting people indoors, no-strings-attached – but far from a housing-only model.

Extensive, personalized services

More than 30,000 people received some form of homeless services in Houston in 2020. Everyone has a card that coordinates their access to help, and which helps case managers track their progress.

The “front doors” of the system, whether that’s an emergency shelter or a day-services facility, exist to begin to identify and personalize what comes next, and to direct people toward the help they need.

Outreach teams work on the streets, getting to know people personally and tailoring a response. They are able to use tablets to access system data in real time to help get people into programs or find out where the help is available at that moment.

A carrot, not a stick

Houston has managed to reduce the number of public encampments dramatically, but it avoids sweeps – the practice of directing police or code enforcement teams to roust campers and haul off their belongings.

“What does a sweep do?” Eichenbaum asked. “It just displaces individuals.”

But the coalition has managed to “de-commission” more than 40 public encampments, using outreach teams to build relationships and begin to move people toward housing gradually – relying upon voluntary, not mandatory, options. Most people respond to that approach, if there is the right housing solution available, Eichenbaum said.

“The carrot has to be bigger than the stick,” he said. “And the carrot has to exist.”

The discussion around the “shelter-resistant” can be a red herring, he said. He estimates that 10-15% of the homeless population may be suffering such extreme behavioral health problems that they won’t engage or accept services.

The first step is to truly help the majority of the population, and then focus on the most difficult individuals by forming relationships, encouraging the use of voluntary services and offering diversion programs that move them toward housing if they are arrested. Often, offering those people a shelter bed won’t work, but offering them a permanent place to live will.

“You can’t arrest your way out of homelessness,” Eichenbaum said. “The data shows that ordinances have never reduced homelessness. That doesn’t mean you don’t do some common-sense enforcement of” laws that protect all residents, homeless or otherwise.

Fiscal conservatism

“It costs more to place a person experiencing homelessness into housing and provide services than it does to walk merrily by them on the street,” he said.

In Harris County, one of the three Texas counties served by the Houston system, the average cost per homeless person prior to the creation of the system was about $80,000 per person in police, fire and medical responses.

Providing housing and services for a homeless individual costs between $16,000 and $20,000.

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