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Shawn Vestal: Houston’s example puts permanent housing at the forefront

Among the lessons we might learn from Houston’s response to homelessness is the way that city clears camps.

Obviously, homeless encampments – and one in particular – have been a vexing challenge here. The “highly successful” approach in Houston, according to an official from that city who came to Spokane last month, has been to immediately offer permanent housing with supportive services to people in camps – as opposed directing them to shelters or trying to simply move people along.

“If we’re offering the right housing, about 90% of people accepted the housing,” Mandy Chapman Semple said at a presentation to elected officials and the public April 24.

“We never rehouse someone without those two things together. … If we don’t move the services to the housing, then people have to fall back into crisis to get into the services,” she said.

Houston has cleared 58 encampments, at a pace of about one per month, she said. That’s a big part of the city’s success, helping it bring down homelessness by 60% in four years and reduce unsheltered homelessness by 70%. The ability for the city to achieve such success on the ground has been enabled by its collaborative governance structure.

Leaders in Spokane, and many other U.S. cities, have had their eye on Houston for a while now. The key to what’s happened there is the formation of a single decision-making entity, integrating money, resources and expertise, as opposed to an array of governments and nonprofits pulling in their own directions.

Semple was here to help spur Spokane’s effort to follow Houston’s lead. That effort is being driven by three former City Hall officials with a track record of creative, practical solutions to civic problems; they are a little more than halfway through a 90-period of information-gathering and public comment, after which they will make a series of recommendations.

The three volunteers are Gavin Cooley, a longtime former chief financial officer; Rick Romero, former director of strategic planning at the city; and Theresa Sanders, former city administrator. So far, the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Airway Heights are on board in principle, along with the Spokane County; each entity would have to eventually vote on whether to join an authority.

The urgency to do something smart and substantial grows every day. Last week, not long after Semple’s presentation, the city announced that its annual point-in-time count of homeless people rose 36% from last year.

It was the latest in a string of annual increases. Since 2016, the one-night PIT count has more than doubled – from 981 to 2,390 – and it’s widely understood to be a significant undercount.

“Homelessness is not just a blip on our landscape here,” Cooley said. “Homelessness is something we will be dealing with for a very long time – have been dealing with for a really long time.”

It’s daunting, but not insurmountable. A key advantage of the collaborative approach is that – if you can get all the governments, agencies, nonprofits and business community pulling in the same direction – there is enough money to make substantial progress, he said.

“When you break down the silos, when you integrate what you’re doing, money is never the problem,” he said.

As appealing as the idea sounds in general, it remains a heavy lift. Getting all the different parties on-board, particularly given the differences in philosophy and potential turf battles, is bound to be difficult.

Semple said that it’s possible to overcome those differences by focusing on a common goal: Getting people off the streets in the healthiest and most effective ways possible.

Houston formed its regional authority – The Way Home – with the buy-in of governments, nonprofits and private organizations to follow a housing-first approach. It combined resources and leveraged additional financing. And it focused on gathering good, real-time data, holding programs accountable for results, and being strategic in a system-wide fashion.

Beginning in 2012, Semple said, the authority decided, “We’ve gotta go big for three years.” That meant directing all affordable housing spending to adding permanent supportive units at the front end, and aligning federal housing vouchers with the effort.

Houston set a goal of adding 2,500 new PSH units in those three years. Those projects can be a tough sell to neighborhoods. Witness the response to a single such project in the West Hills, opened by Catholic Charities as part of the state-funded effort to clearing Camp Hope.

Semple said in Houston – a strong-mayor city like Spokane – it was crucial in the early days for the mayor to be out in front of neighborhood groups answering tough questions and showing commitment. The authority pledged to build or open PSH projects in all parts of town, and used that fact to help pitch the plan to residents – no single neighborhood was bearing the brunt.

The fact that Houston doesn’t have zoning regulations was an advantage Spokane doesn’t share, she said. But the expansion of permanent housing laid the groundwork for progress.

“We were quite successful in targeting and building our skills to respond to chronic and unsheltered homelessness and from there we’ve just built and built and built the system,” Semple said. “And now Houston responds to everyone who’s experiencing homelessness.”

There’s a lot of hard work between this very good idea and the kind of results that Houston has seen. A proposal will be on the table in the months to come, and whether it comes to pass will depend on elected officials.

As Sanders told a group of them last month, “The decision will be yours, actually, on what happens next.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or at

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