‘Smart policy’: Houston praised for successful approach to homeless crisis

The homeless crisis in America is devastating liberal-led cities from sea to shining sea, but one Democrat-run city actually appears to be winning the battle.

According to an op-ed by reporter Nicholas Kristof for the New York Times, Dallas and Houston are “two Democratic bubbles in Texas that have long faced the familiar urban ache of homeless people slumped on sidewalks and camping in parks.”

“In Dallas, homelessness worsened for years, and that city now has the most unhoused people in Texas,” according to Kristof. “Meanwhile, the Houston region has slashed homelessness by more than 60 percent since 2011.”

So how is Houston succeeding where cities such as Dallas, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Portland are miserably failing?

“Smart policy,” Kristof writes, “matters far more than good intentions.”

He points to “three elements” in Houston that has made the difference.

The city’s “strong political leaders” convinced nonprofits to stop competing with each other and work “in unison.” Kristof explains.

Houston’s “lack of regulation,” he continues, makes building new apartments in the city “quick and cheap.”

“Building a small one-bedroom can cost less than $200,000,” the journalist notes, “while Los Angeles spent as much as $837,000 per apartment for people who were homeless.”

And, instead of providing counseling or jackets to the homeless, Houston has concentrated on “moving people into apartments and providing ongoing care to keep them housed.”

In 2011, Houston earned the disturbing distinction of having the fifth-largest homeless population in America.

“That’s when the mayor at the time, Annise Parker, a numbers-driven policy wonk, introduced hardheaded new initiatives that her successor, Sylvester Turner, sustained,” Kristof reports. “What unfolded wasn’t a triumph of compassion so much as one of evidence, management and impeccable execution, and in that, there are probably broader lessons for governing.”

In 2012, the city established the Coalition for the Homeless, “the leader of the homeless response system for Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery Counties,” according to its website.

The “independent, outside agency” coordinates “100 nonprofits, so that they could all address homelessness under the umbrella of an effort called The Way Home,” Kristof writes, calling the coalition “one of Houston’s most important innovations.”

“In other cities, organizations are well meaning but scattered, so one homeless person may have contact with three nonprofits while another has contact with none — and these initiatives may not be tightly focused on getting a roof over someone’s head,” he explains.

“In Houston, every sinew is pulling in sync to get people off the streets and into housing,” Kristof states.

Police, too, are playing an important role in helping the homeless to get IDs.

“The police, who are often distrusted by people living on the streets, have been integrated into the system in Houston and are especially helpful in getting IDs — partly because some homeless people have arrest records, so their fingerprints can prove their identities,” Kristof writes. “Police officers can also often attest that someone has been homeless.”

If a homeless individual is entitled to disability or veterans’ benefits, outreach workers help them to apply for them.

Chief among the priorities is finding the homeless a place to live, regardless of any addictions.

“A pillar of the Houston approach is ‘housing first’: the idea that people should get housing even if they are abusing drugs or alcohol,” Kristof reports. “The thinking behind this is that it may be easier for someone to overcome an addiction while safe in an apartment rather than cold on a wet sidewalk and feeling a need to self-medicate.”

“In Houston, people are mostly placed in apartments, not temporary shelters, and they receive case management to help with jobs, benefits, behavioral health and other needs,” he explains. “The system works well in getting people back on their feet but is not perfect. A year after finishing a program that provided a year’s rent in an apartment, 8 percent had returned to homelessness.”

Having said that, the program “may pay for itself,” Kristof writes.

“The coalition says that the cost in Houston of housing and supporting someone who would otherwise be homeless is about $20,000 a year (about $13,000 in housing and $7,000 in case management),” he says. “The same individual on the streets could accumulate a far higher tab with a few ambulance trips, hospital stays and jailings (people who are homeless make up a disproportionate share of people arrested — half in the case of Portland, Ore., and one-quarter in Los Angeles, one investigation found).”

Despite its successes, Kristof warns, Houston may soon run into money problems as its federal Covid relief funds run out.

“It’s not clear how the city will finance further rehousing,” he reports.

While a bond issue or a special tax has been proposed, Houston voters “may not approve,” according to the journalist.

“That’s part of the policy puzzle: West Coast cities have poured funding into broken models,” Kristof writes, “while Houston has developed a model that has worked well but may be unwilling to finance it with its own money.”

Melissa Fine

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