Homelessness is one of the most difficult problems America’s cities must deal with. But Houston is leading the way in getting people off the streets and into housing where they can receive the assistance they need.
It is simply not acceptable for people to live on the streets. It is not good for them and it is not good for the city. We are tackling this complicated issue and we are doing it humanely with a meaningful approach that balances the needs of the homeless and the concerns of neighborhoods they impact.
Mayor Annise Parker made reducing homelessness a priority of her administration and we have continued the work done by her and the many non-profit agencies seeking to help those living on the street.
The Mayor’s Office for Homeless Initiatives manages the City of Houston’s response to homelessness, coordinating the efforts of various City agencies, including the Housing and Community Development Department, the Health and Human Services Department, the Houston Police Department, the Office of Veteran Affairs and others. The office works closely with more than 100 private, philanthropic, faith-based, neighborhood and local homeless service organizations to advance Houston’s regional response to homelessness in a program known as “The Way Home.” The Way Home works to prevent and reduce homelessness using the data-driven, national best practice of “Housing First.”
Since 2012, The Way Home and its partners have permanently housed over 17,000 individuals and families, with 90 per cent still housed to this day, resulting in an overall reduction in homelessness of 54 per cent, making The Way Home arguably the most successful big city homeless response initiative in the United States.
The 2019 Homeless Count & Survey, coordinated by the local Coalition for the Homeless from Jan. 22 to Jan. 24, found that the Houston area experienced a five percent reduction in the homeless. The count found 3,938 individuals in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties who were homeless, with 41 percent on the streets and the rest in shelters.
A significant success in fighting homelessness was reaching out to our veterans living on the street. The City joined county and federal agencies and non-profits to create Housing Houston’s Heroes. Its first goal of housing 100 veterans in 100 days was reached and within three years, 3,650 veterans found homes. The City of Houston was nationally recognized by The White House and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2015 for its efforts to house veterans and has served as a model for other cities looking to take an innovative and proactive approach to addressing homelessness.
We took aim at panhandling with a new ordinance prohibiting obstruction of roadways with an anti-panhandling media campaign involving TV, radio, print and social media ads, street signage, billboards and a way to donate to service organizations via text and online giving. The campaign, which was funded by 15 management districts, urges residents to help bring about “meaningful change” by donating their “spare change” directly to organizations that provide services. The public awareness campaign was coupled with a pilot program to connect panhandlers to employment opportunities.
Despite our ability to permanently house thousands of homeless individuals over the past few years, or perhaps because of it, we are now left with individuals on our streets who are the most difficult to house, with debilitating mental health and substance abuse issues, living in encampments that pose public health and safety risks to both the individuals living in the encampments and the surrounding communities.
The city has been proactive in cleaning up these encampments to address health and safety concerns while the homeless are transitioning to shelters and permanent supportive housing. The Houston Police Department Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) was expanded to offer increased interaction and assistance for the homeless. HOT is a specialized team of police officers and mental health caseworkers who engage in street outreach to homeless community with the goal if reducing the number of people living on streets by helping them overcome personal obstacles to housing. HOT works with the homeless when the City cleans up an encampment. The homeless are offered transportation to a shelter and free storage of many of their belongings.
Our programs lead all major cities in dealing with a nationwide problem. This is a realistic, holistic approach that provides meaningful solutions. By offering multiple choices and a little bit of tough love, we hope to convince more of our street population to get off the streets. We are also easing the pressure in neighborhoods. We will never totally eliminate homelessness, but with the entire community’s help, we can reduce it even more.
In this city, we are not going to abandon our most vulnerable.
A catalog of homeless supportive services in Houston can be found at http://www.homelesshouston.org/helpcard/.