Here’s How Houston Is Fighting Homelessness — and Winning

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. Both cities tried to address the challenge.

But smart policy matters far more than good intentions. In Dallas, homelessness worsened for years, and that city now has the most unhoused people in Texas. Meanwhile, the Houston region has slashed homelessness by more than 60 percent since 2011.

Homelessness is one of those topics that leaves Americans despairing, but Houston offers hope: It demonstrates what should be obvious, that a wealthy society doesn’t have to accept as inevitable throngs of people sleeping on sidewalks. Delegations from around the country now troop to Houston to seek lessons, with the mayors of Chicago, Los Angeles and Denver traipsing through this summer.

Houston achieved its results on the cheap, spending very little of its own money even as West Coast cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, Ore., have each poured hundreds of millions of dollars into efforts to address homelessness without much to show for them.

So what is Houston’s secret?

There were arguably three elements. First, the city had strong political leaders who herded nonprofits so that they worked in unison rather than competing. Second, Houston’s lack of regulation makes it easy, quick and cheap to build new apartments: Building a small one-bedroom can cost less than $200,000, while Los Angeles spent as much as $837,000 per apartment for people who were homeless. Third, Houston focused less on general help, such as handing out jackets or providing counseling, and more on moving people into apartments and providing ongoing care to keep them housed.

A homeless encampment near downtown Houston.

The turning point came in 2011, when Houston had the fifth-highest number of homeless people 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. 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.

To see what Houston’s approach looked like in practice, I shadowed Molly Permenter, an outreach worker, one morning. Permenter told me she had fled an abusive home at the age of about 16, slept under park benches, used drugs and was sex trafficked. She finally escaped and entered the Coast Guard, turned her life around and eventually joined Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless to try to help others in the position she had once been in.

Permenter understands the challenges. She guesses that if an outreach worker had ever approached her when she was on the street, she might have cursed that person.

After parking her car by a small wooded area near George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Permenter cautiously entered the forest along with a colleague from the coalition. We found an encampment hidden in the trees, home to 10 people whose unofficial leader was a charismatic 31-year-old named Joe Cavazos.

Lean and muscular, Cavazos said he was a construction worker until a shard of glass fell and cut his arm six months earlier, leaving him partly disabled. He lost his job, his car and his home, but he put his skills to use building shacks; one was a two-story marvel made of wood scraps.

Clearly intelligent and industrious, Cavazos said he was expelled from high school in the 11th grade but later studied electronics at a trade school. He told me that while homeless he made a living fixing televisions and computers and reselling them. A neighboring business owner offered a different account, saying that some people in the encampment stole equipment to sell. While I was chatting with Cavazos, the business owner approached us. Cavazos angrily leaped to his feet, and for a moment I worried that they were close to a fistfight. But the business owner quickly retreated, seething.

Cavazos said he had once struggled with alcohol but had been sober for eight years. I asked about drugs and didn’t get a clear answer, but he did volunteer that he was off his mental health medication.

“It made me feel worse,” he said. I asked what his diagnosis was.

“I got A.D.H.D., bipolar personality disorder, schizo, that’s what they’re telling me,” he said. “I don’t know. I’m perfectly fine.”

Permenter asked Cavazos if he would like to get on a wait list for housing. He said yes but didn’t know where to start. When he agreed to undergo an assessment, Permenter asked him a series of standardized questions.

Joe Cavazos
A scar from surgeries that followed an injury that left him disabled.

One of Houston’s most important innovations was to establish Coalition for the Homeless there as an independent, outside agency to coordinate 100 nonprofits, so that they could all address homelessness under the umbrella of an effort called The Way Home. 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.

In a recent survey by The Oregonian, two-thirds of unsheltered people in Portland said that they had never been approached by an outreach worker offering steps to get housed. And among the one-third who had been contacted, there had been no follow-up in three-quarters of the cases.

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

Permenter used a tablet to enter Cavazos’s information into a data system about homeless people shared by the nonprofits working in Houston. She quickly saw that Cavazos’s first challenge was obtaining identification.

People living on the streets frequently have lost their driver’s licenses, birth certificates and social security cards, making it difficult to apply for benefits. Navigating the bureaucracy to obtain IDs is a special nightmare for people whose belongings may be in shopping carts that they can’t take on a bus or into a Social Security office, and it’s worse for those like Cavazos who lack a telephone, email and a postal address.

Molly Permenter, an outreach worker in Houston, was formerly homeless.

Permenter explained that she would help Cavazos get an ID and a verification of homelessness necessary to get housing. 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. Police officers can also often attest that someone has been homeless.

Outreach workers also try to gauge whether people have a potential income source, such as disability or veterans benefits, and if so, offer help in applying for it. The assessment may involve trying to locate a relative who would be willing to offer a bedroom or moral support when someone may be trying to get off drugs.

A pillar of the Houston approach is “housing first”: the idea that people should get housing even if they are abusing drugs or alcohol. 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. 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.

Permenter explained to Cavazos that he would soon be on the housing waiting list (in fact, she got him on the wait list within the week, after obtaining a new ID and verification of homelessness for him). She added that it would be hard to estimate a date when he would get an apartment, but that it could be a few months.

“Do your best,” Cavazos said eagerly.

One myth that bedevils policymaking about homelessness: It is all about drugs, alcohol and mental illness.

In many cases, addiction does complicate homelessness, but the principal driver of high rates of homelessness is simply not enough housing. Consider that West Virginia has a huge addiction crisis yet doesn’t have much homelessness — because someone can rent a one-bedroom apartment there for less than $500 a month.

“Homelessness is a housing problem,” according to the title of an important book published last year by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Aldern. Colburn and Aldern examined nationwide data and found that high rates of homelessness didn’t correlate with high levels of addiction, poverty or mental illness but rather two related factors: high rents and low availability of rental housing.

So why is it that many who are homeless have mental health or addiction problems? It’s mostly because when there’s a shortage of housing, there’s a scramble — and the people with the lowest incomes and the least competence at managing the system are the ones left on the street.

The metaphor commonly applied is musical chairs. In a game of musical chairs, an elderly person may not be fast enough to grab a seat — but it’s not that age prevents sitting down. The solution is simply to add a chair.

California is ground zero for homelessness because it has a shortage of perhaps 3.5 million housing units, while Oregon has many people living in tents partly because it lacks some 140,000 units.

Housing trade-offs can be uncomfortable for liberals like me. We like some of the benefits of zoning that protect our neighborhoods and prevent urban sprawl, but the last couple of decades have underscored that the downside is more expensive housing and higher rates of homelessness. I was forced to reassess how I weighed the trade-offs when a school friend, Stacy, froze to death while homeless in Oregon. I wondered: If we accepted more sprawl, would she have found cheap housing and survived?

“Houston was the antithesis of how I understood land use planning should be managed,” said Kris Larson, an urban planner who moved from Los Angeles to Houston to run Central Houston, a business association. But he added that after enduring the homelessness crisis in California, he has come to believe that there are benefits to somewhat more relaxed zoning rules that make it easier and cheaper to build.

Another challenge is that it’s often difficult to persuade landlords to rent to people who need housing most desperately. Anyone with a voucher or an eviction history finds it very hard to rent, and that’s doubly so for a person with a felony record or for a sex offender.

The resistance to vouchers is partly that the federal process is bureaucratic and may mean leaving an apartment vacant for three months without income. And owners worry that if they have tenants who appear disreputable or use drugs, the value of other units in the buildings will plummet.

(A case study of the risk: I have a friend who was homeless while wrestling with addiction, and during the pandemic he was given a voucher to rent an apartment in McMinnville, Ore. When his voucher ran out, my friend was unable to pay the rent, but he stayed anyway and began selling narcotics from the apartment. Other drug users moved in as well, and one died of an overdose there. It took months for the landlord to recover his apartment, which then required substantial renovation.)

Houston has overcome this resistance by appealing to landlords to be public-spirited and help solve an urgent city problem — and also by offering a $1,600 incentive fee per unit.

Moving people from the streets into apartments may pay for itself. 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). 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).

So advocates often cite research purporting to show that housing people is cheaper than leaving them chronically homeless. In fact, much of this research has not been rigorous, and the most careful studies offer conflicting conclusions. But my guess is still that when rehousing is as efficient and inexpensive as it is in Houston, there probably are significant savings.

Derrick Cerf writes down personal information for outreach worker LaVoy Darden.

“People sometimes think we’re Shangri-La and we have no homelessness,” sighed Marc Eichenbaum, the Houston city government’s point person on homelessness. “No. We still have homelessness.”

He’s right, as Amy Sullivan can attest. Sullivan, 34 years old, was seven and a half months pregnant and living in a tent when I met her in a park in Houston this fall. She told me that she had been homeless for 11 years and that she is constantly on the move and has no phone. So when she gets off the wait list, outreach workers from a group aptly named SEARCH scramble to set up appointments for her — but she invariably misses meetings, can’t be found and loses her spot on the wait list.

“No progress,” she said. “I’m at a standstill.”

Sullivan is a reminder that while homelessness is mostly driven by a lack of housing units, it’s of course more than that: Some of the people I interviewed in Houston frankly were in such a haze, from mental illness or substance use, that they didn’t know where they were. One man didn’t know what year it was. One woman was naked on the street.

There’s a serious conversation to have about whether we have made it too difficult to commit people involuntarily and get them help. My friend Stacy, who froze to death, was homeless because of mental illness and alcoholism, and it’s not obvious to me that we were respecting Stacy’s autonomy by letting her suffer and die.

Houston’s challenge ahead is that its success in recent years has come from shrewd use of federal Covid relief funds that are now running out. It’s not clear how the city will finance further rehousing.

“It is a huge problem,” said Michael C. Nichols, president of Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless.

“It’s obviously going to take public funding to keep this solved,” said Ann Stern of the Houston Endowment, a local philanthropic leader.

Advocates are talking about a bond issue or a special tax, but voters may not approve. That’s part of the policy puzzle: West Coast cities have poured funding into broken models, while Houston has developed a model that has worked well but may be unwilling to finance it with its own money.

If this were a storybook, it would end with Joe Cavazos moving into a shiny new apartment and embracing the outreach workers. In the real world, alas, it’s more complicated.

While Cavazos was on the waiting list for housing, he was arrested for threatening a man with a BB gun, according to the police and court records. He pleaded guilty and is serving a 180-day sentence — so now he has housing, but it’s a jail cell.

Helping people is always harder than it looks. It’s also true that homelessness can aggravate risks and prompt a downward spiral: It may leave a man less likely to take his medications and more inclined to brandish an air gun, all of which can make rehousing more difficult than ever.

Yet if Cavazos shows that homelessness is a tough problem, Houston shows it’s not inevitable or hopeless. We may not eliminate homelessness altogether, but if we could reduce it by 60 percent, as the city has, we would be a better nation. And one sign of the success of Houston’s approach is that others are copying it.

Dallas officials were prickly when I toured their city and asked them pointedly why Houston was doing better. But over the last two years Dallas has copied Houston’s approach, and it’s working. The number of people living on the streets in Dallas has declined 14 percent in just the last year.

What distinguishes the cities like Houston that have made a dent in homelessness is not the audacity of their vision. Between 2003 and 2005, hundreds of cities around the country — including Dallas, New York, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco — adopted 10-year plans to end chronic homelessness. Those 10-year plans accomplished little.

The lesson I take from Houston and Dallas is that success doesn’t come from repeating bromides about how housing is a human right; homelessness is indifferent to earnestness but does respond to hard work and meticulous execution. Houston has succeeded because it has strong political leadership that gathers data, follows evidence and herds nonprofits in the same direction. It is relentless.

Joe Cavazos may or may not get an apartment, but 30,000 Houstonians have been housed in the last dozen years, and other cities can learn from this success and make gains, too.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Related Articles

Back to top button