When Mayor Annise Parker announced in June that the City of Houston had basically ended chronic homelessness for veterans, the entire nation took notice. The announcement came amid news that dozens of city entities and nonprofit organizations had pooled their resources and that by the end of a three-year period, more than 3,500 homeless veterans would be placed in housing. It was a bold thing to say – and an even bolder thing to actually do. So it’s no wonder the story made it to the pages and airwaves of everything from the city’s own Houston Public Media to national outlets such as The Huffington Post.
“Houston is there for our heroes, and just like on the battlefield, we will leave no one behind,” Parker said in a June 1 Huffington Post story.
But what does it take to actually end homelessness – not just for veterans, but for others who find themselves living on the streets? How does a city as large as Houston harness the can-do spirit that’s such a part of its mythology to bring together the myriad entities who work with the poor, the unemployed, the oft-forgotten to bring out those organizations’ strengths and solve a problem that seems impossible to fix?
It takes The Way Home, a massive initiative that corrals the best talents of some of Houston’s non-profit organizations, local and federal resources, a finely tuned response system, the creation of new housing, all of it blended with compassion and creativity. It takes a level of partnership that was years in the making. It takes a belief that while it might not seem that one person can make much of a difference for one person living on the street, one agency working in partnership with another can – and will.
And many of the entities that are part of The Way Home are Downtown. And the work they are doing is changing the face of our neighborhood, making not only a difference for the people helped, but showing the world why our city core is a place where problems get solved and lives are made better. Their commitment to partnership and combining strengths is no small feat. And the big results they’re achieving are transforming who we are as a neighborhood.
The History of Making History
“We all want a healthy community to work in and live in,” says Mandy Champan Semple, special assistant to the Mayor for Homeless Initiatives,. Her office spearheads multiple homeless outreach efforts, including The Way Home.
Getting there, however, has been a three-decade journey that’s seen its share of inconsistencies, turf fights and failures. Certainly, there have always been people who found themselves on the street. Consider the Great Depression, when entire families found themselves homeless, sometimes nomadic, living in shanty towns across the continent. Here in Houston, efforts to address the homeless had existed in piecemeal fashion throughout the 20th century; in 1982, at the urging of Reverend William Lawson, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza and Rabbi Samuel Karff, then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire and Harris County Judge Jon Lindsay brought together several service providers to begin what would become the Coalition for the Homeless. There was just one problem: the group didn’t have much funding with which to work until 1988, and the passage of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. That act was designed to provide federal funding to states to support homeless shelters and programming designed to assist those without permanent housing.
The opportunity for grant money meant that both the Coalition for the Homeless and other non-profits who worked to assist homeless populations could petition the federal government for grant dollars for everything from building shelters to creating education programs designed to encourage upward mobility. For 20 years, dozens of entities worked separately to attempt to stem the tide of homelessness. There were successes, certainly, but there were also inefficiencies, as agencies found themselves overlapping on the services they provided, and sometimes overreaching in attempting to do more.
The Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Houston (HEARTH) Act, passed in 2009, built on the McKinney-Vento Act, consolidating grant programs administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and changing HUD’s definition of homelessness and chronic homelessness. It also mandated an increase in prevention resources and placed an emphasis on outcomes.
In short, it was an act that told cities and states that they needed to find ways to be more effective in providing solutions to homelessness. The HUD definition of homelessness as outlined in the HEARTH Act includes, in part, individuals and families who lack fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence; individuals and families who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence; and individuals and families who are fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence.
Houston took those mandates to heart, and since 2012, the city’s homeless population has decreased by 37 percent, and the number of chronically homeless, those caught in a cycle of having jobs and homes, then losing both, and repeating the cycle, has dropped by 57 percent. Three thousand veterans have received housing.
“The idea of ending homeless is possible,” says Semple. “We can create a system where we’re helping those who experience housing instability.”
Over the last three years, 1,550 chronically homeless and 2,245 veterans were placed in permanent housing. In addition, Houston’s system has given them stability to stay in homes.
That system includes everything from high-tech solutions to boots-on-the-ground volunteers and social service providers, working in tandem to help those in desperate need of shelter. And the fact that multiple entities are working together on a program of this magnitude is a testament to the city’s commitment to care for its citizens. Downtown Houston, in particular, sees both the best and the worst of the issue.
“The Downtown core tends to experience the impact [of homelessness] the most because the services are there,” says Semple, who notes that the very reasons people want to live and work Downtown – access to transportation, easy walkability, multiple city service providers in a compact area – are the exact same reasons homeless populations come to the city core.
Using Data to Improve Lives
The Way Home seeks to end chronic and veteran homelessness by the end of 2015, as well as put an end to family and youth homelessness by 2020. Another of its cornerstones is the creation of a system where no one is without permanent housing for more than 30 days.
Reaching those goals takes the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), a series of data points that help put the chronically homeless into housing. In addition to providing a real-time listing of housing options available, the system also creates individual action plans for those who need homes. A homeless vet, for example, might register with the system, meeting with a counselor who can help not only find housing, but can put him in touch with job providers and social service providers who can help ensure he’s taking any medication necessary or getting treatment.
That data system works in tandem with something called Permanent Supportive Housing, or PSH, which combines deeply subsidized affordable housing with comprehensive, individual services. The system allows individuals to select their living spaces, in many cases, instead of being assigned to a particular place. Case workers then partner with them to help with medical care and other elements of the transition from homelessness to housing. It’s a monumental undertaking that’s changed thousands of lives.
And that kind of coordinated effort takes not only an army of agencies, it takes a collaborative mindset.
“Over the last three years, providers came together to do whatever it takes to help end this problem,” says Semple. “Leaders of organizations realized that they could combine their efforts to offer bigger solutions and be part of a long-term strategy. And then, Mayor Parker put political capital behind it, which paved the way for agencies to work together on this.”
There was also a mindset shift toward helping people find permanent homes, instead of helping them find places to sleep in shelters.
“It was a transition, and change is sometimes hard,” says Marilyn Brown, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, which offers administrative support for the organizations that serve the homeless. The organization also coordinates the annual, federally mandated count of the city’s homeless population, which Brown says means more than 500 volunteers fan the streets of Downtown, Harris and Ft. Bend counties to take a census of the homeless population. “Before 2009, many organizations were doing all their own work, trying to do everything: providing services, keeping up with federal paperwork. We manage those federal efforts now, and that helps partner organizations concentrate on providing services.”
If it’s starting to sound like there are a lot of moving parts to the system, consider that there used to be many more. Since 2009 and the streamlining of resources, the process for getting people into a system that can help them end their homelessness has meant that more and more people have been helped. And as more affordable housing and single residency occupancy (SRO) options have come online, those listings are input into the HMIS, giving case workers more options to help those who need places to live.
Connection is Key
More than the data points, more than housing options, there is a vital human touch necessary for working to end homelessness. Organizations around Downtown provide badly needed services for those living on the streets, and their ability to reach out and help on the ground level is vital to the success of The Way Home.
One of those is the Beacon, a 501c3 nonprofit started by Christ Church Cathedral in 2007. The organization provides showers, laundry services and hot meals to the homeless, Thursdays through Sundays. The Beacon’s day center allows those who need them to reserve showers in 15-minute increments. Volunteers staff the laundry services and meal distribution.
Charly Weldon, executive director for the Beacon, says that the new streamlined system is vital to solving the problem of homelessness.
“Working together with our partner entities puts the needs of our clients ahead of the needs of individual agencies,” she says. “And when you look at it that way, you see how, working together, we have a much stronger effort.”
She and many others who do the kind of work she does insist on using the word client when talking about the people for whom they are offering necessary services.
“Every person is worthy of respect, every person deserves dignity,” she says. “We make sure we give our clients name tags when they come through our doors. It may seem like a small thing, but the very act of saying, ‘Good morning, Bob’ can have a huge impact on someone in this situation.”
Making an impact is, of course, what agencies want in order to help those who most need it. And recognizing how to change operations in order to do that has been a hallmark for the partner agencies who work under the umbrella of The Way Home initiative. Consider SEARCH Homeless Services, another Downtown agency that provides support and programming designed to end homelessness.
“All the nonprofits who work with people want to be able to respond to their needs,” says Thao Costis, president and CEO of the organization that offers job readiness training, daycare and housing coordination. “And as our clients told us the things they wanted and needed, we stretched to provide them – but we were spreading ourselves too thin.”
Costis and SEARCH looked at what the organization did best, and concentrated on that. The group broke ground in 2014 on new headquarters Downtown – a building located at Chartres and Congress that will be half the size of its current location.
“As we adjusted our business model, we realized we needed to shrink to grow,” said Costis. The group will continue to help place the homeless in jobs and provide daycare services for those who have obtained work but lack the sufficient funds for childcare. But, says Costis, “we partner with those who provide housing now, so we don’t need a day shelter.”
She emphasized that her staff’s ability to work one-on-one with clients to assist them in finding jobs and navigating a complicated system, as well as reaching out to those who have given up hope is a huge foundation for SEARCH’s operations.
“Many of the people we see don’t have a support system. Maybe they come from broken families, maybe they were born into crushing poverty. We try to help keep them motivated, to let them know they can succeed, that we can help them.”
Recognizing what agencies do best and how to continue doing so had been a core part of The Way Home. Since its inception, the initiative has placed an emphasis on all the agencies involved working together to solve a larger issue. And if there were growing pains to start, the results that have been achieved have not only shown the partner organizations how working together is a vital part of the solution for homelessness – it’s shown the nation that Houston is a leader.
“It’s been a process,” says Weldon. “And we really didn’t have a blueprint on how to do this. But now, Houston is the blueprint. And that’s inspiring.”
If realizing that Downtown organizations have been part of a massive effort to combat one of the most important problems of the last two decades is inspiring, it’s worth noting that there has always been a population of those who live on the street. There’s a transient population, often made up of panhandlers and drug users, who, no matter how sophisticated a response system is put into place, resist help.
This population is different from the chronically homeless, even if it appears to Downtown dwellers and workers to be the same.
“There are multiple kinds of homelessness,” says Guy Hagstette, who serves as president of The Beacon’s board of directors and is also a Downtown property owner. “And for many of us fortunate enough to live in Downtown, we’ve been able, for much of our lives, to insulate ourselves from the reality of what’s out there. Part of being Downtown is realizing that not everyone looks like you and not everyone has been able to have the things that you have. My experience with the Beacon has taught me that.”
A Fiscally Sound Solution, A Compassionate Approach
Hagstette’s call for compassion is echoed by those who work with the homeless.
“I say to people, it’s only by the grace of God that it isn’t me,” says Weldon. “Many people are one major illness, one catastrophic event away from being homeless, and taking measures to support ending homelessness makes what we call human sense.”
It also makes fiscal sense. The chronically homeless make up about 25 percent of the homeless population – but consume 75 percent of services, including emergency room care, costing $103 million annually. It winds up costing far less money to help an individual through initiatives like The Way Home, to get people housed, and offer the support they need to live better lives. The building of more housing for families battling homelessness, as well as single occupancy spaces, brings stability to those facing this epic challenge, and the dollars invested result in many of those individuals not being homeless again. Is there more that needs to be done? Yes. More housing stock needs to be built, and sometimes it takes outreach and multiple conversations to get someone into the system. But the foundation is laid, and it is something strong upon which to build.
That kind of fiscal underscoring, as well as the data-driven approach to battling homelessness is one that businesses appreciate, says Semple. “They appreciate the accountability, and that we’re looking at what the most cost-effective solutions for this problem are. The ways all the partner organizations are working now, it not only helps maximize savings, it also leverages strengths across a whole system. It takes a village. If there’s a theme, it’s really that.”
“I came to this country from Vietnam in 1975,” says Costis. “And strangers helped me and my parents assimilate and rebuild our lives. That really left a mark on me: that you can help others. That small steps lead to great things. We have so many great nonprofits doing this great work. And there is a place for everybody to help.”
Homeless Veteran Progress (Jan 2012 – Mar 2017): 5,464 Veterans housed
Chronically Homeless Progress (Jan 2012 – Mar 2017): 3,837 Chronically Homeless Individuals Housed
Rapid Re-houseing Progress (Jan 2015 – Mar 2017): 1,948 Individuals Housed, 1,089 Individuals Exited to permanent housing
Total homeless: 3,626
Since 2011 we have seen:
57 % decrease in overall homelessness
73 % drop in unsheltered homelessness
71% reduction in chronic homelessness