Editor’s note: This is the first piece in a series on the factors that have led to the success of Houston’s homeless response system, and the challenges the city faces and will continue to face in addressing homelessness.
Just a decade ago, Houston had the sixth largest homeless population in the country, with about 8,500 people identified as being homeless on a given night in 2011, according to its annual point-in-time count.
The following year, Houston was one of 10 communities designated as a priority city by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a designation that indicated to city officials that “we need to get our act together on homelessness,” said Marc Eichenbaum, a special assistant to Houston’s mayor for homeless initiatives.
That designation also came with “invaluable” technical assistance funding, Eichenbaum said. Under then-Mayor Annise Parker, the city held a three-day community meeting with over 400 people — elected officials, community leaders, people with lived experience, service providers and concerned citizens — on how to address the issue, he said.
Houston worked with surrounding county governments, various community stakeholders and nonprofit service providers to develop a model that, despite operating with a small budget, has decreased the area’s homeless population by roughly 63% since 2011, according to a recent city report. The area has experienced an 82% reduction in family homelessness and a 69% reduction in chronic homelessness in that period, Eichenbaum said. And by 2015, it had effectively ended veteran homelessness.
Since 2012, the Houston model has housed over 26,000 people, with 90% of them remaining housed for two or more years, according to Eichenbaum.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, HUD point-in-time data showed that no other major U.S. metro area had matched Houston’s success in addressing homelessness over the past decade. The greater Houston area saw a 53% decrease in its homeless population between 2011 and 2020. During that time, the homeless population in the city and county of Los Angeles grew by 84%, New York City by 52%, and Dallas by 26%.
The Houston region saw the largest homeless population decrease among 11 large U.S. metro areas in the decade prior to the pandemic.
Many cities have seen increases in their homeless populations in recent years, sparking fierce debates, political backlash and lawsuits over how best to address the issue. Some cities have spent large sums of money on affordable housing and additional shelter space and have passed laws that ban camping on sidewalks or other public places.
Houston’s strategy has quickly become a model for other cities trying to address the growing issue. City officials are working with officials from Los Angeles; New York City; Chicago; Denver; Dallas; Austin, Texas; Spokane, Washington and other cities in developing collaborative housing-first systems, said Eichenbaum.
The various policies and methods that the city and its regional government, nonprofit and philanthropic partners took to improve its own trajectory and set an example for the nation.
Houston leaders and others working to address homelessness in the city cite three factors in Houston’s success.
1. Housing comes first. The city employs a housing-first model that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness as quickly as possible with no barriers to entry. The city then provides wraparound support services to ensure they remain housed. Those services can include assigned case managers, food assistance, mental health counseling, and detox and substance abuse treatments.
The state of Utah and several cities, including Columbus, Ohio, and Atlanta, deploy similar housing-first models. And this month, New York City announced it would pilot a housing-first program for 8,000 unhoused individuals, a program modeled after Houston’s, Mayor Eric Adams said during a press conference.
2. The region operates as a single continuum of care with a steering committee that distributes all funding. Houston, its surrounding counties, and a host of agencies and service providers in the homeless space, including soup kitchens, all function under a single federal Continuum of Care program, which in greater Houston is called The Way Home.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care program distributes federal funding to nonprofit providers and state and local governments that quickly rehouse people experiencing homelessness while minimizing trauma.
Houston’s The Way Home continuum is managed by the Coalition for the Homeless, with the city, counties and various partners operating with a shared goal, said Eichenbaum.
All funding, including federal, state and county funds, grants to individual agencies or philanthropic contributions, is arranged by The Way Home’s steering committee, which consists of Eichenbaum, county leaders, various other government officials and agency leaders and a range of others.
“We want everybody going on that same path,” said Eichenbaum. Whether it’s money from the city or county, HUD Continuum of Care grants or funds from Houston Endowment, any organization or agency that receives funding “[has] to be part of our homeless response system.”
3. The steering committee uses data to drive its decision-making. When it comes to how to distribute funding, allocate resources and determine what programs to take on, the committee invests “wherever the data shows that we get the biggest rate of return,” Eichenbaum said.
“All the time, folks can come to us with amazing ideas. But at the end of the day, our response is, ‘show us the data,’” Eichenbaum said. “And we’re going to let that data guide us onto what we’re going to be investing [in] and championing.”
Ultimately, Houston’s strategy has worked because since that initial community meeting it has received strong political support, from then-Mayor Parker to current Mayor Sylvester Turner, said Sara Martinez, vice president of communications & development at the Coalition for the Homeless. “Political will opens doors to funding and resources and keeps a community focused on shared goals from the top down,” she said. But, according to Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, success in other cities will depend on communitywide buy-in.
“What ultimately makes the difference is the will to faithfully execute Housing First strategies over time, and the aligned leadership to make it a priority between providers; systems; and city, county, and other local elected officials,” said Oliva in an email.