We’ve done pretty well, actually.
Since more than $65 million in COVID-related funding has poured into Houston and Harris County’s coffers, they have worked in tandem with a number of partners to ramp up the housing units available to move people out of homelessness. As they’ve done so, they’ve picked up the pace at which homeless encampments are being “decommissioned” — the group’s term for offering the residents of a camp permanent housing, then clearing the site, usually with fencing, to prevent the camp from reforming. The process provides a way out of chronic homelessness to the many who choose housing and the services that go with it, a dislocation to the smaller group who do not.
The ultimate success of Houston’s encampment strategy could have rippling effects across the country. Cities including Austin and Dallas are seeking to emulate Houston’s program, said Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives; others, including Denver and Spokane, Wash. are watching closely.
Out of the 35 people who were living in the encampment when outreach began, 22 decided to take the offer of housing, according to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County’s data. The others simply moved elsewhere. That ratio was a bit unusual, said James Gonzalez, the director overseeing the coalition’s work at the site. The other encampments where the Houston-Harris County Homeless Encampment Response Strategy has been carried out since the beginning of the pandemic saw between 85 and 90 percent of people choose housing, he said.
Houston, the coalition and their partners began moving people out of encampments in 2018 and has since distilled the process into a manual that has attracted the attention of cities across the nation. Houston, once called out in 2011 by the Department of Housing and Urban Development for the size of its homeless population, has since more than halved the number of people without homes in Harris and Fort Bend counties to 3,800 in 2020 from 8,500, even as the overall population in those two counties grew 16 percent. For every person housed, taxpayers save approximately $4,800 because the unhoused population’s emergency medical and incarceration costs are so high compared to the cost of housing and supportive services, according to a 2017 study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
But since 2016, the homeless count in the counties has plateaued. People were becoming homeless as quickly as the Houston area could house them.
Then came COVID — and with it, a sudden influx in funding to help battle the pandemic’s health risks to the homeless population. Part of the funds went toward a program renting units from landlords searching for a secure stream of income. The new units, where residents have access to case workers and other services, allowed partnered groups to pick up the pace of moving people out of camps.
Eichenbaum said the city plans to clear all of its encampments, but the current bottleneck is housing. “We don’t do this if we don’t have places to put them,” said Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations for the coalition. “There’s no point.”
While the city was able to quickly secure apartments for its program while the need to social distance lowered demand for dense living arrangements, it is now competing with an influx of renters who entered the market as vaccines became widely available this summer. The coalition employs a landlord engagement team which is calling landlords and trying to sell them on the program, in part by dispelling fears of perceived risks (Gonzalez argues that having rent guaranteed and a case worker on hand offers more of a safety net than a landlord has with a normal tenant). Nonetheless, the number of units joining the program have slowed.
In response, the city contracted with a hotel to turn it into what it’s calling a navigation center — a place where people moved out of an encampment can live, along with pets and loved ones, while they await their permanent housing. (San Francisco pioneered the strategy in 2015.) While the current navigation center is temporary, the city has a plan to build a long-term one in Fifth Ward west of U.S. 59.
Before the coalition and its partners began using COVID funding to move people into housing, it had decommissioned two camps in four years. Since December 2020, they’ve decommissioned about eight, Rausch said. As of Tuesday, she said the coalition and its partners had moved 134 people into housing out of encampments with COVID funding. The funds have also been used to help more than 5,000 less visible homeless individuals, including people living in shelters or cars.
I don’t have anything to add here, it’s just a good story and a great use of the COVID relief funds. I’m rooting for the coalition to meet its goal of decommissioning all of the camps.