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Coalition for the Homeless

A new homelessness initiative

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to authorize $18 million for a two-year program serving the homeless as advocates project a rise in homelessness with the novel coronavirus.

The program is the county’s most ambitious partnership with the City of Houston for people experiencing homelessness, with $29 million to be pledged by the city and an additional $9 million or more from private donors. The city and county’s dollars come from federal money allocated through the CARES Act.

While the city and county have collaborated on homeless initiatives in the past, this is their biggest joint investment yet.

“With the current COVID-19 crisis putting so many people’s living situations at an increased risk, having access to stable housing options is vital for the entire community,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a press release. Garcia brought the funding request to the county court. In commissioners court, Garica said, “This will have the most significant impact on the camps we see.”

Not only are people experiencing homelessness more vulnerable to coronavirus because of preexisting chronic conditions and a lack of even basic hygiene options, they are at higher risk of spreading it to others because people living on the streets have nowhere to self-quarantine.

“Housing is healthier for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus,” said Catherine Villarreal, communications director for the Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition will be administering the programs. “People experiencing homelessness are uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus because of chronic conditions.”

The Coalition hopes that the programs can begin by mid-August and will roll out in stages pending city and county funding and contract approvals, said Ana Rausch, vice president of operations for the Coalition for the Homeless.

The initiative will provide rental assistance for about 1,700 newly homeless people who don’t need much case management, house about 1,000 people experiencing homelessness, support about 200 people at risk of homelessness, provide more mental-health case management and begin a homelessness diversion program. The Coalition projects the program will help about 5,000 people.

The best evidence we have now says that the most effective way to ameliorate homelessness is to provide housing or housing assistance to the people who need it. Other services may be needed for people with addition or mental health issues (by the way, expanding Medicaid would help a lot with those, too), and it turns out that having a stable place to sleep and eat and keep clothes and other possessions makes addressing those issues a lot easier, too. It seems to me that the main objection to providing this kind of direct aid is that it’s some kind of moral hazard, as in “well, if we help SOME people then we have to help EVERYONE, and if we do that then who’s ever gonna want to do for themselves” or some such. Putting aside the fact that such sentiments are facially untrue, if there’s one thing we should be learning from the coronavirus pandemic it’s that everyone does in fact deserve help. Hard times can come for any of us, at any time, without warning and without it being anyone’s “fault”. I want to live in a society that recognizes this truth, because the next person who needs it could be me or someone I love. Imagine how much more progress we could make on controlling this pandemic if everyone whose business or employment is threatened by it knew they would be tided over until it passed. Maybe now that we’re starting to take this kind of action, we’ll recognize the need to continue it after the current crisis has passed. Houston Public Media has more.

The Mayor’s office on the homeless feeding ordinance

As you know, I have been running a series of guest posts on a variety of topics. When I invited Nick Cooper to write about his experiences with the homeless feeding ordinance, I also contacted the Mayor’s office to ask if there was someone they could point me to that would write about their experiences. Ultimately they sent me the following, which came from their office.

Contrary to the inaccurate information being circulated by various groups and individuals, it is not illegal to feed the homeless in the Houston.

The City appreciates those who take part in the charitable act of providing food for those in need and agrees that such activities are of benefit to the health, safety and welfare of our community. There is recognition that those who are unable to provide food for themselves often must be fed outdoors by entities dedicated to providing charitable food service. There are no restrictions on an individual who is moved to share food with another. It applies only when sharing food with six or more.

The city also recognizes the rights of property owners.

There are 38 known local groups and organizations that provide food service to the homeless or others in need of a free meal. Some of these organizations, like the Star of Hope, Palmer Way Station, Bread of Life and the Salvation Army, feed inside their facilities. They have licensed kitchens, trained volunteer staff, are in compliance with the city’s health and safety standards and they feed the hungry on a well-known and routine schedule.

Unfortunately, there are many other street food service operations that do not adhere to routine schedules. For example, there is one location, east of I-59 near the convention center, at which a dozen different charitable organizations line up every Saturday morning all seeking to provide breakfast to the same group of people. There is more than needed for the homeless who show up. In the end, a lot of it winds up left behind on the ground – creating a nuisance for property owners. No one wants to see our streets littered with trash.

With the above principles in mind, Houston City Council last spring amended Chapter 20 of the Code of Ordinances. The only mandatory addition to the revised ordinance is a requirement to obtain written permission from a property owner, public or private, before utilizing the property for charitable food service. Again, despite arguments to the contrary, this new requirement is not onerous. In fact, three organizations have requested and been granted permission from the Houston Department of Health and Human Services Department (HDHHS) for food service events at a city-owned property at 205 Chartres Street.

The amended ordinance also created the voluntary Recognized Charitable Food Service Provider Program. This voluntary initiative, jointly coordinated by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County and HDHHS, put in place a process of coordination, training and recognition for those individuals and organizations which provide such food services. The goals are to improve the quality, quantity and availability of food for those who may not have the resources to provide for themselves. In short, its aim is to coordinate volunteer efforts so that the needed amount of food is available at known serving locations.

There has been good response to the free-of-charge food safety classes. The first classes were held at HDHHS on June 7 and at The Beacon on June 23. Staff from the Coalition explained the Coalition’s role in the program, and HDHHS staff provided the food safety training. Twenty four people, representing thirteen organizations, have attended a class to date. Future classes are scheduled for the 4th Saturday of each month through November at The Beacon. To register for one of these classes call HDHHS at 832-393-5100. Information about the program is also available at that number or on the HDHHS Website, http://www.houstontx.gov/health/homeless.html.

Organizations desiring to participate in the program are required to:

  • Register basic contact information with the City of Houston
  • Cooperate with the City in scheduling any food service event at which five or more individuals will be fed
  • Follow basic hygiene, sanitation and food safety rules provided by HDHHS
  • Have at least one person at each food service site who has completed the free training in sanitary food preparation at HDHHS
  • Authorize inspections by HDHHS of their kitchens, transport vehicle and the like
  • Implement changes suggested by HDHHS
  • Clean up after each food service event

The names and addresses of organizations that abide by the above requirements will be listed on the City’s website. In addition, they will be entitled to use their designation as a Recognized Charitable Food Service Provider in their publications.

Registration and coordination of street feeding operations is not a new concept. Ten of the largest US cities already require it, and nine of these cities also require routine inspection for adherence to public health standards. In Houston, we took a Houston approach. We identified a problem and then listened to the community for feedback. The end result is a workable program that allows for coordination and ensures property is not abused. This approach in no way inhibits the many acts of charity conducted daily by Houstonians.

Houston gets HUD grant to house the homeless

Since we’ve been talking about homelessness recently, I thought I’d take note of this.

Houston-area homeless programs will receive nearly $2.8 million in federal funding as part of an Obama administration plan to confront homelessness.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Tuesday announced that more than $200 million will be allocated to some 700 new homeless programs nationwide.

[…]

Three Houston organizations were chosen to receive the funds; $1.4 million will go to Houston Area Community Services, $1 million will go to the Salvation Army Greater Houston Area Command, and $395,000 will go to Fort Bend Women’s Center.

To receive funding, organizations had to apply through the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County and needed to meet two requirements.

“The purpose of the program has to be in offering permanent housing,” said Pamela Wyatt, a director at the coalition.

The state of Texas got a total of $10.5 million in grants. What I can’t tell from the story is whether this is something new, or if it’s a continuation of grants that have been received in the past. Whatever the case, I wish these organizations well in their work. If you want to help, click one of these links:

Houston Area Community ServicesDonate

Salvation Army Greater Houston Area CommandDonate

Fort Bend Women’s CenterDonate

Feeding the homeless

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this.

Mayor Annise Parker is asking the council to adopt rules that would require organizations and people who feed the homeless to register with the city, take a food safety class, prepare the food in certified kitchens, serve only at three public parks, and leave those parks as clean as when they entered them.

Parker described her vision as one in which charities can coordinate their efforts through the city registry to reduce redundancy and waste.

“We’re trying to do this in a way that we don’t waste food so that churches, for example, don’t show up on top of each other trying to feed the same group of 20 guys,” Parker said during two hours of public testimony Tuesday.

Civil rights lawyer Randall Kallinen called the proposed rules an “assault on freedom of religion, freedom of expression and freedom of speech.” The ordinance’s penalties of $50 to $2,000 could make it a crime to feed the homeless, Kallinen said.

[…]

Councilman James Rod­riguez, who represents downtown, said the rule changes would make charity more efficient and coordinated. He said downtown residents complain of persistent litter, defecation and fights that require police intervention and detract from the quality of life and make homes harder to sell.

The proposal was tagged on Wednesday, and with Council out next week it won’t come up again till the 22nd, which will hopefully allow more time for discussion of all the concerns.

The proposed ordinance does not provide a public site for serving meals to the homeless outside of downtown Houston. Although the city’s parks director would be authorized to designate more sites in the future, the proposed rules would limit feeding on public property to Tranquillity Park, Peggy’s Point Plaza Park and undeveloped park land on Chartres, north of Minute Maid Park.

“For the city to designate it to just those three parks makes it hard,” Edward Sweet Sr., bishop of Strait & Narrow Way Temple Full Gospel Church in southwest Houston, said earlier this week. “How will these homeless people get to these three parks without transportation?”

The city is willing to add more parks, said Janice Evans, a spokeswoman for Mayor Annise Parker, but first wants to see how the new rules work in the three designated parks and to gauge whether there is a desire from groups to serve meals at other locations.

The Coalition for the Homeless, which supports the proposed regulations that would institute food handling standards, require trash pickup and have organizations register with the city, expects to produce a map in coming weeks that will show that many of Houston’s estimated 13,000 homeless residents live outside of downtown.

No doubt there are plenty of homeless folks outside of downtown, and that’s a big issue. I’m fine with the cleanup requirements, and the food safety requirements are reasonable as long as they’re not too onerous, but it’s not really clear to me what problem is being solved here. This sounds like the right way to go about it:

Council members Oliver Pennington and Jack Christie said they would like to hold off on mandatory rules until after a campaign that promotes voluntary compliance with some of the proposed rules, such as clean-up of the sites where food is served.

I agree. Let’s try to deal with that in a non-intrusive way, then we can see if there’s anything left that actually requires an ordinance. Campos and Stace have more.