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How Houston Moved 25,000 People From the Streets Into Homes of Their Own

(THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Written by Michael Kimmelman Reported by Michael Kimmelman and Lucy Tompkins,

June 15, 2022

The nation’s fourth-largest city hasn’t solved homelessness, but its remarkable progress can suggest a way forward.

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One steamy morning last July, Ana Rausch commandeered a shady corner of a parking lot on the northwest side of Houston. Downing a jumbo iced coffee, she issued brisk orders to a dozen outreach workers toting iPads. Her attention was fixed on a highway underpass nearby, where a handful of people were living in tents and cardboard lean-tos. As a vice president of Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless, Ms. Rausch was there to move them out.

I had come to watch the process and, more broadly, to see Houston’s approach to homelessness, which has won a lot of praise. At first, I couldn’t figure out why this particular underpass had been colonized. The sound of trucks revving their engines ricocheted against the concrete walls like rifle shots; and most of Houston’s homeless services were miles away. But then Ms. Rausch’s team, and a few camp residents, pointed out the nearby fast food outlets, the Shell station with a convenience store, and the Planet Fitness, where a $10 monthly membership meant access to showers and outlets for charging phones.

It also wasn’t initially visible what distinguished this encampment clearance from the ones in cities like Los Angeles and Austin, where the number of homeless people has been skyrocketing along with frustrations. The difference couldn’t be seen because it had already happened. For more than a month, Ms. Rausch and her colleagues had been coordinating with Harris County officials, as well as with the mayor’s office and local landlords. They had visited the encampment and talked to people living there, so that now, as tents were being dismantled, the occupants could move directly into one-bedroom apartments, some for a year, others for longer. In other words, the people living in the encampment would not be consigned to homeless shelters, cited for trespassing or scattered to the winds, but, rather, given a home.

During the last decade, Houston, the nation’s fourth most populous city, has moved more than 25,000 homeless people directly into apartments and houses. The overwhelming majority of them have remained housed after two years. The number of people deemed homeless in the Houston region has been cut by 63 percent since 2011, according to the latest numbers from local officials. Even judging by the more modest metrics registered in a 2020 federal report, Houston did more than twice as well as the rest of the country at reducing homelessness over the previous decade. Ten years ago, homeless veterans, one of the categories that the federal government tracks, waited 720 days and had to navigate 76 bureaucratic steps to get from the street into permanent housing with support from social service counselors. Today, a streamlined process means the wait for housing is 32 days.

Source: New York Times