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Ending chronic homelessness remains a ‘moonshot’ opportunity for Houston

FEATURES :  Sep. 11, 2023 HOUSING | URBAN DISPARITY

A Coalition for the Homeless town hall in August

Photo by Anthony Fuentes; Courtesy the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County

A number of public policy solutions could help Houston make further strides to reduce homelessness, but experts say what is truly needed is a recommitment from local leaders — and additional resources — to bring an end to chronic homelessness.

That was among the themes that emerged from a town hall hosted by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County on Aug. 30 at the United Way of Greater Houston, part of a quarterly series of discussions on the issue.

“To me, it’s right there for us to solve,” said Central Houston Inc. President and CEO Kris Larson. “If any place can solve this problem, I think it is Houston. Houston loves making headlines. If we were serious about this, this is our next moonshot. This community has housed more than 3,000 people just in the last five years. This is a commitment issue that we need from our elected leadership to recognize that this is something we can do as a community. That’s where we all play a role in this.”

Houston’s “housing-first” approach to homelessness has earned praise around the U.S. A key to Houston’s success, Larson said, was defining its strategy, collaborating across different agencies and entities, and aligning them toward a common goal.

“That’s one of the most important things,” he said. “It sounds very simple, but agencies have a tendency to be insular and inward-focused and focused on self-survival. To get dozens of different agencies to be bought into one shared strategy is huge. The next step is taking the bold statement and saying let’s get to zero. That should be our next goal.”

The coalition’s annual point-in-time homelessness count reported a 17% decrease in unsheltered people from 2022 to 2023, and a 61% decrease in the past 12 years. Despite the positive momentum to end chronic homelessness, Houstonians remain worried about the area’s housing prospects, according to a new survey by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.  

Election 2023: Priorities and Concerns of Houston Residents,” in collaboration with the nonprofit news organization Houston Landing, was conducted from April-June. Among the top priorities for Houston’s next mayor to address, 73% of respondents said policies to make housing more affordable are needed. Nearly 40% of Houstonians said they were “often” or “almost always” worried about being able to afford their monthly mortgage or rent payment, and about 1 in 4 renters said they were “often” or “almost always” worried about eviction.

Moreover, 85% of respondents indicated they were “concerned” or “very concerned” about homelessness in the city, second only to crime.

Chrishelle Palay, executive director of the Houston Organizing Movement for Equity Coalition, said the issues of affordable housing, the built and lived environment, environmental justice and homelessness are all connected.

“There’s an extremely thin line between those who are housed and those who are not,” Palay said. “All it takes is for rent not to be paid, all it takes is retaliation from a landlord for you to fall into homelessness. The homeless population are the most likely to be criminalized because they’re out in the open. There’s a much higher chance that they will have ongoing encounters with law enforcement.” 

Kinder Institute Director Ruth N. López Turley said that with housing affordability becoming more of a challenge, Houston’s renter population is the most vulnerable to the slim margin of having shelter or not.

“There are now more renters than homeowners in the city of Houston and that will soon be the case for Harris County as well,” Turley said. “The cost of rent is increasing at a faster pace than the increases in income. Among renters, a majority of them are cost-burdened, which means that they have to spend more than 30% of their household income on housing. If anybody is spending that much or more on housing, they really don’t have enough left over to cover basics like food, health care, child care and transportation.” 

Potential policy interventions include introducing affordable housing tax credits, incentivizing developers to create affordable housing, prioritizing tenant rights and reevaluating a Texas law that allows landlords to discriminate against people with federal housing vouchers.

“There are straightforward solutions to address this problem,” Turley said. “This is attainable. Especially with the hard work of reducing homelessness by over 60%, why not go all the way? This is not an intractable problem.”

Editor's note: A previous version of this article quoted Kris Larson as saying "more than 300,000 people." The correct figure is 3,000.

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Election 2023: Priorities and Concerns of Houston Residents
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This report identifies the city's current challenges and opportunities and what issues residents would like to see the next mayor address.

ELECTIONS | GOVERNANCE
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