Houston, the fourth-most populated city in the country, has reduced its rate of homelessness over the last decade by 63%, far and away the best performing major city during that time.
It has achieved these fantastic and sustained results with a “housing first” approach that focuses on getting homeless people into one-bedroom apartments as fast as possible, and worrying about things like jobs, drug addiction, mental health issues, and more, later.
The logic, as elaborated by Michael Kimmelman writing for the New York Times, is that if someone’s already drowning, it doesn’t help to teach them how to swim first.
This method has critics, but it’s paying off. Local news reporting on the turnaround claim that the vast majority of homeless Houstonites housed this way have remained in their house for longer than 2 years. From 2007 to 2020, a national survey recorded a 31.6% drop in homelessness Statewide, largely driven by Houston’s successes, especially considering the rise in homelessness in Austin.
“The goal that I have set is to get us down, in a sense, to zero homelessness in the city by the end of next year,” Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has been the mayor since 2016, told KHou11. “The challenge right now is getting the units.”
Part of Turner’s team’s strategy is to unite homeless service and low-income housing providers into acting in concert with one another. This was no mean feat; well over 100 different organizations, big and small, private and public, joined in. This included landlords, homeowners associations, food banks, churches, the Houston Housing Authority, the Department for Health and Human Services, and more, all of which joined to form the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County.
Kimmelman followed the steps of Terri Harris, a homeless woman discovered living at an encampment under an overpass, as she went from drowning, as he put it, to “rising excitedly onto her tiptoes and turning the key,” of a small apartment which the Coalition immediately coordinated to fill with basic necessities.
Some criticize Houston’s supportive housing assistance, which follows placing the most vulnerable, chronically homeless people into their new apartments by providing taxpayer-funded monetary support for everything from rent to bus fare, but of the several cities former-President Barack Obama targeted for coordinated and thorough homeless reduction strategies, only Houston has made significant progress.