Houston is making strides on homelessness, but many challenges lie ahead

Ann Stern, president and CEO of Houston Endowment, and Bob Eury, president of Central Houston Inc., note that Houston has made steady progress toward the goal of ending homelessness and urge all Houstonians to continue to work together toward sustainable solutions.

The recent Super Bowl presented a golden opportunity for people far and wide to discover what those who live and work here already know: Houston is a great city. We have much to be proud of, including exceptional parks and green spaces, world-class arts institutions, thriving businesses, a growing public transportation network and culinary and cultural offerings that reflect our city’s rich diversity.

We have other things to be proud of, too – bold accomplishments that truly reflect the character of Houston’s people and our “can do” spirit.

A notable example is Houston’s steady progress toward the goal of ending homelessness. Over the past four years, the city’s homeless population has decreased by nearly 60 percent, and as a result, Houston now has one of the lowest rates of homelessness among major cities in the United States. In particular, we are making remarkable progress with two groups that have traditionally been among the hardest to serve: the chronically homeless (those who have lived on the streets for decades) and homeless veterans.

Over the past several years, Houston has moved 76 percent of the chronically homeless off the streets and into permanent housing. Fewer than 1 in 10 of these individuals has returned to the street. Moreover, more than 5,000 veterans have been moved from the streets into safe housing where they can also access medical and mental health services.

While cities like San Francisco, Seattle and Portland (among others) are grappling with growing homeless populations, Houston is moving in the opposite direction. How? Not by looking for a quick fix or trying to mask underlying problems, but by creating a smart and durable infrastructure to address underlying challenges that cause and perpetuate this complex social problem.

The mayor’s initiatives will build on the great progress achieved through The Way Home, an unprecedented public/private partnership that began in 2013. The Way Home is a collaborative effort that coordinates more than 100 organizations involved in the homeless system across the region. These organizations have shifted the way they do business and are working together toward common goals to achieve collective impact. All have adopted the Permanent Supportive Housing model where homeless individuals are housed in deeply subsidized affordable housing units, and an integrated care team provides individualized services on site, such as medical and mental health care, substance abuse treatment and job training. Services are provided by organizations with established track records for high-quality delivery and funded through public sources, insurance, Medicaid and vouchers.

The Way Home set three clear goals: Create a system to identify the chronically homeless and match them to appropriate affordable housing options; Coordinate a service system to support long-term housing stabilization; and Create enough permanent housing to meet the demand.

Changing the homeless system continues, and despite Houston’s remarkable achievements, some of the most difficult cases remain, many struggling with serious mental illness and addiction in a region with inadequate services. And we know that there are issues plaguing our streets that go beyond homelessness. We have individuals on the street selling or using Kush and other drugs, and people on street corners panhandling. These issues, like homelessness, are part of Mayor Turner’s new plan. That plan calls for expanded shelters as well as short-term and long-term strategies to end encampments and street populations. Additionally, the mayor is working to expand substance abuse treatment options and explore solutions for current challenges in our health services delivery system for substance abuse and mental health treatment options.

These are complex and deeply rooted issues. We urge all Houstonians to continue to work together toward sustainable solutions. Together, we can ensure that Houston continues to be a national example for how to respond to seemingly insurmountable obstacles with pragmatism and resolve.

This op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle on April 17, 2017.