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“How Houston Moved 25,000 People from the Streets into Homes of Their Own,” declared a headline the New York Times on June 14 of this year. The piece, not surprisingly, caused a buzz around the country given the staggering figures in the article. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of formerly unhoused people moved directly into apartments and houses; homelessness has been cut in the region by 63 percent; and the vast majority of housing recipients have remained housed after two years.
For more than 10 years, Houston-area officials and nonprofits have pursued a “housing first” strategy, in which people are moved directly from the streets into homes without any preconditions or requirements. The idea? Housing is a basic human need; someone who is struggling with homelessness and other issues, such as substance abuse, won’t be able to get their life on track without first having a roof over their heads.
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Since the Times article was published, Houston has been flooded with requests for information about its program, and officials representing other cities (like New York and Pittsburgh) have said they hope to replicate the “Houston model.” Earlier this month, a contingent of metro Denver politicians—including Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, two Aurora City Councilmembers, a commissioner from Arapahoe County, and Denver City Councilmembers Candi CdeBaca and Chris Hinds—made their own fact-finding trip to the Texas city.
Hinds, who represents District 10, sat down with 5280 to talk about the two-day trip, which took place on September 14 and 15.
Editor’s note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
5280: How did this trip come to be, and who did you meet with in Houston?
Chris Hinds: Originally, I think it was Juan Marcano, an Aurora City Councilmember, who said “Hey, I want to go down to Houston because there’s this article in the New York Times.” And then the Aurora folks got us involved. Once we got to Houston, we spent a lot of time at City Hall. We met the mayor of Houston and some county commissioners there, as well as a gentleman who called himself the “Homeless Czar” of Houston, who works in the mayor’s office. We also toured a facility that’s going to be a “rapid re-housing facility,” which is meant as a place that transitions folks from the street into permanent housing within 90 days.
After seeing Houston’s “housing first” strategy in action, what do you make of it?
I think it’s the right strategy. It is both the socially liberal appropriate strategy, as well as the fiscally conservative appropriate strategy. The group in Houston said the model right now costs them $17,000 a year to put someone in permanent housing. About 90 percent of those people remain housed after two years. Now compare that to what they say is the cost of one person staying on the street—emergency room visits, police actions, and EMS responses—which is up to $97,000 a year. Saving $80,000 a year is pretty substantial.
How do you think Houston was able to pull off such an approach, including getting the funding to house so many people for up to two years?
The biggest takeaway I have is that a regional approach is important. The City of Houston partnered with Harris County and two other counties, as well a nonprofit—the Coalition for the Homeless—to be the organization tasked with coordinating all of their different service providers and funding sources. By contrast, if you look at our Denver Metro region, we have a bunch of different cities and counties; Denver is doing things one way, and Aurora is doing things that may not align with Denver. Then we have dozens of nonprofit partners, faith-based and otherwise, that are doing their own things but aren’t necessarily coordinating. Having that unified, coordinated approach like Houston’s, I think, would really help the Denver metro area and those on our streets.
Did you see any differences between Houston and Denver that might make an ambitious housing-first program difficult to replicate here?
One difference is that Houston’s housing market has considerably lower rents than Denver’s. And they’ve been so successful at filling houses that, in some ways, they’re a victim of their own success: They’re finding that median housing prices are starting to go up in Houston.
It seems that not every member of your delegation had universally positive things to say about Houston’s program. Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman made some comments on Twitter after returning from the trip in which he stated that he had a “problem” with Houston officials not being able to provide data about the types of jobs housing recipients were getting, or what mental health treatment they might be seeking, while they were “entitled, under the program, for free housing.” Do you agree that’s a problem?
We haven’t had any follow-up conversations yet. But I do remember Mayor Coffman asking a lot of questions about jobs. And the Homeless Czar in Houston kept driving home the point that they only had one metric: taking someone without a home and putting them into a home. And after two years, they found that 90 plus percent are still housed, and have stopped using supportive services, which can be as simple as accessing a food bank. The Homeless Czar said, “We don’t know how they’ve managed to achieve stability in their homes, and that’s kind of not the point. The point is that they’re still in a home.” If you keep the task simple—get homes for the homeless—that makes it easier to coordinate efforts. Maybe you could have a separate organization that looks at jobs.
Mayor Hancock just released Denver’s proposed budget for 2023. As you and your fellow Denver City Councilmembers start debating how the city’s dollars are spent, including around housing and homelessness, will you be bringing up some of these takeaways from Houston?
Yes. And I will remember how the head of the coalition in Houston made an interesting point. He said housing includes three things: the housing, the funding for housing, and the funding for supportive services. He said you have to have all three legs of the stool for the stool to stand up. And I thought that was an interesting distinction, because when people think of housing, they often just think of the structure, not necessarily the funding streams related to it.