Houston, the fourth-most populous city in the country, has reduced its rate of homelessness by 63 percent in the last decade, making it by far the best performing major city during that time.
It has achieved these fantastic and long-term results through a “housing first” strategy that prioritizes getting homeless people into one-bedroom apartments as soon as possible, rather than worrying about things like jobs, drug addiction, mental health issues, and other issues later.
The logic, as elaborated by Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times, is that teaching someone how to swim first does not help if they are already drowning.
This method has its detractors, but it is working. According to local news outlets covering the turnaround, the vast majority of homeless Houstonians housed in this manner have been there for more than two years. A national survey found a 31.6 percent drop in homelessness in Texas from 2007 to 2020, largely due to Houston’s successes, especially given 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 in office since 2016, spoke to KHou11. “The challenge right now is getting the units.”
Turner’s team’s strategy includes encouraging homeless service providers and low-income housing providers to collaborate. This was no easy task; well over 100 organizations, large and small, private and public, took part. The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County was formed by landlords, homeowners associations, food banks, churches, the Houston Housing Authority, the Department of Health and Human Services, and others.
Kimmelman followed Terri Harris, a homeless woman discovered living in an overpass encampment, as she went from drowning to, as he put it, “dying and 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 the placement of the most vulnerable, chronically homeless people in their new apartments by providing taxpayer-funded monetary support for everything from rent to bus fare, but only Houston has made significant progress of the several cities former-President Barack Obama targeted for coordinated and thorough homeless reduction strategies.