Can Houston continue its homelessness-first approach?

Homelessness continues to weigh heavily on American cities. The annual number of homeless people in the government will reach a record in 2023, according to a recent analysis by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Houston is among the few major cities that have bucked this trend over the past decade.

The city, lauded nationally for its anti-homelessness efforts, is where Derrick Escobedo finds himself after his release from prison. At 34, he moved into his first real home after a life of violence and instability.

“My mother was killed. My father was killed. And then I went into foster care when I was only 13 years old. And then from foster care I end up going to prison.

When he got out a year ago, he started living in his car. It was Houston’s coordinated network of homelessness advocacy groups, known as Pathway Home, that connected him to a system of support, jobs and a permanent home subsidized by the federal government.

“When I was homeless, I didn’t love myself,” he said. “But then when you actually get an apartment, that’s when you’re like, ‘Wow, I finally have my own place.’ It’s unbelievable.”

Derrick Escobedo qualifies for lifelong permanent housing through Houston’s homeless response network, Way Home. (Elizabeth Troval/Market)

The regional homelessness initiative, which has moved about 30,000 people like Escobedo into housing since 2012, has benefited from relatively cheap housing, a low cost of living and federal disaster funds.

But COVID-related funding is expected to dry up in 2024 and the city is becoming more expensive, threatening the region’s ability to maintain the volume of housing it provides to people living on the streets.

“We allocate on an annual basis our funding to the homeless response system, and historically we have done so through special federal funds that will be provided because of the crisis,” said Mark Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor of Houston for homeless initiatives.

“When a hurricane hits, we get disaster funds. Or when there’s a pandemic, there’s funds,” he said. “But what happens when we don’t have a crisis?”

The Houston Homeless Coalition estimates that the local response system will require $35 million to $50 million in new annual funding to continue sheltering and providing services to the unhoused population at current levels established as a result of federal COVID assistance.

Questions are being raised about future funding as housing becomes less affordable in Houston and greater Harris County due to higher costs. Evictions have increased, and in some cases families have moved in together to afford housing.

Houston-area landlord Jameel Hassan has felt the pinch. He tried to keep his rentals affordable in a central Houston neighborhood where property values ​​have risen rapidly.

“When you see the rent going up 30%, we always like to blame the landlord. But if [costs] are up 40%, they have to make up for it. The only thing is the cost is passed on to the tenant and that’s where we see the squeeze.”

Hassan works with the Houston Coalition for the Homeless to provide apartments for their homeless clients. Federal housing vouchers are used to pay the rent, so Hassan has to charge what the government thinks is fair.

“Fair market rent is $1,325, I have to go with $1,325,” Hassan said. “Sometimes you don’t agree with it, but that’s the balance that every landlord has to see what their bottom line is.”

It must maintain this fair market rent level despite increases in property taxes, insurance rates and utility costs. “Our water bill went from $20 to $60. We have to take this on,” Hassan said.

For now, he will continue to work with the homeless population – but he is only one landlord.

Ashley Young coordinates with Houston landlords to find available and affordable housing for the Coalition for the Homeless. She said she’s worried about the drain on COVID-related funds used to pay landlords extra, on top of rent, to set aside apartments.

“If they kept the units off the market, we were able to offer what’s called some landlord incentive fees,” she said. “This can offset those initial moving costs.”

That funding is disappearing this year, while another problem looms: “Price reduction,” she said.

Young said she is concerned that formerly homeless clients, many of whom are limited to a year of housing, may struggle when they must become fully independent.

Exterior of a two-story brick complex
Some units in this Houston building near Texas Southern University are set aside for homeless people. (Elizabeth Troval/ Marketplace)

Houstonians are spending more on housing than in previous years, with rent increases outpacing income growth.

From 2015 to 2021 in Harris County, median rent increased 29 percent while wages increased about 23 percent, according to a Rice University analysis that shows Houstonians are increasingly cost-burdened for housing. In some neighborhoods, rent has doubled.

Princeton University’s Eviction Lab found that eviction requests in the region have also increased. In November, evictions were about 41% higher than pre-pandemic averages.

And there are signs that Houston’s efforts to reduce the number of people living on the streets have slowed.

Although the annual number of homeless people in Houston has decreased from 7,187 in 2012 to 3,270 in 2023, the number of people experiencing homelessness has increased by 7% since 2021, according to HUD data.

The wage increases also strain efforts to reduce homelessness as the cost of living takes a toll on staffing the programs, especially in the current tight labor market.

“These jobs like case managers and working with people who are very vulnerable [are] challenging. And too often we don’t have the funds to do that, to attract talent and retain it,” said Eichenbaum from City Hall.

In many ways, homeless advocates are trying to do more with less.

But Mike Nichols, the outgoing CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, said it’s in the region’s financial interest to invest in housing because taxpayers will pay for the unhoused population one way or another.

“When a person is on the street, it will cost taxpayers between $40,000 and $60,000 a year for one person. That money is largely for emergency medical care, but also for policing and cleanup,” Nichols said. He added that housing costs are about $20,000 a year.

“It’s fiscally responsible for our community, our citizens, to shelter people,” he said.

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