Homelessness is among voters’ top concerns in cities across the country. An Ethnic Media Services briefing, July 22, looked at 3 cities that are making dramatic gains in addressing the crisis: In January 2020, Bakersfield achieved “functional zero” chronic homelessness — fewer than 3 people in the community experienced chronic homelessness. Houston placed more than 25,000 people in permanent housing since 2011, resulting in a 64% decrease in homelessness. In 2018, Columbus had a 70% rate of successful housing outcome.
Speakers from the frontlines in each city – Mary Scott, Executive Team Leader of the Open Door Network (formerly Bakersfield Homeless Center and the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault.); Marcus J. Salter, Housing Stability Specialist at Community Mediation Services of Central Ohio; Ana Rausch, Vice President of Program Operations at Coalition for the Homeless, Houston, TX; Catherine Villarreal, Director of Communications at the Coalition for the Homeless, Houston, TX; and Matthew Lewis, Director of Communications at California YIMBY – addressed the strategies they used and whether they’re replicable.
(Above, l-r): Mary Scott, Executive Team Leader of the Open Door Network; Marcus J. Salter, Housing Stability Specialist at Community Mediation Services of Central Ohio; Ana Rausch, Vice President of Program Operations at Coalition for the Homeless, Houston, TX; Catherine Villarreal, Director of Communications at the Coalition for the Homeless, Houston, TX; and Matthew Lewis, Director of Communications at California YIMBY. (EMS)
Mary Scott from Bakersfield, Calif. – Homelessness is community issue
“Kern County in the San Joaquin Valley, in central California, covers 8,000 square miles of land. We are well known for producing agriculture crops and oil for our nation. Due to our large and varied landscape we have several unique populations of homelessness.
“Our homeless population is diverse and scattered over mountains, deserts, farmlands, riverbeds, abandoned buildings, cars, and shelters.
“There are many faces to homelessness, and this is a call to action. Homelessness can be someone like you or me. Most people are one check away from homelessness. This can be due to the lack of income, employment, and support.
“Bakersfield is the largest city providing services for the surrounding rural communities in our County. Many lack the transportation to receive these services. The question is ‘how did Bakersfield end in chronic homelessness? It was a community issue that required a community effort.
“We built relationships with our housing authority and our homeless neighbors, we partnered with our city, county private businesses and other community members. Our leaders and frontline staff in the homeless collaborative are awesome.
“We lack affordable housing. We have a two percent vacancy rate and we identified 163 unduplicated homeless individuals in our 2022 pit count.
“It is also a struggle finding landlords and property owners who are willing to rent to our clients who have little to no income.
“Some of the strategies – we approach solving homelessness by sub-populations instead of an entire census. For example, we have five by name lists – chronic homeless veterans, youth family, and elderly. These sub-populations have their own unique barriers, and we case conference across organizations for each individual status and barriers. Their barriers then become our responsibilities. This ensures they don’t slip through the cracks while they are in our coordinated entry process system.
“We also have innovative housing tactics. We partnered with our housing authority for housing vouchers, low-income units, and the home key program known as the Milestone project that is refurbishing motels and turning them into permanent housing units. We also have landlord engagements with housing locators master leasing of units pad Mission software, which is our version of Zillow, for our clients flexible spending programs to eliminate housing barriers and landlord incentives for renting to our homeless population. We provide housing interventions that are tied with aftercare services that provide mentorship, wraparound services, and we make sure that our people are not alone during this challenging transition back into independent living.
“We are also preventing homelessness on the front end of the spectrum through our diversion program to ensure homelessness is brief, rare, and non-recurring. Bakersfield, Calif., has experienced success because we meet our people where they are and remember we changed our mindset and our beliefs to homelessness is not an individual issue, homelessness is a community issue,” said Scott.
Marcus J. Salter from Columbus, Ohio – The story of Curtis.
“There was a young man. We’ll just call him Curtis. He was living on the land and he had injured his finger and every couple weeks I would go see him.
“He was clearing away one of his campground areas with a little hatchet. He had cut his finger and had a dirty kind of rag covering his finger. When I went back a few weeks later, it was infected. Eventually, after a few weeks, he had lost that finger.
“Are we doing any kind of prevention? Are there any mechanisms, education to help someone prevent homelessness? Do we want to be recognized as just someone, or a city, who just puts a Band-Aid on that cut? Do we want to be recognized as a city who has allowed that finger to become infected, and now it needs to be removed?
“People always want to be in the front end on that prevention side. We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. One of our main players in the city is a community shelter board that has developed a homeless prevention network. Their big goal is it’s a formalized way to collaborate with each other.
“As we approach the other side of pandemic, we realized that we have to increase our collaborations, and how we network with each.
“We’re resource rich, but we’re connection poor. A lot of times we have people who are in the system, all doing the same work, but we may be doing it at different intervals, different angles, different positions, that we can bring together and better serve the community. The shelter board, with their homeless prevention network, also meet families where they are. There’s a network where people can call in and report people being homeless. People can self-report being homeless.
“Addressing those families who are at risk in a quick manner, connecting them to necessary resources that help them get over the barriers they may be facing, and help target and limit the resources in a quick manner.
“We also want to reduce the demand in the homeless shelters. We have five single adult shelters and two, family shelters, and we know that all our shelters right now are filled to capacity. We’ve been having trouble linking people to services once they’re in shelter. The homeless prevention network tries to expedite that referral process.
“We also started a Warming Center and this is probably first or second year that we’ve actually received funding. Warming Center turned into hot meals, and the hot meals turned into a laundry service. A person living on the land can do laundry for free at our warming stations.
“We have a high eviction rate. We have a homeless crisis, and we have a lack of affordable housing. Our mediation services intervene in the eviction filing,” said Salter.
Ana Rausch and Catherine Villarreal from Houston, TX – It’s part of human dignity
“Everyone deserves a roof over their head and food in their bellies,” said Rausch as she introduced her co-worker, Catherine Villarreal
“In Houston, and in other communities, we are making progress and able to help people get from homelessness into housing.
“We are the ‘lead agency’ to the way home, and The Way Home is the name, our name for the local homeless response system in Harris County, Fort Bend County, and Montgomery County in Southeast Texas.
“The Way Home is more than 100 different partners including direct services providers, governmental agencies, and mental health authority, all working together to end homelessness in our region.
Drawing an analogy of an airport, Villarreal said, “If you think about an airport, there are airlines which provide services to their customers, and customers are familiar with airlines like Delta, United, or Southwest, then there are the behind the scenes operations of the airport itself, everything that helps the process run smoothly that customers might not think about as much, but are equally as important to get passengers safely to their destination. If we apply that analogy to homelessness, if someone is making the journey from homelessness to housing, the direct service providers are like the airlines who interact the most closely with clients and help them along the way and that are agencies that people are more familiar with. In our community, that are sort of the public-facing brands that help people experiencing homelessness. More than 100 provider partners in The Way Home and the Coalition for the Homeless that Anna and I work for is more like the airport. We run behind the scenes processes that help get people from homelessness into housing. If you take all the partners working together, that’s The Way Home,” said Villarreal.
“Since 2011, we had the sixth largest homeless population in the country which is almost 9,000 individuals experiencing homelessness. Homeless service providers were spending millions of dollars but leaving a lot of money unspent.
“Providers were also operating in silos with no collaboration talking to one another. We were not looking at our data to make sure that the decisions were in line with what the community needed and our recidivism was very high at that time.
“We were identified by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development as a priority community and that’s not a good thing. It meant that we needed a little bit of help and so we were provided with some technical assistance to get everyone together.
“We all agreed that we needed to do a better job here in Houston. Our partners and funders came together to identify the common goals for the homeless response system. The end result is the structure that we have today with the Coalition for the Homeless as the lead organization.
“We have a Continuum of Care steering committee that oversees the process for everything we do and now we have an integrated network of providers that are coordinating to achieve maximum impact. Because of this, our first five-year strategic plan that started back in 2012, we ended veteran homelessness in 2015. We created over 2,500 units of permanent supportive housing and we’ve been able to slash our homeless numbers in half as of this year.
“We are still seeing that a lot of people that are identifying as Black or African American are disproportionately represented making up about 52 percent of the total population experiencing homelessness, but only 20 percent of the Harris County population in which Houston sits. This is a slight decrease from 2021. It was at 56.4 percent, and this year is at 52 percent.
“We’ve decreased chronic homelessness by 69 percent and we actually hope to declare functional zero soon. We have decreased family homelessness by 82 percent. When the pandemic started, the COVID resources that came into our Continuum of Care allowed us to serve almost 10,000 individuals in two years. It also allowed for the rollout and of an encampment decommissioning program that has demonstrated proven results in placing individuals, living on the streets, into housing.
“Overall, we have housed more than 25,000 people since 2012. Most of those individuals stay housed our permanent supportive housing. Success rate is over 95 percent. We continue to have a shared vision that the only way to end homelessness is with permanent housing and supportive services. We use the housing first model that means that we take someone from the streets and put them into a place, and then once they feel safe, they have a roof over their head, they have food in their belly, then they can begin to focus on the issues that might have led to them becoming homeless.
“You can’t expect someone to try to find a job if they’re living under the streets. You can’t expect someone to take their medication if they don’t have any place to keep it, and we really do all of this with our partners. It’s all about collaboration, we work with our local government, our jurisdictions, the county, the city, the mayor’s office, the judge’s office here in Harris County.
“More than 100 non-profit service providers are all our public housing authorities and we’ve been able to do all this by working together, talking to one another, no longer working in silos, looking towards the future and doing it together,” said Rausch.
Matthew Lewis from California YIMBY – Yes in My Backyard
“There’s an acute shortage of housing in California, and the affordability crisis ends up resulting in a state with the worst homelessness problem in the United States. There are over 60,000 people who go to sleep without a home in the state of California every night, and that’s not because they’re mentally ill, it’s not because they’re on drugs, it’s not because they’re criminals, it’s because they lost their homes
“Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, and San Francisco are cities that have had some of the greatest amount of job growth and economic growth in the country over the past. Places like Houston, Charlotte, Orlando, Dallas and Seattle also had economic growth but they built much more housing
Almost every major city in the United States has seen a total collapse in housing construction since 1990. Some places like Los Angeles got started a long time ago when the city down zoned itself from allowing 10 million people in 1965 to 4 million people in 1975 you saw housing starts go off a cliff, similarly that’s still the case today.
“Los Angeles still has severe caps on the number of homes that can be built but that phenomenon has affected other cities to different degrees. The cities that have built the most housing have the lowest rates of homelessness. People who are homeless didn’t choose that situation, in fact in California, most of the people experiencing homelessness are living in the neighborhoods where they used to have a house, and for various circumstances they lost that house. The reasons that can lead to that could be big medical emergency bill, a loss of a job. If there is an abundant supply of housing those pressures might be a little less.
“In California, the shortage is so acute that landlords and owners have no incentive to work with tenants who fall on bad times,” said Lewis.
Explaining other situations from history that have been instrumental in our housing crisis, Lewis said, “Actual buildings that were legal to build in 1950, now need special permits from the city if they want to do major renovations because they’re no longer legal.
“Berkeley was the first city in the United States to do racial redlining. A realtor in the Claremont District wanted to create a very exclusive subdivision for white people and the deeds to those homes said for white people. In 1920, the deed said no Jews, no blacks, no Asians, no Latinos.
“In Berkeley we’ve been trying to correct it after the Fair Housing Act. As Redline was illegal, cities did down zoning and it had the desired effect. It dramatically slashed housing production in many of our most desirable cities.
“The sprawl of people moving, in cases of LA they’re moving to San Bernardino County, which is very far from LA. It takes two hours and you’re in the desert. It’s very high fire hazard area, there’s a water crisis, but this replicated all over the state of California, and what we’re trying to do at California YIMBY is reverse those historic mistakes.
“When you have a growing city, especially a city that’s adding a lot of jobs, the consequence of those restrictions end up, and as you work your way down the income scale, the people at the bottom.
“It’s like a game of musical chairs. The music stops and they’re homeless, and that’s a policy choice California has underbuilt based on job growth and based on demand in our coastal cities for 30 to 40, and in the cases of Los Angeles, for almost 50 years.
“This is not a problem that’s going to be easily resolved,” said Lewis.
“A lot of the homeless in Inland California are people who were pushed away from the coasts, who outbid for the housing that was there. We’re seeing this happening in Fresno and Stockton. Fresno and Stockton are now bedroom communities for San Francisco and San Mateo County,” said Lewis.