Houston’s unsheltered homeless population is down about 75 percent since 2011, and leaders there credit their new housing-first approach. The numbers have Seattle officials taking note.

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This is the second of two stories examining what Seattle can learn from innovative approaches used by other cities to ease the homelessness crisis. Read part one about San Francisco here.

HOUSTON — Anthony Humphrey slept on the pavement outside a downtown Houston drop-in center. Except when a Gulf Coast rainstorm slammed the city — then he took cover under a storefront awning or below Interstate 45.

He had no driver’s license, no Social Security card, almost no hope. That was in 2014. This month, Humphrey will celebrate a year in his apartment.

“Someone came up to me,” the 50-year-old recalled. “He said, ‘We know you’ve been sleeping here. We want to get you into coordinated access’?” — a system referring homeless people to housing.

Humphrey is one of thousands of homeless housed in the Houston area since 2011, when leaders embarked on a new approach to help — starting with veterans.

Rather than open more shelters, they focused on getting people into housing. They told charitable organizations to sign on or lose out on funding.

They built a computer system to assess the homeless, prioritize them based on vulnerability, then connect them with programs. And they collected data, lots of data.

The results are surprising and have Seattle officials taking note: There are an estimated 1,050 homeless people without shelter in the area, according to a recent count, down about 75 percent from 4,418 in 2011.

The Seattle area’s numbers are trending in the opposite direction. This year’s estimate tallied 4,505 people without shelter, up 84 percent from 2,442 in 2011.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s special consultant on homelessness briefed a City Council committee Wednesday about Houston.

“They became a well-oiled machine,” said the consultant, Barbara Poppe.

Later this year, Murray — who on Thursday ordered the creation of a 24-hour shelter modeled after an experimental one in San Francisco — will propose Houston-style changes to how Seattle allocates money for homeless services, he says.

The Emerald City now spends about two-thirds of its homelessness dollars on interventions such as emergency shelter, street outreach and meal programs, and only about one-fifth on housing.

“I believe we can reform our system and get significantly better results,” the mayor said in an interview. “I believe there are significant things we can do, like Houston.”

100 vets in 100 days

The city of more than 2 million began changing course under a leader with a personal tie to homelessness. Years before her 2009 election, Annise Parker and her partner had adopted a homeless teenager.

In March 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) named Houston one of 10 struggling areas across the country to receive extra technical assistance.

Two months later, Parker set an unprecedented goal: Houston would house 100 chronically homeless veterans in 100 days by teaming up with the city’s public-housing authority, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and other agencies.

They wound up housing 101. By the end of the year, several hundred had been housed.

Suddenly, the city was on a roll, says Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer then under Parker and now under Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“When you start small and have success, you develop credibility,” he added. “Then you get the private sector and the community on board.”

In 2013, Parker set a new goal of housing 300 veterans in 100 days, and she hired a special assistant on homeless initiatives, Houston’s first.

“We went to her and said, ‘We need a high-profile office for this. It can’t be buried in the city bureaucracy,’?” Icken said.

The sprawling city spends no money from its general fund on homelessness, unlike Seattle, which in 2014 spent more than $22 million from its general fund, up from $9 million in 2005. Houston’s shelters are funded by private entities, such as churches and foundations.

The city does spend several million dollars in municipal-bond funds each year on homelessness.

Rather than spend time divvying up dollars, Parker’s new adviser, Mandy Chapman Semple, concentrated on breaking down and then revamping the way the city and its partners addressed homelessness.

In 2011, the Houston area’s point-in-time estimate tallied 1,146 homeless veterans. This year, the estimate was 537.

Last August, Parker announced Houston had “effectively ended” veteran homelessness by building the ability to house any veteran quickly if that person qualifies for services and accepts help.

Tangle of services

For years, a maze of Houston churches, charities and nonprofit organizations had served the homeless, each with its own screening criteria, shelters, meal programs and housing projects.

People connected with the services in various ways — through outreach workers, walk-in appointments, ministries, drop-in centers, clinics and jails.

Sometimes the organizations collaborated, referring clients to each other. Sometimes they didn’t.

Funding streams were tangled. Houston, Harris County, the state of Texas and philanthropists gave money to multiple organizations for multiple programs. Seattle’s situation is similar, Murray has said.

Chapman Semple’s team persuaded most of the area’s funders — public and private — to align their resources. They brought the Houston and Harris County housing authorities on board and put an umbrella organization in charge.

They wanted to replicate their work with veterans, one subpopulation at a time. The next group was chronically homeless adults.

The Houston area had about 1,500 permanent housing units with supportive services, such as mental-health and substance-abuse counseling, for chronically homeless people. But the area’s leaders determined 4,000 would be needed, and they set out to add them.

There wasn’t much new homelessness funding, so they used federal money previously spent on an array of affordable-housing programs.

“The mayor used the analogy of peanut butter,” Chapman Semple said. “We were trying to make everyone happy, but we were spreading the peanut butter too thin.”

Under the new approach, more than 70 organizations worked together, with streamlined screening criteria. Some cut down on work they had been doing — serving meals or handing out bus passes — to become cogs in the housing-first machine.

They reallocated staff to help more people into and then through coordinated access, and began using data to track their results.

Replacing the maze, there would be one door — and it would lead to housing.

“Smooth and easy”

That door is coordinated access, and Houston began using it in 2014 at The Beacon, the drop-in center outside of which Humphrey was sleeping.

The system tracks the homeless, and Humphrey’s name was in the system because he’d been contacted by an outreach worker.

“I had a negative attitude. I blew it off,” he recalled. “Then one day, I was sitting in The Beacon. They called me on the intercom and … I met Mary.”

That was Mary Cortez, a case manager working out of The Beacon. She and others helped Humphrey get food stamps and medication for his severe anxiety. Eventually, they got him a rent voucher.

About the series

This is the second of two stories examining what Seattle can learn from innovative approaches used by other cities to ease the homelessness crisis. These stories were produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN), with travel expenses funded by a grant to SJN from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The system that connected Humphrey with Cortez is now at other Houston-area facilities. Street-outreach workers can use tablets to enter the homeless people they encounter into the system.

Cortez sat down last month with Robbie Thomas, a 36-year-old who replied to her questions with “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am.”

Cortez quietly asked about his background, teasing out details over the course of 15 minutes: raised in Dallas, prison at 15 years old, released in 2014.

Sleeping on a patio outside a taqueria, working construction for a temp agency. In and out of jail. She tapped at her computer keyboard.

Then, click … housing programs appeared on her monitor, showing the number of units available at each and whether Thomas would be eligible.

Cortez selected a program designed for recently incarcerated people. She clicked again and Thomas was on a waiting list. Cortez said he’d be contacted by a case manager who would handle the next step in the process.

The process is meant to be simple, like booking a hotel room. Chronically homeless people get permanent supportive housing. The rest get temporary rental assistance.

“Smooth and easy,” Thomas said. “I meant to ask how long the wait will be. But honestly, I don’t care, as long as I get housing.”

In 2011, there were an estimated 1,914 chronically homeless adults in the Houston area. This year’s tally was 467.

And the push to add 2,500 units of permanent supportive housing? More than 2,100 are up and running or under development.

Not all better

Houston hasn’t vanquished homelessness — that much is clear walking around downtown. And about 700 people are waiting for permanent supportive housing.

Four nights each week, volunteers with Houston Food Not Bombs bring dinner to share on the sidewalk. Nearly 100 people waited to partake on a muggy Wednesday, Perry Wyley among them.

Wyley also has been assessed at The Beacon.

“That’s where we eat and take a shower, and to get in there, you have to sign up for housing,” he said, wondering whether strings should be attached to basic needs.

Released from prison three years ago, Wyley wants housing.

“But it’s going to be hard for me,” he said. “I’m a sex offender. They say they got certain places for guys like me. But you can count ’em on one hand.”

Encampments aren’t quite as ubiquitous in Houston as in Seattle. But under bridges and in the woods on the outskirts of the sprawling city, people are hiding away.

Tom Mitchell, U.S. VETS-Texas executive director, winced when Parker announced Houston had “ended” veteran homelessness. Some of the most indigent veterans are still homeless and those in housing continue to need supporting services, he says.

“People in the public misunderstand,” Mitchell said. “We’ve done a great job, but it’s going to be an ongoing battle.”

Hope for Seattle?

By some metrics, Seattle isn’t far behind Houston — or behind at all.

Seattle-area organizations recorded more than 7,000 people moving into permanent housing last year, including about 850 veterans, according to Mark Putnam, director of All Home, which oversees homelessness planning across King County.

And the Seattle area boasts about 3,800 units of permanent supportive housing, more than Houston. A new, $290 million housing levy, if approved by voters in August, would help create more.

Next month, All Home and King County plan to launch a comprehensive coordinated-access system. Workers will assess people for housing, prioritizing them based on vulnerability, like Houston.

Murray’s Human Services Department has been developing new criteria to judge how organizations perform, and he’s looking to hire Seattle’s first homelessness czar.

And All Home is working with local organizations to trim their screening criteria, Putnam says. More organizations are collecting more data than before.

Seattle has actually received more homelessness funding from the feds than Houston — $28 million in 2014 versus $23 million.

By other metrics, Seattle and Houston don’t compare. The Emerald City is smaller, denser. Housing prices here are higher, which means each unit costs more.

Rents are also much higher here, with recent increases contributing to homelessness; half the people who used homeless services in King County last year were newly homeless, Putnam says.

The Seattle area’s rental-vacancy rate last year was 2.4 percent. Houston’s was 11 percent, helping officials secure units on the private market.

Downtown Emergency Service Center director Daniel Malone doubts coordinated access will shift the tide on its own.

“It’ll be a step in the right direction,” Malone said. “We’re establishing a queue and making the process more predictable. But we need more housing units.”

In Houston, some organizations chafed against change. They didn’t want to stop doing what they had been, data be darned. That could happen in Seattle, as well.

But Chapman Semple thinks Seattle is close to turning it around.

“Seattle has all the ingredients,” she said. “You just need to put the ingredients together to function as a system.”