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March 31, 2022

Homelessness and the pandemic: Houston

Greg Hurst

Permanent housing avoided surge in homelessness

Houston’s response to protect its citizens experiencing homelessness during the pandemic stands out for its clear strategic focus on twin goals of moving people into permanent housing and on prevention. 

The city was in a relatively good position when Covid-19 escalated into a global crisis, having already reduced the number of residents impacted by homelessness by half in less than a decade.

This long term downward trend was disrupted when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August in 2017 and severe damage pushed local levels of homelessness back upwards for the first time since 2011. But in its response to re-house people, the city pioneered an approach of moving residents as fast as possible into permanent housing rather than paying for beds in emergency shelters.

It was this experience that shaped Houston’s strategy in the pandemic: leasing one-bedroom apartments as long term stable housing was its default, rather than paying for thousands of rooms in motels or hotels. 

Sylvester Turner, Houston’s Mayor, memorably described this as using permanent housing as an infectious diseases control response.

Working together

Houston, with a population of 2.3 million in the city and 7 million in the wider metropolitan area, had another strength that drove its dramatic pre-pandemic falls in homelessness, which was a tightly coordinated homelessness system. More than 100 organisations, spanning city and county authorities, and voluntary and community groups, were committed to working together towards shared goals to respond to homelessness and so avoid competition or duplication of services. The system, called The Way Home, meant there was a single philosophy and organisations pulled in the same direction to maximise impact, with standardised accountability and a centralised coordinating agency.

The injection of $65 million (£50 million) of largely unrestricted federal Covid-19 relief funds into this cohesive but sparsely funded eco-system enabled the city to react quickly and with much greater ambition.

Its flagship community Covid-19 homeless housing programme set a goal of housing for 5,000 people over two years; by August 2021 it had surpassed this and by February 2022 the figure reached 7,720. In 2021 alone, 3,870 people had been placed into permanent housing. The substantial funding available meant that the average time between referral to signing a lease also fell from 60 to 32 days for permanent supported housing. 

The larger number reflected Houston’s less visible, but just as important step change in work to prevent people from falling into homelessness. This targeted assistance at people at the point of eviction to support them into alternative housing. By November 2021 this prevention programme had diverted 2,895 individuals away from the risk of homelessness and into housing. The city and county had a separate rent relief programme that supported tens of thousands more tenants facing eviction.   

The approach enabled Houston to avoid a surge in homelessness linked to pandemic restrictions, as happened in many large cities in the United States. Other than isolated flare-ups in some congregate facilities, it also meant that widespread transmission of the virus among people experiencing homelessness was prevented

An annual point-in-time count in January 2021 recorded 3,055 people experiencing homelessness in the counties of Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery, around half sleeping out and half in shelters. This represented a fall of more than a quarter compared with the previous year (3,974), although the unusual circumstances of the count during a pandemic means these are not directly comparable with previous years. When volunteers were able to return to using the standard methodology in January 2022, they recorded 3,223 people either unsheltered or sleeping in shelters: a 19% decrease since 2020.

Closing encampments

The city was also able to start dismantling some of the unauthorised tented encampments beneath its enormous highways that had been a long term feature of the urban landscape. At the peak, Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the Mayor for homeless initiatives, estimates that between 400 and 500 people were sleeping in these encampments; by spring 2022 around 200 people had voluntarily left their tents. Again, their destinations were overwhelmingly permanent housing.

At the height of this activity, buses arrived at encampments to collect their residents. A housing navigation centre was established in a motel where case workers discussed housing options with individuals. After a target period of between 30 and 60 days, individuals were moved to an apartment.

Houston did pay for rooms in a relatively small number of motels and hotels as places for isolation and recovery from Covid-19 infections for people unable to isolate or quarantine elsewhere after testing positive or showing symptoms of the virus. When people left an isolation and recovery centre they were given an assessment of their housing needs so that they, too, could be considered for long term housing.

But the default, says Eichenbaum, was that the city “did not want to put a bunch of people into hotels and motels without knowing what we would do afterwards”.

At its peak of activity, in the spring of that year, the city was finding permanent housing for 439 individuals a month in both permanent supportive housing and rapid rehousing, although this rate of placements fell significantly thereafter. 

One reason was a growing shortage of one-bedroom apartments in the Houston area, as the rental market recovered from the shock of Covid-19 lockdowns and investors began buying apartment complexes. Another reason was that the shrinking population of people experiencing homelessness had more people with high support needs.

Houston’s next goal is more ambitious still: a $100 million (£76 million) plan to house another 7,000 people who are or will experience homelessness over a three-year period.

* Greg Hurst is Head of Communications and Public Affairs at the Centre for Homelessness Impact

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