Can Denver copy Houston’s approach to roaming?

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“How Houston Moved 25,000 People From The Streets To Homes Of Their Own,” read a headline from the New York Times on June 14 of this year. The piece, unsurprisingly, caused a nationwide buzz given the article’s staggering numbers. Over the past decade, tens of thousands of previously homeless people have moved directly into apartments and houses; homelessness has been reduced by 63% in the region; and the vast majority of housing recipients remained housed after two years.

For more than 10 years, Houston-area officials and nonprofits have pursued a “housing first” strategy, in which people are moved directly from the streets to homes without any preconditions or requirement. The idea? Housing is a basic human need; someone struggling with homelessness and other issues, such as addiction, will not be able to get their life back together without first having a roof over their head.

Since Time article was published, Houston was inundated with inquiries about its program, and officials representing other cities (such as New York and Pittsburgh) said they hoped to replicate the “Houston model”. Earlier this month, a contingent of Denver Metro politiciansincluding Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, two Aurora City Council members, an Arapahoe County Commissioner, and Denver City Council members Candi CdeBaca and Chris Hinds conducted their own fact-finding trip to the city of Texas.

Hinds, who represents District 10, sat down with 5280 to talk about the two-day trip, which took place on September 14 and 15.

Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Chris Hinds, who represents Denver’s District 10, visited Houston City Hall last week. Photo courtesy of Chris Hinds

5280: How did this trip come about and who did you meet in Houston?
Chris Hinds: Originally I think it was Juan Marcanoa member of the Aurora City Council, who said “Hey, I want to come down to Houston because there’s this article in the New York Times.” And then the Aurora people got us involved. Once in Houston, we spent a lot of time at City Hall. There we met the mayor of Houston and a few county commissioners, as well as a gentleman who called himself the “homeless czar” of Houston, who works in the mayor’s office. We also visited a facility that will be a ‘rapid relocation facility’, meaning a place that allows people to move from the streets to permanent housing within 90 days.

After seeing Houston’s “Housing First” strategy in action, what do you think?
I think this is the right strategy. It is both the appropriate socially liberal strategy and the appropriate fiscally conservative strategy. The Houston group said the model currently costs them $17,000 a year to place someone in permanent housing. About 90% of these people remain housed after two years. Now compare that to what they say is the cost of one person remaining on the street – ER visits, police actions and EMS responses – which can be as high as $97,000 per year. Saving $80,000 a year is pretty substantial.

How do you think Houston was able to put together such an approach, including securing the funding to house so many people for up to two years?
What I remember the most is that a regional approach is important. The City of Houston has partnered with Harris County and two other counties, as well as a nonprofit organization, the Coalition for the Homeless, to be the organization responsible for coordinating all of their different service providers and funding sources. In contrast, if you look at our Denver metro area, we have a bunch of different cities and counties; Denver is doing things one way, and Aurora is doing things that may not fit Denver. Then we have dozens of nonprofit, faith-based, and other partners doing their own thing but not necessarily coordinating with each other. To have this unified and coordinated approach like Houston’s, I think, would really help the Denver metro area and those on our streets.

Have you seen any differences between Houston and Denver that might make an ambitious Housing First program difficult to replicate here?
One difference is that Houston’s housing market has considerably lower rents than Denver’s. And they’ve been so successful in filling homes that they’re, in some ways, victims of their own success: They’re seeing median house prices start to rise in Houston.

It seems that not everyone in your delegation had universally positive things to say about the Houston program. Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman made some comments on Twitter after returning from trip in which he said he had a ‘problem’ with Houston officials unable to provide data on the types of jobs housing recipients were getting, or health treatment mental health that they might seek, while they were “entitled, under the program, for free housing. Do you agree that is a problem?
We haven’t had any follow-up conversations yet. But I remember Mayor Coffman asking a lot of questions about jobs. And the homeless czar in Houston kept saying they only had one metric: take someone without a house and put them in a house. And after two years, they found that more than 90% are still housed and have stopped using support services, which can be as simple as accessing a food bank. The homeless czar said: “We don’t know how they managed to stabilize their homes, and that’s not the point. The fact is that they are still in a house. If you keep the task simple – finding housing for the homeless – it makes it easier to coordinate efforts. Perhaps you could have a separate organization that handles the jobs.

Mayor Hancock just released Denver’s proposed budget for 2023. As you and your fellow Denver City Council members start debating how the city’s dollars are being spent, including around housing and homelessness, are you going to bring in some of these takeaways from Houston ?
Yes. And I’ll remember how the leader of the coalition in Houston made an interesting point. He said housing includes three things: housing, housing finance and support services funding. He said you need to have all three legs of the stool for the stool to stand. And I thought that was an interesting distinction, because when people think of housing, they often think of the structure, not necessarily the funding streams associated with it.

chris walker

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