Why I love living here: President and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless on why he loves Houston

Michael Nichols
Michael Nichols (Coalition for the Homeless Houston)

Michael Nichols is the President and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless. This is an essay he wrote as part of our series “Why I Love Living Here”, a weekly feature where area residents share why they love living in Houston. If you want to submit your story, send a column to click2houston@kprc.com.

My wife, Marcia, my ten-month-old son and I moved to Houston in the spring of 1981. I came to join a relatively small and little-known company, Sysco Corporation, as its General Counsel. When we decided to come to Houston, we left our large families and many friends in Atlanta. We had only five acquaintances here.

We also showed up in Houston at a time when tens of thousands of people were flooding into our job-rich region. With homes selling above asking prices and interest rates floating above 17 percent, we felt fortunate to find a place to live. Arranging for phone lines took weeks, and waiting for five hours for a driver’s license was a normal occurrence for newcomers. We heard that the first year in Houston was difficult but after five years you never wanted to leave.

That was true for us.

Now, almost 40 years later, we have four children who all took Texas flags with them to college. Marcia and I consider ourselves true Houstonians and committed Texans. When George H. W. Bush was Vice President, he was asked what he missed about Houston. He responded: “I miss Otto’s Bar B Que, I miss jogging at Memorial Park, and I miss my friends.”

I think the President had it right.

While Houston may not have the beautiful coastal beaches like Los Angeles nor the magnificent Rocky Mountains like Denver, we have something more valuable: we have each other. We have great people, and we have great friends.

When I joined Sysco, I was often jealous of the high salaries paid to my peers in the oil industry. But after Houston’s first downturn less than a year after our arrival, I understood the benefit of being in an industry focused on people rather than hard assets.

And Houston is really a city that is focused on its people rather than its hard assets. Because people are our priority, Houston is the city that epitomizes the tension between the immediate issues of jobs and energy and the future issues of sustainability and equity. Houston is unique in that it is a business-oriented city but it is also a city where there are leaders in business, philanthropy, academia and government who understand the importance of solving today’s problems while also keeping an eye on the long view.

Some examples of my Houston friends and heroes with the long view:

  • Bill White, who while mayor overcame the concerns of the immediate and welcomed more than 200,000 people from Louisiana, including many who were people of color and who were coming with nothing but their energy and the shirts on their backs;
  • Stephen Kleinberg, the Rice sociology professor, who for more than three decades has led the longitudinal study of Houstonians’ attitude and who has always held that we should honor our commitment to diversity;
  • Rodney Ellis, the former state senator and current Harris County precinct 1 commissioner, who continues to lead the fight against racial oppression in the criminal justice system;
  • Melaney Linton, who as a teenager came to work at Planned Parenthood and has stayed the course for more than three decades, not just fighting for women’s rights but also doing the day-to-day work providing reproductive health to Houstonians;
  • Annise Parker, who as mayor committed to solving homelessness and led the first effort to develop a collaborative, system-wide approach to move beyond managing homelessness to solving it by placing people in permanent housing;
  • Charles Foster, who for decades has led the business and legal community’s commitment to fair treatment toward those immigrating to Texas and the fight toward finding a path to full citizenship for those immigrants and their families who have literally built our city;
  • Ann Stern, CEO of Houston Endowment, and Elena Marks, CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation, who are leaders in developing ways that private philanthropy can partner with government and non-profits to improve social services by leveraging government funds and improving public policies; and
  • “The Three Amigos,” Rabbi Sam Karff, Rev. Bill Lawson, Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, who showed us that we could mend the tears in the fabric of our city through the power of interfaith cooperation.

This list could go on and on, but my current work is tied to these heroes. Less than two years ago, I joined the Coalition for the Homeless as its interim CEO. The Coalition was founded by the Three Amigos and has had the ongoing support of former mayors White and Parker and our current mayor, Sylvester Turner. The Coalition is the leader of The Way Home, the local homeless response system, and has led the 100 partners of this system to shift from managing homelessness to solving it.

Since 2012, The Way Home has placed more than 19,000 formerly homeless individuals in supportive housing. More than 85% have stayed in this housing for more than two years, finding stability in their new homes and improving their quality of life.

Following the COVID outbreak, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court and the Mayor of Houston committed $57 million to the Community COVID Housing Program (CCHP) to house 5,000 people facing homelessness and mitigate the spread of the virus. Many of these people will be placed in permanent housing, others will be diverted from homelessness and others still will find the mental health services and other supports that they need to transform their lives.

This ambitious response to COVID builds upon the work of our heroes and, at the same time, will require new heroes who see the long view:

  • We need government officials to be willing to spend funds on affordable housing so we are not faced with providing expensive emergency services for those living on the street or who are facing eviction when the next disaster strikes;
  • We need philanthropists who are willing to donate their resources and partner with the Coalition to leverage government funding so that the Coalition and our partners can complete our work; and
  • We need Houstonians to understand that homelessness is complex and is the result of systemic issues rather than bad choices made by those men and women who you see on the streets and in encampments.

I love Houston because, although this work is hard, we have great people — heroes in fact — who believe in altruism and who never stop working to make the city better.