Stronger Houston: Program to help Houston’s homeless community sees major success during pandemic

Stronger Houston

HOUSTON – The city of Houston, Harris County and a non-profit have been working amid the pandemic to reduce the number of people who are homeless and in emergency shelters.

“I recognize that these are human beings that we need to understand and focus on,” said Harris County Pct. 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia. “At the end of the day, nobody wants to see an encampment under a freeway, under a park, by the side of our freeways. It makes people feel unsafe, even if they’re not really dangerous individuals.”

Homeless camps around Houston. Officials working to get more homeless people off the streets (KPRC)

Commissioner Garcia said the county and city combined $70 million to fund the initial phase of the Community Covid Housing Program (CCHP). Under the program, more than 7,000 people have been housed – both short and long term – or prevented from falling into homelessness since October 2020, according to the Coalition For The Homeless.

Mike Nichols, who is the coalition’s CEO and President, said they try to reach people at soup kitchens, shelters and by going out to the streets.

“Earlier in the year, we went to an encampment at 49 and Allen Parkway... had about 52 people in that encampment,” he said. “Of that group, 49 said, ‘Yes, we will go to housing if you can get us into housing this week.’”

Nichols said being able to provide safe and stable housing under the program has resulted in the reduction of homelessness by 20% since 2020, according to the 2022 Point-in-Time Count & Survey results. In 2020, 3,974 people were either sheltered or unsheltered, according to the survey -- which is compared to 3,223 in 2022.

“A 20% decrease in two years is historic. To do that during a pandemic is unheard off,” said Marc Eichenbaum, The Special Assistant To The Mayor For Homeless Initiatives.

Eichenbaum said 90% of the people rehoused in apartments across the city have stayed and more than 30 encampments were decommissioned.

“The key here is housing with the supportive services. We would never house an individual without those wrap-around supportive services tailored to those specific needs of that individual,” Eichenbaum.

Commissioner Garcia said the program can be a guide for the nation.

“How we got here is a model for the nation for how a county and a municipality can bring the synergy, the energy, the creativity to address a challenging problem that has plagued so many cities and counties across the county,” Garcia said.

Two months ago, Houston and Harris County announced the second phase of the CCHP, which is $100 million of Federal COVID-19 relief funding to be used to house an additional 7,000 people by 2024.

Nichols said the cost is well worth the investment.

“The cost of having one person living on the street in Harris County is $96,000 a year. That’s a direct cost to county taxpayers in healthcare,” Nichols said. “Our system houses people for $18,000 a year, and that includes the lease payments and the service providers.”

Nichols said the missing link to their homeless response system is a navigation center. He said it’s a temporary place for people living in a camp, living on the street, or assessing whether housing is safe, can go while they’re waiting for their housing to be ready. Currently, there’s an old motel being used as a navigation system to house 80 people while a permanent one is slated to open in September, according to Nichols.

To learn more about the Coalition For The Homeless and the CCHP, click here.