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Homelessness is among voters’ top concerns in cities across the country. But, three cities, Bakersfield, Columbus, and Houston, made dramatic gains in addressing the crisis.
Representatives from each city shared their strategies to counter homelessness at a July 22 Ethnic Media Services. EMS Director Sandy Close commented, “We need to look at solutions to tackle homelessness which is currently a health, social, environmental, and political problem.”
Bakersfield CA, Achieves Functional Zero Chronic Homelessness
Chronic homelessness is defined as a person who has been homeless for one consecutive year, has had four episodes of homelessness, and a documented disability.
In January 2020, Bakersfield achieved “functional zero” chronic homelessness. Fewer than 3 people in the community experienced chronic homelessness.
Mary Scott, Director of The Open-Door Network in Bakersfield, CA., said that Bakersfield ended chronic homelessness in Curran County by changing mindsets and beliefs. The city worked to make homelessness a community issue. It got businesses involved by being transparent about the problem and their progress. Scott, has worked with the homeless for the past 17 years. He explained that building relationships with the Housing Authority and homeless neighbors and partnering with community members, helped achieve this outcome.
“Our challenges are lacking affordable housing. We have a 2% vacancy rate and identified 1603 homeless residents in our 2022 count. It is a struggle finding landlords to rent to clients who have low to no income.”
Bakersfield created sub-populations of the homeless: the chronic homeless, veterans, youth, family and elderly to solve the problem.
“Each sub population has their own barriers. We make sure they don’t slip through the cracks,” said Scott. “Not every homeless person has a mental health or substance abuse problem.”
“We case conference and go one by one to look into what service providers are providing. In addition, we use innovative housing tactics like giving vouchers, engaging landlords, and refurbishing motels by turning them into permanent housing units.”
Bakersfield also created a job development program that hired homeless clients to clean streets and freeways.
Now it takes 120 to 225 days to go from being on the street to becoming permanently housed in Bakersfield.
Columbus Works With Shelters To Curb Homelessness
In 2018, Columbus, Ohio had a 70% rate of successful housing outcome. Marcus J. Salter of Community Mediation Services of Ohio attributed Columbus’ success in tackling homelessness to one of their partners. The community shelter board has a homeless prevention network where people can call in and self- report.
Salter said the network is designed to meet clients where they are. It addresses families at risk and connects them to agencies to get over that hurdle.
“We want to target homelessness with the right service and not bombard clients with services. From January to March 2022, 311 families who called the homeless hotline were diverted and did not need shelter. 2035 people got permanent shelter.”
Salter works on the front lines of homelessness. He founded Keys to Successful Housing, a program to educate and empower vulnerable Youth and Adult populations. The initiative provides them with tools to build successful and stable housing experiences.
Houston Reduces Homelessness by 64%
Houston placed more than 25,000 people in permanent housing since 2011. It’s resulted in a 64% decrease in homelessness.
Ana Rausch, is president at the Coalition for Homelessness in Houston, Texas. She said that in 2011, Houston had the sixth largest homeless population in the country. More than 6000 individuals experienced homelessness in Harris County, Texas.
“Homeless providers were spending lots of dollars but leaving a lot of money unspent,” said Rausch. “They were operating in silos and were not matching decisions with what the community needed. Recidivism was high. We were identified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Development as a priority community. We needed help.”
Houston rectified this by collaborating with partners and funders to identify common goals for the homeless. Their integrated network of providers coordinate for maximum impact.
Houston has ended veterans’ homelessness. It has created 2500 units of permanent housing and slashed homeless numbers in half.
“We have decreased family homelessness by 82%,” said Rausch. “Covid relief served 10,000 individuals in two years. It has helped more people living on the street move into housing.”
A New York Times report documented how Houston moved 25,000 people from the streets into homes of their own. “Since 2012, we have housed more than 25,000 people and those staying housed is over 95%,” added Rausch. “In addition, we have a landlord engagement team that does a fantastic job recruiting landlords. It helps that Houston rents haven’t gone up so much to push people out.”
Lessons on Ending Housing Shortage in California
Matthew Lewis, Director of Communications at Yimby, CA, works to end housing shortage in California.
“There are 60,000 people who go to sleep without a home in California. This is because they lost their home. It’s not due to drugs or mental health,” said Lewis. “Some of the reasons for the loss is because of a medical emergency, a family crisis, or loss of job.
Lewis said that cities with the greatest job growth, like Los Angeles, New York, and Boston, have seen a total collapse in housing construction. That has resulted in more homelessness. But cities that have built more housing have lower rates of homelessness.
“If there is a large supply of housing one can usually negotiate with the landlord to get an extra month. But in California, the housing shortage is so acute that landlords have really no incentive to work with tenants.”
Lewis said that building codes and rezoning have made it impossible to add housing in C.A. in areas where it used to be legal. He traced this to an old racist policy of red lining where Jews, Blacks, Asians or Latinos were barred from housing.
This racial policy, replicated around the country, became illegal after the fair housing act was passed. But, the effects of red lining, said Lewis, still survive today as cities slash housing in most desirable locations.
“California has underbuilt for 30 to 40 years, and we need to break down the walls that cities have put up to house economically diverse communities.”