Mayor Sylvester Turner on March 2nd announced what he termed a more holistic approach to reducing homelessness and invited the community to help implement it. The mayor’s plan involves expedited efforts to permanently house the homeless, more shelter beds, new public health and safety regulations and an anti-panhandling awareness campaign.
“Houston has achieved significant reductions in homelessness in recent years, but I am committed to doing even more,” said Mayor Turner. “It is simply not acceptable for people to live on the streets; it is not good for them, and it is not good for the city. We will tackle this complicated issue, and we will do it humanely with a meaningful approach that balances the needs of the homeless and the concerns of neighborhoods they impact. We will need everyone’s patience and help to make it work.”
At the center of the mayor’s plan is expansion of The Way Home, the coordinated housing initiative of 100 public and private organizations that has reduced overall homelessness by 57 percent over the last five years. Another 500 chronically homeless individuals will be placed in permanent supportive housing within six months. Coupled with this aggressive goal, the community, often with direct city support, is continuing to invest in new permanent supportive housing units, but more apartments are still needed. The mayor is calling upon apartment owners and landlords with vacant units to step forward and be part of the solution.
Another 215 shelter beds will come online in August when the new Star of Hope campus on Reed Road is finished. In addition, the city is pursuing creation of one or more secure and professionally managed covered outdoor spaces with restroom facilities where up to 75 individuals could stay temporarily.
“In this city, we are not going to abandon our most vulnerable,” said Turner. “The goal is to get as many people as possible into permanent housing or shelters, but even with all of the assistance being offered, there will still be people who choose to stay on the streets. It would be wrong to tell these people they cannot be here or there without providing a suitable alternative. I am inviting the community and City Council to help identify locations in their districts we can use as temporary outdoor shelters and for feeding the hungry.”
The city will continue weekly cleanups of encampments to address health and safety concerns while the homeless are transitioning to shelters and permanent supportive housing. The Houston Police Department Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) is expanding so there can be increased interaction and assistance for the homeless. Another component is a new ordinance outlawing tents on public property. This ordinance will prohibit people from putting up tents but will not make it illegal to sleep outdoors. There will be a 30-day transition period during which HPD’s HOT team will work to compassionately redirect people in encampments to housing alternatives.
“This is a best practice across the nation and is based on public health and safety concerns,” said Turner. “We cannot have people setting up tent cities where there are no restrooms or other accommodations to meet basic human needs. Not only is it unsanitary, but it also deters from the goal of getting people into permanent supportive housing.”
The Texas Department of Transportation is assisting by installing “no camping” signs at freeway underpasses and is working to allow the city to have access to the underpasses for parking and economic development, an idea Mayor Turner has wanted to pursue since seeing something similar during last year’s trade mission to Mexico City.
The mayor’s plan also takes aim at panhandling with a new ordinance prohibiting obstruction of roadways and an anti-panhandling media campaign involving TV, radio, print and social media ads, street signage, billboards and a way to donate to service organizations via text and online giving. The campaign, which is being funded by 15 management districts, urges residents to help bring about “meaningful change” by donating their “spare change” directly to organizations that provide services. The public awareness campaign will be coupled with a pilot program to connect panhandlers to employment opportunities. The signs and ads are expected to be up and running within a month.
The mayor noted that a lot of homeless have mental health issues and have repeatedly fallen through the cracks of the social service system. He stressed the importance of increased funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs and said that he had directed this issue to be added to the city’s legislative priorities in Austin.
“Our existing programs and the expanded ones I have outlined lead all major cities in dealing with a nationwide problem,” said Turner. “This is a realistic, holistic approach that provides meaningful solutions. By offering multiple choices and a little bit of tough love, we hope to convince more of our street population to get off the streets. This plan also provides strategies for easing the pressure in neighborhoods. We will never totally eliminate homelessness, but with the entire community’s help, we can reduce it even more.”
Six years ago, Houston had a homeless population of more than 8,500. Today, that number has dropped to around 3,600. Less than one-third of these people are living on the streets. The rest take advantage of shelter beds.