"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"

by Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County
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"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"
"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"
"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"
"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"
"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"
"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"
"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"
"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"
"Be The Key To Ending Homelessness"

The City of Houston, Harris County, and the Coalition for the Homeless today announced a joint, $65-million plan to house 5,000 people experiencing homelessness over the next two years to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Community-wide COVID-19 Housing Program (CCHP) represents an unprecedented coordinated effort on the part of the City and the County to address homelessness in the region.

Due to underlying health conditions and a lack of access to facilities, people experiencing homelessness are more susceptible to the novel coronavirus and are at higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms.

The CCHP will permanently house people who are currently experiencing literal homelessness (e.g., living in shelters, encampments or on the streets) as well as those who may fall into homelessness as a result of the economic effects of the coronavirus.

“This program is vital to protect the health of at-risk, homeless individuals, prevent potential communal spread to other populations, and assist those forced into homelessness by COVID-19,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “This crisis response program will also have a major long-term impact, permanently housing 5,000 individuals experiencing homelessness and significantly reducing our homeless population to record lows. Homelessness knows no geographical boundaries. I am grateful for the County’s partnership, for this is truly a watershed opportunity that will benefit all who call Houston and Harris County home.”

The City of Houston has dedicated $29 million and Harris County has allocated $18 million to this groundbreaking endeavor. The City and County are utilizing a variety of federal funds, including significant funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“Together, we are making the single largest investment in addressing chronic homelessness in our region’s history,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “Meaningful change happens when we work together to think outside the box, shift paradigms and invest in innovative solutions. This is the beginning of a new approach here in Harris County and it’s going to take continued effort from all of us. I look forward to applying solutions that are compassionate, that work, and that save taxpayer dollars in the long term.”

“I made a commitment early in my administration to address the issue of homelessness in Harris County, and for that reason I am grateful to the Coalition for the Homeless, the partner agencies of The Way Home, my fellow members of Commissioners Court who voted in favor of the funding, and the City of Houston for their financial commitment,” said Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who brought the funding request before the county court on June 30, where it was approved unanimously. “Our combined investment will dramatically reduce chronic homelessness in the City of Houston and throughout Harris County, and I am confident it will become a model for others to emulate. Now more than ever, with the current COVID-19 crisis putting so many people’s living situations at an increased risk, having access to stable housing options is vital for the entire community’s health.”

“During this unprecedented time, taking care of the most vulnerable among us must be a priority,” said Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis. “The continuing economic crisis could push even more people who were already struggling before the pandemic deeper into poverty and possibly homelessness. I am proud that this collaboration will help us address this challenge by providing stable housing for 5,000 individuals and families over the next two years. Caring for those most in need makes our entire community healthier and safer.”

The Coalition for the Homeless helped to coordinate the planning efforts and will lead the implementation of the CCHP, expected to begin in August. The nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless is the lead agency to the local homeless response system The Way Home.

“We are so appreciative that the City and the County have decided to join forces in this effort,” said Mike Nichols, president & CEO of the Coalition. “We will continue to work with them on implementation and to secure the remaining funds. Together with the service providers of The Way Home, we will build a healthier, more resilient community and make tangible progress toward our goal of making homelessness in our region rare, brief, and non-recurring.”

The CCHP will include several forms of intervention depending on individuals’ level of need, including the following:

  • Diversion: A program to help approximately 2,000 people maintain or regain housing so that they do not have to enter emergency shelter. Assistance may be financial (i.e., up to three months’ rent) or may include family mediation or creative problem-solving.

  • Rapid rehousing: Short-term (up to 12 months’) rental assistance and light services for those who do not require intensive case management, for approximately 1,700 newly homeless people.

  • A “bridge” to permanent supportive housing (PSH): Housing for approximately 1,000 people currently experiencing chronic homelessness — including those living unsheltered and/or in encampments — while they await a PSH unit.

The CCHP also involves expanding homeless outreach to those living unsheltered outside of Houston’s urban core; mental health case management for high-risk individuals; and additional support for emergency shelters, including those for survivors of domestic violence, to help them implement CDC health and safety recommendations.

This ambitious program will also require private philanthropic support in strategic areas where public funding cannot be used and that will keep people successful in housing over the long term. Local property managers will also have a key role to play in solving homelessness.

The 2020 Point-in-Time Homeless Count & Survey, the results of which the Coalition released June 23, found approximately 3,700 people experiencing literal homelessness in Harris County, including approximately 2,200 sheltered and 1,500 unsheltered. The night of record for the 2020 Homeless Count was January 27, 2020; the Count represents the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single day in the region.

It is not known how many people in the region will fall into homelessness as a result of the coronavirus. The CCHP proposes to quickly and permanently house as many people as possible, as soon as possible, so that the local homeless response system will be prepared to meet the needs of the newly homeless in the coming months.

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The 2020 Point-In-Time Homeless Count & Survey found a total of 3,974 individuals experiencing homelessness - 2,318 (58.3% people living sheltered and 1,656 (41.7%) people living unsheltered - in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties, Texas. These results reflect a 53% decrease in overall homelessness since 2011. The night of record for the 2020 Homeless Count was January 27, with the unsheltered portion conducted over a three-day period from January 28-30.

The Coalition for the Homeless coordinates the annual Count on behalf of the local homeless response system, The Way Home. The Count informs the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of the effectiveness of collaboration and homeless programs in Harris, Fort Bend, andMontgomery counties. The annual Count cannot provide an exact number of people experiencing homelessness for several reasons, including the daily fluctuating number and the large size (3,700+square miles) of the area being canvassed by volunteers. However, it is considered a critical metric and is highly effective at illustrating trends over time. The Count results are combined with additional data points, like the information stored in the Homeless Management InformationSystem (HMIS), to gauge progress of the local homeless response system.

“The fact that the unsheltered count has remained relatively unchanged the past three years points to that fact that our programs work, and, as a system, we have been able to fully maximize the housing resources available to maintain a steady state, which, in 2019, meant we secured permanent housing for more than 2,000 people,” said Michael C. Nichols, president/CEO of theCoalition for the Homeless. “However, 1,600 people sleeping on the street is not acceptable, and we won’t be able to make further progress as a homeless response system without a considerable influx of resources.”

The 2020 Count results show the effectiveness of The Way Home programs and that the key to solving homelessness is permanent housing combined with supportive services. More than 5,800 individuals, veterans and families have been placed in permanent housing in since Harvey. However, progress has plateaued as the number of unsheltered individuals has remained relatively steady during the same period: 1,614 (2018), 1,614 (2019) and 1,656 (2020). To address the potential inflow from the COVID-19 pandemic, and ultimately return to the progress that was being achieved prior to Harvey, the local homeless response system will require additional financial resources.

“Our permanent housing programs are more important now than ever for several reasons,” said Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations at the Coalition for the Homeless. “First, getting people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing protects them from COVID-19 and limits community spread. For them, housing is healthcare. Second, we won’t know the extent of

COVID-19’s impact on our region until next year’s Count, but we are expecting an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness as the economic effects of the pandemic are felt over the coming months, and we want to be prepared to meet their needs. Finally, as we brace for an active hurricane season in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, if we can reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness, our community will be more resilient when the next disaster hits.”

Additional key findings from the 2020 Homeless Count include:

  • 30% of the adult population experiencing homelessness on the night of the Count met the definition of chronic homelessness, meaning they have experienced homelessness for more than a year and have a mental and/or physical disability
  • 32% of the adult population experiencing homelessness self-reported suffering from a serious mental illness
  • 26% of the adult population self-reported substance use disorder
  • 267 Veterans experiencing homelessness were counted in the 2020 Count, compared to 376 Veterans counted in 2019
  • People identifying as Black or African American are disproportionately represented, making up 56.2% of the total population experiencing homelessness, but only 19.9% of the Harris County population
  • Nearly 56,000 individuals touched HMIS in 2019. Of those, approximately 23,000 accessed a program specifically for those experiencing literal homelessness.
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n 2015  Mr. Callier fell into addiction which altered his life more than he ever thought possible; after losing his job, wife, and home, Mr. Callier found himself living out on the streets in Brenham, TX. After months of struggles and battling the loss of the life he once knew, he came to Houston looking for change. 

Although Mr. Callier was still experiencing homelessness after he arrived in Houston, his fortunes started to change here. In November 2019, the Coalition for the Homeless led the planning and coordination of a Navigation Event at the Beacon where dozens of agencies came together in a single location to quickly move people experiencing homelessness through the navigation process as quickly as possible.

It was here where a member of SEARCH Homeless Services’ outreach team, Otha connected with Mr. Callier and began to change his life.

That day, Otha brought Mr. Callier into the event and helped walk him through the process of getting an assessment, getting enrolled, and beginning the procedure for housing.

Mr. Callier credits Otha with ending his homelessness; he shared that if Otha hadn’t approached him and invited him into this event he wouldn’t have gone through the navigation process and moved into housing.

After the Navigation Event, Mr. Callier worked with Micah, a Housing Navigator with the Coalition for the Homeless, who worked to complete all the necessary requirements for housing, applying for apartments, and moving in. On December 19, a little over a month after the Navigation Event, Mr. Callier moved off of the street and into a home to call his own for the first time in four years!

“To have a house with walls is a blessing!” says Mr. Callier.  

When we asked Mr. Callier what his biggest challenge was while experiencing homelessness he said, “It’s easy to become comfortable in an uncomfortable situation when you can’t change it instantly.” One example of that was getting a tent and how it was both a blessing - community, ownership, comfort - and a curse – a tent made homelessness feel more permanent and made him feel outcasted from society.

One of the biggest changes for Mr. Callier since moving into housing has been establishing a social network within his new complex and neighborhood. He expressed how it was hard to get comfortable living inside when his friends and life on the streets was all he had known for four years.

But he also said that having a schedule, appointments, and goals with his case manager, and living in a complex where other individuals who previously experienced homeless now live are all helping him to create the new life he’s been dreaming of for years.

“There are quite a few of us who are now housed, and we are friends,” said Mr. Callier. “[We] talk about the past and are determined not to go back. Although there was a community we built [on the streets], we are in a better place now and want to work hard to maintain this success.”

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Homeless Court
Homeless Court

If you were to ask Scot More, Program Analyst for the Coalition for the Homeless, what his favorite part of his job is, he will tell you without even batting an eye, “Homeless Court,” even though it only makes up about 10 percent of the work he does every day. As I sat down to do my usual staff spotlight interview for the month of May, Scot refused to let me highlight his personal accomplishments (this is no shock to anyone who knows him), but asked me to instead focus on a program that has been close to his heart for over 13 years.

What is Homeless Court?

Homeless Court is a special Court session for homeless defendants to resolve outstanding misdemeanor offenses and warrants within the City of Houston’s Municipal Courts. The idea for a homeless court system began in San Diego, California in 1989, and was adopted in the Houston area in 2006.

Homeless Court has been able to build partnerships between the courts, local emergency shelters and homeless service agencies, to help individuals experiencing homelessness resolve misdemeanor offenses without being taken into custody with alternative sentencing options.

Participants in Homeless Court sign up on a voluntary basis by requesting to be a part of the program through a local homeless service provider. Homeless Court addresses all class C misdemeanor offenses within the City of Houston. Some of these offenses could include – failure to pay bus fare, traffic
violations, or sleeping in a public park.

Alternative Sentencing

“A lot of people experiencing homelessness are afraid of the court system,” said Scot. “They don’t believe that they won’t go to jail until they actually go through the process.” Scot works as the Homeless Court liaison for the Coalition and says a lot of the time he is there mainly to help calm people’s nerves.

One of the biggest proponents of Homeless Court is that no participant will be taken into custody against their will. And this component is something every judge, defense attorney, prosecutor and homeless service agency has agreed on.

Scot says the biggest hurdle for clients is simply showing up. Once they are there, the judge will offer the participant an alternative sentencing option. Usually this sentence will be community service or activities in the shelter program in which the participant is enrolled in*. Each shelter has its own requirements for participants to access the Homeless Court program.

The three judges currently presiding over Homeless Court are Judge Leigh St. Germain, Judge Imelda Castillo, and Judge Grantham Coleman.

What Actually Happens During Homeless Court

This week I had the opportunity to observe a Homeless Court Docket at the City of Houston Municipal Court. When I arrived, many of the participants were already there, each meeting with Scot individually as he got them checked in and gave them any necessary documents. Presiding over this docket was Judge Castillo, with approximately 20 individuals scheduled to participate.

Before the session was started, Scot once again assured each person that the judge would be waiving all fees and ordering each person community service for the hard work they had done and would continue to do. Scot also provided additional resources for those who needed them.

Judge Castillo then began to call participants up one by one. For every person she called to the stand, she dug deeper than their record, and got to know them on a more personal level. Judge Castillo asked questions about how their programs were going, what their plans were for the future, and if they were happy with their current situation. She never treated any of the participants like they were a criminal but showed compassion for the fact that they had fallen on hard times and were trying their hardest to move forward.

“I have been presiding over Homeless Court dockets for about 11 years,” said Judge Castillo. “It is so incredibly rewarding to see people making positive changes to their lives and becoming more stable.” Judge Castillo says by waiving these types of fines or warrants, the participants have one less thing to worry about and it helps each of them become more productive citizens.

Dawn, one of the individuals who participated in this docket, says the amount of relief she feels is indescribable. “You have no idea what a weight this is off our shoulders,” said Dawn. “I can now go get my license renewed, which means I can finally go apply for jobs, and start the next chapter of my life.”

Without this crucial program we would be unable to continue our work of making homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring. 

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Ms. Knox
Ms. Knox

Originally from the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, Ms. Knox became displaced after her life was turned upside down by the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Although she spent some time in Omaha, Nebraska, Ms. Knox eventually settled in Houston where another hurricane would eventually wreak havoc on her life once again.

 Ms.Knox, a grandmother to over 35 grandchildren, never thought she would have to deal with the after effects of not just one, but two major hurricanes. After Hurricane Harvey, flood waters forced her out of her home in August of 2017 and she found temporary shelter in a hotel. Once the time came for her to leave the hotel, the only option she had left was sleeping in her car. Eventually Ms. Knox ended up losing her car and was forced to live out of a tent in North Houston.

“I was battling with insects and racoons in the woods, I really thought I had gone through the worst of it, but I was wrong,” said Ms. Knox. “I was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006 and had a mastectomy; about a year ago I found a lump again for the first time since being in remission, and after they did a biopsy, they determined my cancer was back for a second time.”

Ms. Knox knew she didn’t want to battle cancer again, much less battle it without a roof over her head. She says she feels eternally grateful to 1960 Hope Center, a partner organization of The Way Home that offers shelter from inclement weather, clean restrooms, hot showers, laundry facilities, lunch and more, for leading her towards a permanent housing solution. Through the Hope Center, Ms. Knox was able to get connected with Fernando Torres at Avenue 360 Health and Wellness, who worked diligently to find her a home of her own again.

In early November Ms. Knox was finally about to walk through the doors of her new home with help from Harmony House. “It was really overwhelming at first, I was extremely restless for the first few nights,” said Ms. Knox. “When you’re used to fighting off the elements and rodents, it takes a little while to get used to.”

Although Ms. Knox will be battling her cancer head-on in the months ahead, she says she feels so blessed that she can have a home to come back to every day. She said the next steps will be determining the right course of treatment and if any additional surgeries will be needed.

When asked what she wishes others knew about those experiencing homelessness, Ms. Knox said, “Don’t be judgmental towards anyone, homelessness really can happen to anyone. Do you think I pictured myself living in the woods fighting off the elements for over a year? Absolutely not.


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Organization Information

Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County

Location: Houston, TX - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @homelessHOU
Project Leader:
Renee Cavazos
Houston, TX United States

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