HOUSTON — Denver Mayor Mike Johnston is among several city leaders across the U.S. who are looking to Houston’s success when it comes to reducing homelessness.
In 2011 Houston, Texas had the 5th highest homeless population in the U.S. with just under 9,000 people living on the streets.
By 2023, Houston had cut its homeless population to just under 3,000 people.
“Big decisions were made in 2011,” said Michael Nichols, president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, Harris County, Montgomery County and Fort Bend County.
“Half miles of tents underneath the freeways aren’t there anymore,” said Marcus Brewer, director of development for Civic Heart Community Services.
“Yes, it’s housing first – while getting those wrap-around services. Not housing instead of services,” said Danita Wadley, chief strategic officer for Volunteers of America Texas.
“We did not just scatter these people into the woods,” Nichols said. “They have been housed.”
The program is called The Way Home, and Loren Jemison found his way home.
“And here we are – Apartment 263. The Jemison residence,” Loren Jemison said as he escorted us into his apartment.
Just a few years ago – Jemison didn’t know if he would make it off the streets of Houston alive.
“I’m lying under this bridge one afternoon on a piece of cardboard underneath my back and I’m looking up at this bridge, and I’m like – ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die under here,’” Jemison recalled.
Just then, things took a turn for Jemison.
“A gentleman comes walking across the parking lot and he’s got a tablet in his hand, and he says, ‘Sir, have you applied for housing?’ And I said, ‘Yeah – I applied for it,” Jemison said. “And he said, ‘You should have been in housing. Come with me.’ He put the keys in my hand and that started me out from under the bridge to having some sort of solid permanent residency.
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Tammy Dempsey also found her way home and has a similar story of survival.
“I don’t think you can stay on these streets and be alive,” Dempsey said.
She now lives comfortably with her dog and cat in the Houston suburb of Conroe about 30 miles north of downtown Houston.
“Oh, I am blessed every day,” Dempsey said. “And I want to be a blessing to anybody. I’ve never lived somewhere so long in my life.”
In 2011, Houston wasn’t any different than most other major American cities.
“The housing and urban development team came in and said, ‘Houston, you have a problem. And if you don’t fix the problem, we’re not going to give you any more federal funds,’” Nichols said.
That set in motion one of the most ambitious housing initiatives ever attempted by any city in the U.S., which Houston called ‘The Way Home.’
The strategy was quite simple: shut down encampments and get those people into immediate housing.
“A real unit,” Nichols said. “Not a tiny home, not a box, not a shelter. A real unit with a key and a lock and a lease in the person’s name which requires accountability.”
Nichols came on board as the president and CEO of the coalition and the new mayor at the time, Sylvester Turner, made it his signature issue.
“If people don’t have the housing, then where are they going to be?” Turner said.
Houston put together a group of more than 100 non-governmental entities – including non-profits, businesses, philanthropists, and others.
A divide and conquer approach where non-profits like VOA Texas and Civic Heart take a few dozen clients each and work on finding them housing in apartments and single-family homes across the three county Houston-metro area.
“To not only get people housed, but think about wrap-around services to address why they even became homeless in the first place,” Wadley said.
“You give them a home, you provide furniture and all the needs that they have,” Brewer said.
“My staff physically moves people in,” Wadley said. “We have a van. They pack and they move people in.”
“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to offer you housing in six months.’ You have to say – it’s coming immediately because these people have been disappointed time and time again,” Nichols said.
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New Denver Mayor Johnston has visited Houston and calls Houston’s Mayor Turner, whose term ends Dec. 31, the Dean of Homelessness.
Johnston is all-in on the housing first model and, so far, is acting with the same kind of urgency Houston did in 2011.
“I do think they have the central big idea of American homelessness that has been very successful. And I don’t think anyone should make light of the fact that there are people dying out on the streets of the city. It’s cold while you and I sit here for 10 minutes,” Johnston said to Denver7’s Russell Haythorn. “People slept outside in this weather last night. No one should have to do that in this city. So, that is the urgency.”
There are stark differences in Denver’s approach, however.
While Houston moves people into apartments and single-family homes throughout the city, like Jemison who is east of downtown and Dempsey who is north of the city, Mayor Johnston is buying and leasing hotels and putting up tiny home villages.
“We have our micro-communities, our tiny home villages, our hotels,” Johnston said. “And the reason why is – we have a very different market than Houston, which is – Houston has a massive glut of affordable apartment units all over the city. Denver, as you know, has a massive shortage of affordable apartment units.”
It’s not just Denver attempting to mimic Houston’s success. Leaders from San Francisco, L.A., New York, Chicago, San Diego, and others have all visited Houston to study ‘The Way Home.’
“You borrow from what works and at the same time – you customize it for your particular city,” Turner said.
“What I urge Denver and any other city to do – is to stay focused on the housing first,” Nichols said. “Getting folks in housing first is the best answer because it’s fiscally and morally responsible.”
Houston’s success can be measured in the numbers.
The city estimates one person living on the streets of Houston costs taxpayers about $50,000 a year, mostly for emergency medical care, compared to $20,000 a year to put a homeless individual into housing.
And nearly 9 in 10 of those who have been housed in Houston have remained in housing.
“The icing on the cake,” Jemison told Denver7. “All the units have washer and dryer connections.”
Jemison found his way home and has been here for 8 years now.
“I’ve kind of been like the poster child,” he said. “And it’s amazing how stable I am. I am constantly thanking God for the stability I have.”
“I will never claim – mission accomplished,” Turner said. “But what I can say to you and to others is that the approach we have taken in this city is getting positive results and the numbers are going down and staying down.”
“What a way home has done has been remarkable,” Wadley said.
“Homelessness is a solvable problem,” Nichols said.
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