AURORA | Aurora lawmakers met last week to talk about takeaways from their recent Texas trip that might help the city’s several hundred homeless residents, with progressives defending Houston’s “housing-first” approach and conservatives questioning it.
Mayor Mike Coffman and council members Alison Coombs and Juan Marcano made the trip last week along with officials from Denver, Adams and Arapahoe counties. They were met by a delegation from the City of Houston and its lead homelessness agency, the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston / Harris County.
The coalition has helped more than 25,000 homeless people find housing since 2012, according to Houston officials. Data collected on behalf of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that, between 2011 and 2021, the number of homeless people in Houston’s continuum of care fell from 8,471 to 3,047, even as the geographic scope of the continuum grew.
Houston says its success is largely due to investing in permanent housing options — such as apartments and homes — rather than shelters and strategies that Marcano characterized as “managing” homelessness.
The “housing-first” philosophy prioritizes getting homeless people into housing as quickly as possible and means clients have a major need taken care of while looking for a job and dealing with substance abuse and mental health problems that prevent them from being fully self-sufficient.
In 2012, the city overhauled its approach to homelessness, uniting regional government and community resources behind Houston’s continuum of care and a single agency. They first focused on housing veterans — 100 in as many days, which they accomplished, then 300 in 100 days.
Houston used properties scattered across the city rather than a large, central campus to house homeless residents, including vacant properties, new subsidized housing and some repurposed hotels and motels, with attention paid to properties’ location near jobs and transit.
They also wielded what Marcano on Monday called a “small army” of landlord recruiters, who convinced property managers to rent their buildings to formerly homeless tenants, with rent and utilities guaranteed by the city.
A decade later, Marcano said Houston’s program found that only about 25% of clients required supportive housing on an ongoing basis due to mental health problems or other disabilities. Around 90% of formerly homeless clients have remained housed, either on their own or in supportive housing.
And Houston officials told the delegation from Colorado that it costs around $17,000 to house a person, compared to $96,000 to manage their homelessness.
“This is the fiscally conservative and humane thing to do,” Marcano said. “When you put folks into housing, the ER is no longer their primary care provider. They’re able to actually get detox and these other services without first having to first be arrested or contacted by EMS. … They have shelter, and they have access to these services through this continuum, so you can actually address these issues before they publicly manifest.”
Coombs passed on two pieces of advice from the Houston delegation — that a single agency be chosen to lead metro Denver’s response to homelessness, and that the crisis not be used as a “political football” by elected officials.
“I look forward to us having the conversations of looking at as a jurisdiction really being the strong leader that the region needs to move some things forward,” she said.
Coffman called the Houston program’s ability to unite service providers for the common goal of helping the city’s homeless “extraordinary.” However, he and Councilmember Dustin Zvonek also expressed skepticism about Houston’s approach during Monday’s study session and on social media.
Coffman said he was disappointed that Houston officials couldn’t provide data on the number of people who took advantage of employment and mental health resources once they were in the program.
He and Zvonek said they were looking forward to an upcoming trip to another Texas city, San Antonio, where City Council members will study that city’s approach to reducing homelessness, which Zvonek said places conditions on receiving housing.
Zvonek said in one social media post that he did not believe Houston’s model produced long-term results.
“Housing First is a ‘hide the homeless’ policy that allows the virtue signalers to feel good about reducing the number of ‘un-housed,’” he wrote in a Sept. 16 Twitter post. “It fails to improve the human condition or provide the support needed to become self sufficient.”
On Monday, he said he doubted whether many permanent supportive housing programs are enough to steer clients’ lives in a better direction.
“I do believe that, as diverse from an ideological standpoint on this council as we (are), I do think there’s going to be a lot of common areas and a desire to lead on an issue that’s important to the metro area,” he said. “The key is going to be asking, are we changing the human condition? … Meeting people’s emergency needs is important, but are we changing the human condition for those who we can?”
The council’s San Antonio trip is scheduled to take place Oct. 4-5.