Just yesterday the mayor of Houston Annise Parker announced that her city had ended veteran homelessness. The announcement is getting a fair bit of attention in the press and online (and deservedly so), but here’s one thing those stories aren’t telling you.
Over the last two years, Houston has also reduced the number of families experiencing homelessness on a given night by 39 percent. Houston leaders attribute this progress to their investment in rapid re-housing. If they’re right, the city has more dramatic declines in its future, because they recently tripled their rapid re-housing capacity.
On any given day, hundreds of thousands of Americans experience homelessness and interact with the homeless assistance system. Fortunately, many of them will become housed. Though the end point—housing—is the most important part, the process of accessing housing can vary greatly from person to person.
The homeless assistance system offers a variety of interventions: emergency shelter, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, and rapid re-housing. While some of these interventions (emergency shelter and transitional housing) are designed to be temporary, others (permanent supportive housing and rapid re-housing) are long-term solutions to homelessness.
Today, Houston – the fourth largest city in the country and the city with the second highest population of veterans – became the largest city to date to announce that it had effectively ended veteran homelessness. Mayor Annise Parker made the announcement alongside Secretaries Bob McDonald (Department of Veterans Affairs), Julián Castro (Department of Housing and Urban Development), and Tom Perez (Department of Labor), as part of the secretaries’ three city tour focusing on how communities can come together to end veteran homelessness.
The theme of the announcement was clear: by working together, many different agencies across Houston were able to quickly deploy resources to house over 3,650 veterans in just over three years. Collaboration in the form of regular (weekly!) coordination meetings, and efforts to align federal, local, and state resources, and a high-functioning coordinated assessment system were key components of the city’s success. Secretary Perez emphasized Houston’s success in breaking down siloes and encouraged communities to take a similar approach to ending veteran homelessness.
Thomas Rebman is a middle school teacher and a veteran who has been traveling across the country to raise awareness about homelessness by living as a homeless person. You may have already read about him as he’s appeared in local news outlets several times during his tour. Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak with him while he was living homeless in Skid Row, an area Los Angeles that is notorious for its high concentration of chronic homelessness.
Where are you right now and what’s it like there?
I’m about two blocks east of Skid Row on First. I’ve been on Skid Row for about four days. I came here to highlight mental illness among the homeless, because I knew there was a lot of it here. But I had no idea how much. Los Angeles really is a completely different animal than any other city I’ve visited. The amount of mental illness I’ve seen on Skid Row is shocking.
Why do people become homeless? This is a complicated question with numerous, complex answers. For some people, it may be because they lost a job or had an unforeseen medical crisis. For others, it may be because the cost of rent rose and they were unable to afford the payments.
Every person who experiences homelessness has a unique situation. However, research shows that homelessness often is a result of two factors: economic problems and/or housing problems. Economic problems include poverty and unemployment. In other words, if you don’t have the money to pay for housing, you’re vulnerable to homelessness. Housing problems include severe housing cost burden—in which a poor household pays over half of their income in rent—and living doubled up—in which people live with family or friends. Housing problems generally stem from a lack of affordable housing.