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A Texas city's homeless roadmap pays off big -- but shows challenges for Denver as it pursues new strategy

Saja Hindi, The Denver Post on

Published in News & Features

HOUSTON — The apartment complex where Teresa Eddins now lives is so quiet that “you can hear a pin drop” at night, she says — a stark contrast to the constant noise she withstood while living beneath a bridge two years ago.

She was one of the first people who moved into a former hotel in Houston that served as a center to help homeless people navigate their way to more stability. She credits the transitional housing facility and programs launched as part of “The Way Home,” the large Texas city’s nationally recognized homelessness-reduction strategy, for the fact that she now lives in an apartment she loves, alongside her adopted dog, Violet. It’s also where she decided to tackle her alcoholism, getting sober.

“You don’t ever want to be in those shoes under a bridge — going through a hurricane, going through the cold, going through the winds, going through hot weather, you name it,” recalled Eddins, 63, of her life in 2021, while sitting on her living room couch. “It’s a nightmare. It really is.”

New Denver Mayor Mike Johnston has invoked Houston as “the best model in the country” and an inspiration for his own plan to move the city’s homeless population off the streets in much larger numbers than his predecessors achieved, starting with 1,000 people by the end of this month. To better assess just how well Houston’s system has worked, The Denver Post visited the city and spoke with the leaders responsible for its 11-year-old strategy — as well as both people who have been helped and those who are still waiting for a hand up.

The Post found that while broad elements of Houston’s plan are similar to Johnston’s emerging playbook, there are key differences in the approaches and the timelines. Houston’s focus is on getting people into permanent housing while Denver largely is relying, at least for now, on temporary options.

Metro Houston’s leaders built the political will, along with reprioritizing the city and federal money long poured into homelessness, to pursue a uniform strategy with the area’s nonprofit providers. The city has weathered sometimes-fierce neighborhood pushback against new homeless housing, but The Way Home has been lauded by homeless advocates as a data-driven prototype for success.

 

Houston’s system places some hurdles in front of people who are homeless before they can get into permanent housing, and the system isn’t perfect: Street homelessness is still part of the landscape, especially among people who struggle with addiction or mental health problems.

But as city leaders from across the country try to build momentum for real change, they’ve looked for lessons from Houston’s reduction of unsheltered homelessness by about 63% in a decade.

“You can design a better process, and Houston did,” said former Mayor Annise Parker, who began leading the strategy shift in 2011.

On a warm early October afternoon, downtown Houston, the center of the nation’s fourth most populous city, wasn’t devoid of homeless people, but visible signs were far less apparent in the bustling core than they are in Denver. Tents were set up in a couple of places and small clusters of people were living under highway overpasses, but those largely were occurring a good distance from retail storefronts and businesses.

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