ESTES PARK, Colo. — Away from the sun, under overpasses, life goes on for many of the nearly 80 people who live at a homeless encampment near downtown Houston, Texas.
Most of the people are waiting for something with four walls, something a little more permanent.
“We’ve been approved for housing together as a couple. The process just takes forever,” one person said.
An outreach team with Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County is giving out water, food, and other necessities.
“Just connecting. Because a lot of times, a lot of people in the streets need someone to kind of stop, listen to them, and see what they can do to get connected. They're not looking for everything to be given to them. They just, one bad thing can happen and here you are,” said Eric Johnson, the outreach encampment team lead.
Johnson has been in recovery for 14 years after an addiction that followed a head injury. That led him to living on the streets and in his car for part of his life.
Workers, like Johnson, also help check people in, see how everyone is doing, and check how close everyone is to finding a place to live.
They use an online management system called HMIS (homeless management information system) to keep track of everyone. It holds their information, their vulnerability level, and where they're at on the list to get an apartment.
It’s all part of Houston’s unique approach to homelessness.
“We do housing, we do housing first, which is a model of providing housing to individuals that puts a roof over their head. Some place they're safe. Some place they have food and a bed to sleep in. And once they feel safe, then you wrap services around them. If they need mental health support, if they need substance use recovery,” Ana Rausch, the vice president of program operations for the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, explained.
This organization, along with more than 100 partner organizations, work together to do just that.
“It might not be an immediate effect, but over the long term as you can see we’ve now housed 25,000 people since 2011,” Rausch said. “We weren’t doing very well back then. We had the sixth-highest homeless population in the nation and we were not spending all of our dollars effectively.”
That has changed. Now, Houston has been in the spotlight for what they are doing.
“We do have a lot of collaboration here with not just our partners but our funders from the city, county,” she said. “We‘ve had a 63% decrease in homelessness since 2011.”
As long as a person experiencing homelessness is working on housing, they can stay in the Housing Navigation Center, temporary housing with rooms and services like substance abuse help. Organizations like SEARCH Homeless Services help these individuals find homes.
For people like Vincent Doswell, this approach changed his life.
“I had a drug addiction,” Doswell said. “I was living in the homeless shelters quite a bit.”
In 2020, thanks to a number of local organizations including SEARCH Homeless Services, he was given a space of his own.
“It changed my course. It changed my course because I had to make different choices. I got to live in a clean and sober environment,” he said. “I have like 22 months clean now and I thank god for that.”
The coalition said they’ve seen a 90 percent success rate with this method so far. The outreach team with the coalition, and other teams with other local organizations, are able to connect the homeless with organizations that can get them proper housing.
“Success to us means you have someone in permanent supportive housing and you do whatever it takes to keep that person in permanent supportive housing,” Rausch said.
Every city deals with homelessness. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 580,000 people experience homelessness in a single night. More than half live in just four states – California, Florida, New York, and Texas.
Rausch said their approach can be replicated in other places, too. “Start talking to each other. I would say that's a big one, because that's what we were doing wrong many years ago,” she said of the collaboration with local governments and other organizations.
At homeless camps, it’s a waiting game. Waiting until a place is available for them.
“I'm excited. I'm ready to go, it’s been too long. I have a lot of relationships I need to restore,” one man experiencing homelessness said.