Diana Salas, a domestic violence survivor, recalls moving at least 41 times in 52 years, often maneuvering in and out of homelessness and going from one bad situation to another.
Sometimes, she slept in her car. Other times, she bounced around until she found a longer-term home, albeit one that would turn out to be temporary.
“I knew no stability,” she said.
But now, the 57-year-old Houston-area resident is in her third year of leasing her own apartment via help from the Bridge Over Troubled Waters. The nonprofit works with the homeless coalition in Houston and Harris County, Texas, focusing on a housing-first model to provide permanent supportive housing and temporary rapid rehousing.
Since 2012, the city of Houston has helped get almost 26,000 people into their own homes, with about an 89% success rate of keeping them there, according to data from Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County. It reduced the number of unhoused people by about 63% since 2011. It’s that success that has led government leaders in Aurora and the Denver metro to plan a visit to Houston this week to learn what worked, what didn’t and what strategies can be implemented locally where officials are working to tackle a growing homelessness problem.
“In 2011, we had the fifth-highest homeless population in the nation,” said Ana Rausch, vice president of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County. “It was close to 9,000 individuals and right now, it’s sitting around 3,000.”
When Salas sought help after fleeing an abusive relationship, she only had the T-shirt, shorts and sandals she was wearing. She didn’t have a job because her then-husband convinced her she didn’t need to work and that he would take care of them. But when the nonprofit offered her permanent housing, despite having less than she’d ever owned before, she was happier than she’d ever been.
“I had safety,” Salas said. “I felt secure. I felt my confidence coming back.”
Aurora city leaders have been debating how best to address homelessness in a city that does not have enough shelter space or affordable housing.
In 2021, Aurora identified 594 people in shelter who did not have homes, but that doesn’t include the people who didn’t seek shelter space. Meanwhile, the city only has 130-150 shelter beds available and expects to have 96 pallet shelters.
The City Council passed a controversial camping ban this year to prohibit urban camping and break up homeless encampments, and is considering a campaign to ask people not to give money to panhandlers, but critics say these kinds of policies will only make the situation worse.
The camping ban, which only allows for breaking up homeless encampments if there is shelter space available, drew swift criticism from advocates who say it criminalizes homelessness and is inhumane. Other plans like a campaign to educate people on not giving money to those who panhandle or finding ways to make it harder for people to panhandle garnered similar responses from homeless advocates. But proponents like Mayor Mike Coffman argue these types of measures are needed for community safety and business viability.
Baluyot said before Aurora’s camping ban went into effect, the Salvation Army’s waitlist for shelter was about 80 people. Now, it’s up to 175.
Texas also has a statewide ban, although spokesperson for the coalition Catherine Villarreal said bans don’t solve homelessness, so the coalition works with the city and its partners to help house people living in encampments.
Additionally, Aurora has partnered with private entities such as Mile High Behavioral Health, the Salvation Army and Restoration Christian Fellowship to offer traditional emergency shelter space as well as sanctioned safe outdoor space, but without enough services to meet the demand, city leaders are looking at more options.
The Salvation Army has been providing a rapid rehousing program for Aurora families and older adults for the last six years, and each year has had to increase the amount of funding because of the growing need, said Kristen Baluyot, Denver Metro social services director for the Salvation Army.
Possibilities the city is studying include constructing a facility that could include emergency shelter; programs to help with mental health, substance abuse and job training; and private rooms or apartments.
Coffman said that third component is what council members will have to figure out how to structure. He ascribes to a “work-first model,” where he believes people should be working or meeting certain requirements before they’re eligible for temporary housing. Coffman points to transitional housing programs in Colorado Springs as successes he’d like Aurora to learn from.
“There’s a lot of best practices out there,” he said. “I’m hoping that we can urge people on the street to get off the street.”
Another option is the housing-first model, which likely would have gotten more buy-in before the makeup of the Aurora City Council flipped during the last election. In this model, housing is viewed as a human right and people are connected to housing first and then supportive services to address underlying issues.
“If you want to help people get housing, you create housing that is accessible for them,” said Councilwoman Crystal Murillo, who helped lead the city’s creation of a housing strategy and views housing-first favorably. “That’s where money should be going. That’s the opportunity cost.”
Aurora is also collaborating with the state on plans to convert a facility that previously housed youth services into a homeless campus that would provide temporary housing and addiction recovery programs. The vacant facility in Arapahoe County was formerly known as the Ridge View Youth Services Center.
And Aurora Mental Health is planning to open a new crisis services and detox facility.
As leaders decide what to do next, they’re looking to Houston, which became a national success story for how it helped its residents get into – and stay in – homes. Exactly how did the city do it?
Rausch said first, all those involved started talking to each other. They even got business groups and individual landlords to buy in. In a lot of other communities, she sees silos where agencies, funders and jurisdictions are doing different things to address homelessness but not necessarily in conjunction with one another.
The coalition is also data-driven, with the various entities, including local governments and private partners, collaborating to respond to the community’s needs based on what the data show.
At the end of the day, Rausch said, it’s about putting as many resources as possible in permanent supportive housing, not emergency solutions like shelters or even transitional housing. Even when the city and county had COVID relief dollars to spend, they put them toward permanent supportive housing, not shorter-term solutions like hotels as some others did.
The coalition estimates that it spends about $18,000 per household per year for permanent supportive housing. Meanwhile, some studies have reported that a person’s chronic homelessness can cost taxpayers as much as about $30,000-$50,000 annually, according to a 2017 U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness report.
The process of first meeting someone on the street to getting them housed isn’t instant, but it is faster and more efficient with a standard program in place. The key to begin is building trust, Rausch said.
One argument both Baluyot and Rausch dispute is the notion that some people would prefer to remain living on the streets, saying that the reason some may not jump at housing immediately is more complex. Some are dealing with mental health and addiction issues, disabilities and conditions worsened by prolonged homelessness, and issues of trust.
“My take is that everybody wants to be housed and deserves to be housed,” Baluyot said. “The challenge that we often face is that some people are so beaten down by what they’re told from society or what they have lived out … And what we find is they start to lose their sense of dignity and self-worth. And so when people lose that, they start to believe that they aren’t worthy of being housed, that they can’t do it.”
Clovers McCoy, a 58-year-old Houston resident and client of Avenue 360, who had been in and out of homelessness before receiving permanent supportive housing, points to drug addiction and incarceration as things that kept her out of stable housing.
But 15 years ago, McCoy was able to get into her own apartment, find a job and get the treatment she needed.
“I’m not on drugs, I’m not prostituting,” McCoy said. “I have a committed relationship. And I keep my bills up to date and I am on Social Security. … I’m healing very, very well.”
In Houston, to get a person into permanent housing, someone from an outreach team will engage with the person living on the street, establish a relationship, and then conduct an assessment to figure out if the person needs permanent supportive housing for those who have been chronically homeless or rapid rehousing for a shorter-term intervention to help them get through a tough time.
Then they’re put on a waitlist, and someone works with them to get IDs and documents they need to sign a lease. A landlord team identifies affordable market-rate apartment units where they can apply. And a staff member helps the person throughout the process and connects them with a case manager and supportive services after moving in.
Rausch said it’s more cost-effective to pay for people’s housing than it is to pay for a shelter and costs related to emergency health care and the criminal justice system. And that’s even with paying landlords $1,500 (separate from monthly rent) per unit dedicated to homeless response.
“(In) housing first, you get a person into a house or an apartment, you get food in their belly, you give them a place to relax and not have someone breathing down their neck every day, or having fight or flight mode when you’re living on the streets compared to if you’re in your own place,” Rausch said. “So then once a person is housed, they have to get to a point where they’re mentally there to even be able to focus on the issues that might have caused or lead to them becoming homeless.”
In Aurora, nonprofits and other agencies are working together to try to get to what’s referred to as “functional zero,” at least as many people exiting homelessness as those entering it, said Emma Knight, the city of Aurora’s homelessness programs manager.
“What we’re seeing the most is that we’re in a high-cost, low-vacancy market right now in Aurora, and folks are just getting pushed out and unable to afford to maintain their housing, even if they’re working multiple jobs sometimes if it’s in is a lower wage bracket,” she said.
Aurora has an outreach team that works with people living on the street and the city is trying to expand its affordable housing inventory. They’re already doing some of what Houston does, Knight said, but they’re hoping to learn more about the program specifics.
The spectrum of services in the area continues to improve, but the whole system is “still not exactly as quick and nimble as we’d like it to be in serving those who are experiencing homelessness,” Baluyot said.
There are not enough permanent supportive housing options for those dealing with chronic health conditions or substance abuse and need more wraparound services, or enough affordable housing for those with jobs who still can’t make ends meet, she said.
For Houston’s Salas, getting housing and supportive services made such an impact on her life, she wants to help others. She recently participated in a “Shark Tank” contest through The Bridge Over Troubled Waters to help Latina women to start businesses, and she credits the nonprofit and her faith in God in helping her break the cycle of abuse.
Although she didn’t win the contest, she still decided to launch her business: Space City SWAG (Stop Worldwide Abuse Gear). Salas plans to sell T-shirts and other items to empower women, specifically targeting Latinas like herself. She also wants to launch a nonprofit to provide resources about domestic violence.
“I may not be able to change the world, but I may be able to change the world for another Diana,” she said.
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