Thursday, July 25, 2024

As the city and county develop a homeless strategy, what can they learn from the success of Houston?

The Kerr/MLK homeless encampment that was cleared by authorities last year. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — There is such a thing as too much research, at least according to the elected officials of New Hanover County and Wilmington when it comes to homelessness solutions.

READ MORE: NHC staff outline revised homelessness strategy, propose ‘informal working group’

The growing homeless population — and with it the number of complaints from the community — has been nagging at New Hanover County and Wilmington leaders to reassess its homelessness approach. It’s been six years since the official end of the Cape Fear’s 10-Year End Chronic Homelessness and Reduce Homelessness, which resulted in the reduction of the region’s homeless population in half over the last decade. 

However, the trend has creeped up in recent years due to a culmination of conditions in the Cape Fear — Hurricane Florence’s devastation in 2018 followed by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, plus the rising cost of living in the area. Since, those without permanent shelter have increased by 260, bringing the total to nearly 600.

In a February joint session, leaders from both municipalities rejected their staffs’ plan to hire a consultant and form a 29-member task force to develop regional best practices, insisting the leaders already know the solutions at their disposal.

Officials indicated they needed a proposal with more tangible input and action. Staff came back with an informal working group — this time including representatives from agencies working in the homelessness sphere and those experiencing it — to put together a detailed inventory of its current offerings. The hope is the gaps and overlaps will be more clear and a unified strategy will emerge.

Research shows that communities with homelessness providers, government agencies and community partners coalescing around a shared strategy find more success in reducing homelessness. 

This goes beyond Housing First, a proven approach adopted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that prioritizes connecting the homeless with permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements. The model, which the feds require any agency it gives funds to subscribe to, has been a touchy subject among Cape Fear leaders. 

Not every community that adopts Housing First is the same, though. Studies of the cities following the approach show success comes when the community’s homeless agencies work together in lockstep, use a streamlined process and — this is possibly the most crucial part — have enough low-cost housing to go around.

The city that maybe most exemplifies the marrying of these components is Houston, Texas. After revamping its homelessness strategy over a decade ago, the city cut its homeless population by 64%, going from 7,187 in 2012 to 3,270 in 2023.

The city did this by clearing homeless encampments and moving people into housing without any requirements. While Houston’s housing coalition helps the most people with shorter term assistances, the chronically homeless in particular are set up with case workers that were charged with hooking the newly-housed individuals with the services they needed — addiction and mental health treatment, budgeting and career services — while the coalition subsidizes their lease until they can take over.

That success has piqued the interest of some local policy makers, including Wilmington City Council members Salette Andrews and, ironically, Luke Waddell. 

At the city and county joint session in February, Waddell lauded Houston for its “holistic” homelessness strategy focused on providing “shelter and permanent supportive housing” while also having ordinances to curb the presence of homelessness on the streets. 

Although, Houston’s strategy is built around a universal commitment to Housing First initiatives, from the smallest of homelessness providers all the way to the mayor’s office.

Waddell has been critical of Housing First in the past. His opinion is that homeless individuals go through a series of programs or treatments, namely mental health and substance use help, before housing access. 

Port City Daily reached out to Waddell for clarification on his favor toward Houston but did not receive a response. 

Waddell also put forth an ordinance Monday prohibiting camping and sleeping on public property. It mirrors the one passed by New Hanover County commissioners in 2023, which resulted in scattering unsheltered individuals from a few downtown clusters to more secluded locations, sometimes private property. 

Houston came up again in council member Andrews’ counter to Waddell on Monday, where she suggested Wilmington may be putting the cart before the horse. 

Andrews cited a conversation she had with Allen Serkin of the Cape Fear Council of Governments, the lead agency of the homelessness Cape Fear Continuum of Care, where he informed her that Houston did not start clearing its homeless encampments until it had enough shelter and housing to move those people into.

Aside from ordinance enforcement, there are clear differences in Houston and Wilmington that will make a blanket adoption of the Texan city’s policies unwise. For one, Houston alone is a city of 2.3 million people; New Hanover County has 234,921. Houston also had a higher homeless population per capita when it implemented its plan at 3.12 per 1,000 people. In 2023, New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender County — all served by the Cape Fear Continuum of Care — combined with 1.23 per 1,000 people.

Wilmington’s homeless population is comparatively more manageable, which is why many people say now is the right time to implement a proven strategy, preventing a Houston-size situation where recovery is more difficult. 

A perspective change 

Wilmington and New Hanover County’s reckoning with its response to homelessness, as affirmed by the providers that spoke to Port City Daily, is not a result of lacking effort. 

More than 20 agencies are involved in crafting the city and county’s joint strategy. Port City Daily reached out to many of them — including the Cape Fear Council of Governments, the lead agency on federal homelessness assistance — but only a few responded. 

Megan Weber-Youssefi, development director for The Healing Place, told PCD there’s great synergy between the homelessness service providers, but she notices a lot of overlap in the services provided across organizations.

“There’s so many people that are so well-intentioned and you’re trying to hit all the buckets, right, like providing food, hygienic items, shelter, but then there’s all these other pieces that I think we’re all trying to be an answer for,” Weber-Youssefi said. “And we’re just maybe not able to do it. “

The Healing Place is primarily a residential and outpatient addiction treatment center, but it also opens a 14-bed shelter every night. Though it has been offering food boxes to those seeking them, the agency also just launched a free, weekly food distribution service to fill the summer gaps in school-based nutrition services. 

Many of the other agencies are also multi-faceted, such as Good Shepherd Center, which offers the largest amount of shelter beds while also operating a medical clinic, food service, a veterans transitional housing facility and has 40 units of permanent supportive housing in the works. 

Additionally, almost all of these agencies are operating at capacity or near capacity every day, according to Laura Blank, who also works for The Healing Place. 

“There is great desire to serve this population and figure out the solutions. There just isn’t enough — maybe it’s funding, maybe it’s additional organizations,” Blank said. 

Both Healing Place leaders said they weren’t sure what the gaps in services where, no glaringly insufficiencis among CoC agencies jumping out to them.

Port City Daily talked with the president and CEO of Houston’s homeless coalition, Kelly Young, who described how the Texas city got started in 2012. 

“We were definitely struggling” Young said. “I think the model for homelessness has been homelessness services or housing services has always been a little bit more of a charity model versus a systems model. So I applied for money because I worked in HIV/AIDS at the time this whole system started and I said this is how much, how many beds I needed and how much money I needed. And then I just kind of worked in a silo.”

Young said the change happened when the coalition switched its resource allotment, which was based on population served and organizational interest, to a system-based approach that would require more interlocking of agencies than done before. 

Coalition agencies, of which the Houston area now has around 100,  were asked what their assets were and what population it was meant to serve, and that highlighted Houston’s greatest need — permanent supportive housing beds. 

Then came a big shift. The coalition diverted all of its funding toward PSH beds and each agency was asked to give up authority over who was admitted to their program.

Young said it was a “fundamental mission shift,” for the agencies and some were resistant. A few agencies, mainly faith-based organizations largely operating on charitable funding, chose not to participate, thus excluding themselves from federal funding. The majority that signed on, though, agreed they wanted to improve Houston’s approach and were willing to go all-in on the experiment. 

That first phase, Young described, also required some frank conversations. 

“If you have not spent all of your rental dollars for five years, that’s money that somebody could be housed with,” Young said. “So you have to sometimes be the unpopular person in the room.” 

A clear strategy was also instrumental in securing funding from donors and public bodies. 

“You couldn’t go to a funder and try to maneuver out of it because they’d be like, ‘No, you have to be a part of this system,’” Young said.

Though it’s the goal of the joint strategy group, cohesion is not Cape Fear’s strong suit. The compiled provider inventory shows efforts and funding spans across all areas of housing the homeless, from day shelters to night shelters, case management, rapid-rehousing and permanent supportive housing, with no clear focus on one. 

The inventory shows an inclination toward short-term beds, with 132 and another 75 from the Salvation Army’s incoming new campus. Even with Salvation Army’s addition, the area will be short 113 shelter beds to house the unsheltered each night.

The CoC’s unofficial 2024 point-in-time count identified 593 homeless individuals, 319 of which are unsheltered, in the Cape Fear. 

According to the inventory document, quite a few service providers offer rapid-rehousing, which is short-term rental assistance and services, but the funding amounts available are “generally very small and insufficient compared to the need.”

According to 2023 data, there are 256 permanent supportive housing beds in the Cape Fear operated by the CoC, ARC and Good Shepherd. The Cape Fear Continuum of Care suggests an addition of 100 PSH units, according to the inventory document; 77 are slated to come online by 2025 are on the way. 

It is also important to note not all beds are created equal — some shelters have requirements for entry, such as sobriety, and some housing options are created to serve a specific group, such as veterans or those with disabilities. 

Though these highlighted gaps show what the community is doing, elected leaders and nonprofits have demonstrated, philosophies differ on how to move forward. And an attempt to get everyone on the same page — when the CoC requested the county and city only fund agencies within the Continuum of Care — have been shot down.

Moving through the system

So it had an agreeable plan, but how did Houston put it into action?

“In that sort of second phase, then it was, ‘Okay, how do you create a system that moves the people through a system and not through individual doors anymore?” Young said.

Because each agency had relinquished its autonomy over individual admission, Houston’s housing coalition created “access points” where homeless individuals meet with coalition staff and undergo an assessment determining their vulnerability ranking, and thus, how quickly they can be linked with the right housing.

Young said this gave each organization’s employees larger capacity for case management rather than always worrying about intake. This unified process also ensures more objectivity in the assessment process so everyone is on the same page who needs the most help. 

Assessments for coordinated entry and data-tracking in the HMIS system are mandated by the feds but the Houston coalition received a waiver to adopt a different assessment tool to account for racial bias, those with HIV or AIDS, and other factors. 

“It is a key component to managing your coordinated access correctly. fairly and justly,” Young said.

Some agencies have complained the process can be too slow and thus, make their organization look worse when they could have moved people in faster on their own. Like any system, Kelly said, there are always downsides and areas to improve. 

Young reported that some people are separated into different waiting lists, such as domestic violence survivors or veterans, to ensure quicker access to more specific facilities. Then the list of all PSH beds could be better tailored to the chronically homeless.

One factor that didn’t necessitate a separate list — substance use or mental health. 

Young told PCD the coalition if a person ranks in the top 10 on the vulnerability index, struggling with one’s mental health or substances does not change that number. Young described the thought-process as two-fold. 

For one, making someone go through treatment as a condition for housing, and that person doesn’t want treatment, most likely ends in a waste of money, she said. Secondly, when a homeless person is finished with treatment, they are still in need of housing, and without it, their work in treatment could go down the drain. Particularly for mental health needs, a patient needs an address to be able to receive prescriptions. 

“Another thing is, I don’t know what your substance use issues are,” Young said. “I’m going to get you housed first because one thing that could happen is I get housed and I’m not having to sleep on the street — my substance use issue is not really a substance use issue.” 

In a 2023 study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 31% of homeless individuals reported living with a serious mental illness. Research cited by the National Institutes of Health alcohol abuse affects 30% to 40% of homeless people, drug abuse 10% to 15%. What this research doesn’t break down, however, is how many people chose to medicate or their mental health condition worsened as a result of homelessness. 

Still, it’s a controversial component of the Housing First strategy. Those that believe in treatment-first approaches maintain that people in active addiction or a mental health episode cannot maintain stable housing, even if provided with it.

“I understand the perspective; I don’t understand the logic,” Young said. “…I think it bothers people on the fairness piece, but to me, it’s the most just piece.” 

When Houstonians are placed into housing, they aren’t left to fend for themselves, Young said. Case managers are charged with checking in consistently on the client’s goals, noticing if their substance use or mental health is obstructing progress, talking to them about their options, which they might be more inclined to take when they feel safer. 

“The idea is that you’re constantly engaging on what the individual needs and helping to set those appointments and helping them move through that process,” Young said.

Young says she sees different outcomes — some people that stabilize enough to move on from the PSH unit or solely keep up with monthly check-ins; others — like people with disabilities or lacking a support system — may need help for the rest of their lives. 

“We used to do that,” Young said. “It’s just that we all housed them in institutions. That’s where they went. So now we have them in the community, which is great, but now you have to pay for it in the community.”

All residents taking part in the PSH program have to contribute 30% of their income toward rent and they have to follow the terms of their lease and be a good tenant, “just like anybody else,” Young said. 

Over 90% of the individuals linked with housing in Houston stay housed. Not only that, Houston’s system also moves people into housing faster, taking an average of 31 days. 

According to Ursula Greene, The Healing Place’s transitional care coordinator for the men’s program, it takes around six months to find housing for her residents moving out of the detox program. This is due to a combination of factors, she said, a lot of them prepping the resident to secure housing. 

If the residents don’t qualify or can’t get financial assistance, they are faced with accumulating the standard three times monthly rent for an apartment. Landlords often run background checks, which can be disqualifying for some of Greene’s clients. 

But the main thing holding up the process in the Cape Fear? Affordable housing.

Taking inventory

As the first phase of developing their joint strategy, county and city staff asked homelessness services providers, which include nonprofits and faith organizations like The Salvation Army, Coastal Horizons and Hope Recovery UMC, a series of questions about their work. One question was more illuminating than others: what’s your biggest challenge? 

Out of the 25 agencies surveyed, over half answered the open-ended question with responses about the lack of affordable housing to connect their clients to. 

Affordable housing is a broad term, but its general definition provided by HUD is housing in which the occupant is paying no more than 30 percent of gross income for housing. 

This definition applies more to the preventative component of reducing homelessness, ensuring residents do not become priced out of the area, further contributing to the high cost of living, or cost-burdened to the point of slipping into homelessness. New Hanover County is already struggling in this area; over half of its residents pay more than 30% of their income on housing. 

A growing number of experts — including this year’s Cape Fear Housing Coalition annual meeting speaker Gregg Colburn, a professor and researcher on housing policy — are concluding that cities with rising homeless populations have one thing in common: tight housing markets. 

According to Colburn’s data on Wilmington, gross rents increased by 50% over the last decade and the average rental vacancy rate over the last few years has reached a “dangerously low” 3.2% (anything below 5% is considered a deficit). 

In New Hanover County, the gap between housing units and population increases by 3,000 units every year.

The solution, these scholars cite, is to encourage the building of more housing, and the things standing in the way of that are often zoning regulations.

According to a paper from the Harvard Law Review, restrictive zoning rules, like single-family zoning, reduce the supply of land available for new housing, which in turn inflates the cost of new housing projects. In districts where multi-family, higher-density housing is permitted, developers still have to contend with density-reducing measures such as height restrictions, minimum lot size requirements, prohibitions on accessory dwelling units, or setback requirements, further impairing affordability. 

The Cape Fear has been a little slower in adopting creative or affordability-minded land code doctrines. Until this year, homeowners couldn’t build ADUs on about a third of Wilmington’s residential lots due to restrictions. Due to an amendment approved by council last month, around 97.5% of all residential lots could be potential sites for ADUs, a potential of 27,000 additional units, as reported by WHQR.

Additionally, the New Hanover County planning board tabled a proposal that would allow supportive housing — residential group living that is combined with services — by-right in seven zoning districts. 

In contrast, Houston does not follow traditional zoning at all. The city does not restrict any parcel of land code to a particular use, and in many cases, there are no density or height restrictions. 

“Some people would say that we’re not always pretty, because we build things wherever we want,” Young said. “At the same time, the benefit is flexibility and new opportunity.” 

Though Houston isn’t the Wild West of development; there are some guardrails, often citizen-initiated, such as private deed restrictions against certain types of development, historic district protections and petition processes for specific development conditions.

As a result, Houston’s vacancy rate is at a 20-year high at around 10% with supply of housing outstripping demand. Houston’s housing costs are the second most affordable among the 20 largest metros in the U.S. and its cost of living is lower than the national average.

With over 640 square miles of land, Houston has its geographic advantages that allow it more opportunities to grow housing with over 640 square miles of land compared to Wilmington 52 square miles. It also has some room to grow, whereas land is quickly depleting on the New Hanover County peninsula. 

Studies, including Colburn’s, show Houston’s house-building environment is what sets it apart from other cities that follow Housing First. Analyses, such as this one from the Cato Institute, found that housing supply and affordability are key in cities where Housing First is implemented. This helps explain the difference between Houston and have seen success, while cities like Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, still struggle, even with Housing First initiatives. 

It is also important to note Houston invested hundreds of millions of dollars into housing the homeless, and those funds are largely federal relief dollars, Covid-19 and other disaster recovery funds. In 2022, the city announced a $100-million initiative that resulted in the closing of over 100 encampments. Only a small portion of the funding dedicated comes from the city and county’s general funds, though Young noted that will need to change moving forward as those dollars run out. The coalition estimates that the local response system will require $35 to $50 million in new annual funding to continue to house and provide services to the unhoused population at current levels. 

Houston’s is not a perfect system — affordable-housing developers have a tough time competing against high-end developments for land and some areas of the city are gentrifying, demonstrating that lax land codes without consideration for how to keep current residents in their neighborhoods can have negative effects. 

But those things are already occurring in New Hanover County; the 2021 study interviewees characterized the rental market as full of luxury rentals, which with limited land, crowds out more low-cost options. Developers that participated in the study also reported a lack of incentives to build affordable housing, plus the improbability of making enough money with below-market-rate housing due to high land and construction costs.

Even with more affordable housing, the required rent may be unattainable for people moving in off the street. Without housing dedicated to unsheltered individuals, such as Wilmington’s Eden Village, homelessness agencies will be strapped with subsidizing rents. 

The main source of this funding comes from the federal government’s Section 8 voucher program, though the money is limited and there is stigma surrounding renters using government assistance. 

Young said this is where cultivating strong relationships with landlords, along with an $1,600 incentive, came into play. And her team does so without asking landlords to make exceptions to their business model.

“If I were a landlord, I’m not going to hold a unit for two months for somebody who I don’t even know is gonna actually show up in two months,” Young said. “…So if I can ensure for that landlord that I’m going to cover those two months until we get the person in, they’re going to more likely want to partner with me.”

Young’s team of case managers are required to provide a cell phone number to the landlords of their clients. Because of the consistent support their renters get, they are often more reliable tenants, reducing the need for arduous evictions — something they emphasize when recruiting landlords. 

But ultimately, increasing housing stock and building community relationships takes time. 

“If you don’t have the housing inventory, it’s just harder,” Young said. “You have to have a different pivot piece to that. So are you going to have longer term shelters or what is it? What is the temporary intervention until you can get the housing that you need?”

Tips or comments? Email journalist Brenna Flanagan at

Want to read more from PCD? Subscribe now and then sign up for our morning newsletter, Wilmington Wire, and get the headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.

Related Articles