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Homelessness Spike in Texas | Is Housing First to Blame?

homelessness
Homeless person | Image by APIWAN BORRIKONRATCHATA/Shutterstock

Texas experienced a notable spike in its homeless population from 2022 to 2023, and analysts tell The Dallas Express that these increases are largely attributable to “failed” Housing First policies.

Experts argue that Texas must shift its approach to homelessness away from Housing First in order to actually make progress in solving this problem.

Texas saw a 13% increase in homeless individuals in January of 2023 compared to January of the previous year, according to the 2023 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report from the U.S. Department of Urban Development (HUD).

The figures in the report are based on the annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count, which involves volunteers manually tallying the number of homeless individuals in a given area on a single night in January every year.

Over the past decade, the number of homeless people in Texas has fluctuated but seen no lasting decrease, according to the PIT counts.

Some homelessness policy experts attribute this to the dysfunctional Housing First policy pushed by the federal government, as explained in the next section.

SHORTCOMINGS OF HOUSING FIRST

The Obama administration instituted Housing First as the federal approach to homelessness in 2013.

John Bonura, a policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said the fluctuation in homelessness is an effect of the cycle caused by Housing First in which homeless individuals enter the homelessness response system and are put into housing, but find themselves homeless again within a few years because the root cause of their homelessness was never addressed.

“That’s one of the reasons you see this up-and-down movement in Texas, especially when you see those numbers just exploding from like 17,000 to 27,000,” he told The Dallas Express.

Bonura added that these fluctuations are “something to be expected” when studies on Housing First are considered. He cited a study of homelessness in Boston which found that 64% of the homeless put into housing were homeless again within 5 years.

“After a year, you have a solid number of people still housed, but once you start moving further away from that, they’re just unable to do so,” he said. “Focusing solely on housing and not focusing on the root causes of homelessness are going to be the reasons why you keep seeing spikes in homelessness, even though you also see increasing [government] spending on it — because they’re essentially just sweeping the problem under the rug and not addressing why people are homeless to begin with.”

Bonura said the issue of homelessness will continue to be “cyclical” until the root causes of homelessness are addressed.

Michele Steeb, homelessness policy expert and author of Answers Behind The RED DOOR: Battling the Homeless Epidemic, added that the federal government continues to push Housing First despite its lack of success.

“At the federal level, they continue to double and triple down on Housing First, which has proven to be …  a massively failed strategy,” she told DX. “It has proven to be a massive failure as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.”

Housing First is also the homelessness response strategy of the City of Dallas Office of Homeless Solutions.

During a Tuesday event with the Metroplex Civic & Business Association (MCBA), Council Member Jesse Moreno, chair of the Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee, said he believes Housing First does not work in every case.

Moreno said one of his “biggest struggles” is trying to get City staff to “work outside of just one solution.”

“And that one solution for far too long has been Housing First,” he said. “I support Housing First, and we need to absolutely house a bunch of individuals, [but] we also have to be realistic that a lot of these individuals are struggling with mental health [and] addiction.”

“Simply putting someone in a home or an apartment next to families and not stabilizing them is not the right direction,” said Moreno.

Additionally, Steeb noted that the largest funder of homelessness response efforts is the HUD. Entities that receive funding from HUD, whether that be government agencies or nonprofit Continuums of Care, are required to use that funding for Housing First.

The Continuum of Care in Dallas is the nonprofit Housing Forward. Continuums of Care are also required by HUD to conduct the annual PIT count.

DOUBTS ABOUT THE PIT COUNT

The PIT count in 2021 marked what appears to be a significant decrease in homelessness, with only 17,295 homeless people tallied that year. However, this count took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, with several anomalies such as homeless shelters being at reduced capacities, making the count of that year unreliable.

“So the count from 2021 across the nation is a bogus count. It’s not an accurate measurement,” Steeb told The Dallas Express.

Furthermore, local officials have said that the PIT count cannot be trusted as an accurate count of the homeless population but can indicate “larger trends” in homelessness.

“The count is useful for understanding larger trends but utterly useless to determine if homelessness is increasing or decreasing,” said Council Member Cara Mendelsohn, per The Dallas Observer.

Council Member Moreno has also expressed doubts about the accuracy of the PIT count.

He said during a recent meeting that the count is “not fully an accurate depiction” of homelessness.

The 2023 PIT count in Dallas and Collin counties measured 4,244 people — reporting a 4% decrease in overall homelessness and a 14% decrease in unsheltered homelessness. However, Moreno said these reports do not align with what he sees in Dallas and what he hears from his constituents.

“I question a lot of our [PIT] count numbers,” he said. “The decreases that we’re seeing overall [in the data] — it’s not what I’m seeing each and every single day in my community.”

Moreno previously told DX that homelessness remains “one of the most consistent complaints” he receives. Prior polling by The Dallas Express has found that more than three-quarters of Dallas residents remain dissatisfied with the state of homelessness, vagrancy, and panhandling in their neighborhoods and throughout the city.

WHAT CAN TEXAS DO?

The question remains: How can Texas respond to the ongoing problem of homelessness?

Michele Steeb advocates for Texas to separate from the Housing First strategy of the federal government and pursue a different approach.

“The bottom line is most of the money that is spent at the local level in Texas and at the state level is federal dollars, so it’s being spent on a failed policy,” she told DX. “The [federal government] continues to double down on failure, on something that is clearly not working. And that’s why Texas is going to have to take the situation into its own hands.”

Steeb pointed to two pieces of state legislation as examples of efforts Texas should continue to pursue.

SB 1803 and SB 1804 were introduced last year by Texas Sen. Drew Springer (R-Muenster). The latter would have expanded the state’s definition of homelessness, while the former aimed to increase the efficiency of taxpayer funding spent on homelessness.

SB 1803 would institute audits to “ensure the effectiveness of various state programs regarding homelessness” and aim to promote funding for programs “helping beneficiaries advance toward self-sufficiency.”

Both pieces of legislation were passed by the Senate but stalled in the House.

“Hopefully in this next session … we have a legislature that is determined to not follow in the footsteps of the current federal government and that cares deeply about reversing this crisis,” said Steeb.

THE “ONE-STOP-SHOP” SOLUTION

Bonura pointed to the “one-stop-shop” model of Haven for Hope in San Antonio as an example of an approach to homelessness that has been proven to work.

“It’s an amazing example of how things really should be done,” he told DX. “I know there’s a lot of pushback from the Housing First crowd that you shouldn’t have to require graduation from some sort of program to be able to move into housing … or at least be committed to sobriety [and] mental health.”

As previously covered by DX, Haven for Hope has been credited with reducing unsheltered homelessness in downtown San Antonio by 77%.

Haven for Hope communications director Terri Behling explained to DX last year that Haven offers a “transformational” program in which case managers work one-on-one with clients to determine their best path to a stable life.

This stands in stark contrast to the “one-size-fits-all” implementation of Housing First.

Furthermore, Behling said the transformational program requires participants to commit to being sober and working alongside Haven’s case management team.

The “one-stop-shop” model has polled favorably among Dallas residents but has not yet been established locally. Some local stakeholders are working to deploy the model in Dallas, as discussed previously on The Dallas Express Podcast.

However, it remains to be seen whether local officials will support this effort.

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