Aurora, CO

Homeless conference in Houston inspires Aurora City Council

David Heitz

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A homeless encampment at Abilene and Mississippi in Aurora.City of Aurora

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) A collection of officials from all over the Front Range visited Houston last week to learn how that city has housed so many formerly homeless people. The Aurora delegation included Mayor Mike Coffman, a Republican, and councilmembers Juan Marcano and Alison Coombs, Democrats.

The trio emerged mostly unified Monday during a study session discussion of the trip. Several members of council showed a willingness to have the city lead the region on an approach to solving homelessness.

Coffman thanked Marcano for his leadership on the issue. Marcano gave a presentation on how Houston housed 26,000 people experiencing homelessness over 11 years. The reduction was so pronounced the city has experienced a 63 percent reduction in the Point-in-Time annual homeless count.

Houston streamlined a former tattered patchwork of services and created one homeless agency, Marcano explained. Run by a dedicated leadership team, the organization made housing people experiencing homelessness efficient, he said. At one point, the city could house an entire homeless encampment in three days.The housing market has since tightened and it takes 30 to 45 days to house encampment dwellers now.

Tight housing markets in Denver, Houston

Houston’s previous homeless services system was much like Denver’s, Marcano said, in that “it’s a really good way to manage homelessness but not solve it.” A few tents here, a few pallet shelters there, a shelter. A funded federal mandate made Houston think more creatively to solve homelessness.

Houston housed so many despite a tight real estate market. They have almost 30 city employees dedicated to finding landlords who will rent to homeless people with vouchers, Marcano said. Aurora has one employee doing that.

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City of AuroraA man panhandles at an Aurora intersection.

Hotel purchases add housing quickly

Houston purchased hotels every chance it could and converted those into permanent supportive housing. Marcano said the city went from spending about $90,000 per homeless person annually to between $17,000 and $19,000.

When people are unhoused, costs for things like emergency room visits, jail, and the courts mount for governments. “When you put people into housing the emergency room is no longer their primary care provider.”

Closing encampments, not sweeping them

Houston “closes” encampments as opposed to “sweeping” them. The city only removes encampments after all its occupants accept housing. The city tries to keep people from encampments together as it houses them to keep a sense of community.

Marcano said the program has a 90 percent success rate, success meaning people remain housed after two years. But some council members said if the only measure of success is staying housed, is that really success?

“Are we changing the human condition?” councilmember Dustin Zvonek pondered of people given housing. “For those we can?”

Lawson said simply housing people should not merit success. “People need to know now to pay bills.”

Data on addiction treatment scarce

About 27 percent of the people Houston housed now receive SSI or SSDI, Marcano said. Coffman said he wanted to know why Houston officials could not answer some of his questions. For example, he wanted to know how many housed people accepted substances abuse or mental health treatment.

“Why won’t they release those (numbers)?” Coffman asked. “I think (the numbers) have a story to tell and it’s a very important part of the story.” Coffman said Houston’s presentation was like a student giving an answer to a math problem without showing his work.

How successful has Houston been lately?

“The population of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness also declined through the 2011-2016 time period but in recent years has seen a 50 percent increase along with increased public visibility of homeless encampments,” according to an update to Houston’s The Way Home Community Plan to End Homelessness. “Despite the substantial successes of The Way Home in addressing homelessness and its consequences, unsheltered homelessness is trending as an increasingly larger share of all homelessness since 2017.”

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Homeless encampments dot underpasses throughout the Front Range, including Aurora.City of Aurora

Houston has four strategies for catching up on housing its homeless. Those include:

· Expanding the supply of permanent supportive housing by 1,900 units for single adults and youth. This will meet the current shortfall.

· Expanding the supply of rapid re-housing slots by 1,165 to meet the demand from single adults, families, and youth.

· Engage landlords. Find a reliable supply to provide rental units.

· Implement a “moving on” strategy, targeting up to 20 percent of current permanent supportive housing residents for transition to general population affordable housing. This will free up permanent supportive housing for new tenants.

Next stop: San Antonio

Zvonek said he’s excited to go to San Antonio next week to learn how that city is approaching homelessness. Coffman encouraged all councilmembers to attend the conference.

Zvonek said he believes that despite the council’s political differences, they could emerge a regional leader on solving homelessness. Councilmember Ruben Medina agreed, saying he could reach out to the philanthropic community for support.

Marcano said politicians must “set aside using homelessness to score political points and the polarization that tends to happen, and nothing gets done.”

Denver councilmembers Chris Hinds and Candi CdeBaca also attended the Houston conference.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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