New Way to Deal With Homelessness? Experts Say Yes

Like most big cities, Houston has a homeless problem, with an estimated 14,000 men, women and children on the streets on a typical night. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, the city is slowly changing the way it deals with the homeless issue, shifting from a reactive plan to one that is more proactive.

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Instead of simply supporting the homeless once they're on the streets, homeless support providors like SEARCH President and CEO Laurence Payne say keeping them off the streets in the first place is a lot more effective.

"It is much more cost-effective to put the money on the front-end and take care of and alleviate the issues than put the money on the back-end. It takes about $16,000 a year to take care of a homeless person and get them moving off the system. If you don't take care of them, it takes about $55,000 a year for the overclogging of the services, from the hospitals to the emergency rooms to the jails to the court systems to all of that."

It's a shift in the traditional way of dealing with the homeless problem, a new way that's been effective in cities like Minneapolis, where a similar strategy has reduced the number of homeless by two-thirds. Anthony Love is the president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless in Houston-Harris County and says finding ways to keep people in their homes is a lot better then having them start the vicious cycle of homelessness.

"I equate it to being on the sea shore and the longer you're on that sea shore you begin to drift out into the ocean and the longer you're in there, the farther out into the ocean you get, and the harder it is to get back to shore. So if we can prevent that person from getting too deep into the ocean, then we've gone a long way in terms of creating a system in Houston where if a person finds themself homeless that they don't have to stay homeless or they never have to be homeless to begin with."

Norm Suchar is a senior policy analyst with the Washington D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness and says he's impressed with Houston's long-term plan to go after the core cause of homelessness.

"Rather than sort of responding to the problems as they pop-up you look at the central problem of homelessness, which is that people lose their housing, they don't have housing and you go after the problem. You move people into housing. You prevent them from losing their housing."

It's a problem that has taken a long time to develop and one that will take more than a few years to solve. That according to John Rio, who's the co-director of New York-based Advocates for Human Potential.

"Ending homelessness will take a lot of energy and a lot of political will to create the kind of housing and employment opportunities for people so that they will have their fair place in society and that's not on the streets but it's in a permanent housing and a place to be everyday."

Rio and others were part of a conference here in Houston today discussing the future of homelessness and ways to solve the problem.

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