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City, County Announce $65 Million COVID-19 Homelessness Program

The $65 million program is set up to address homelessness amid the worsening COVID-19 crisis and beyond, the city said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner at an April 7, 2020 press conference.

City and county officials on Wednesday announced a $65 million program to address homelessness amid the worsening COVID-19 crisis.

Turner said the COVID-19 housing program would help house 5,000 people over the next two years as a permanent solution to the growing homelessness in Houston.

“Over the years, Houston and Harris County have struggled with the challenge of reducing homelessness,” Turner said. “As the city densifies, those who are sleeping on our streets become more noticeable and that has been amplified during the pandemic.”

With the pandemic having monumental effects on the economy, the potential for more people to lose their homes is growing.

The program will be divided into three primary components to address homelessness at different levels. The first component is to create a bridge to permanent housing that can best support what Mayor Turner called "our most vulnerable homeless" through services that best suit their needs.

The second element of the program is the "rapid re-housing" of those who are newly homeless with up to one-year rental assistance, which covers about 1,700 individuals and families.

Lastly, Turner said the program would divert 2,000 individuals from entering homelessness through case management services, which could also include short-term rental assistance.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who also spoke at the press conference, touched on the need for long-term solutions to the homeless crisis and said that this housing program will help people address issues related to substance use and mental health.

"We know that addressing homelessness in a proactive way, looking at a longer-term solution for housing and how we set up the folks experiencing homelessness to succeed and be able to have permanent housing to address issues of substance use and mental health issues, that’s the only way in which we can tackle homelessness,” Hidalgo said.

The news comes amid a continuation in evictions, as county and city officials have declined to pass legislaton to protect renters from eviction, as has been done in other cities.

Hidalgo has publicly called for the county's justices of the peace, who are tasked with overseeing eviction proceedings, to commit to an eviction moratorium. The judges have so far declined to do so.

“We all are bracing for an increase in the homeless population because of the wave of evictions that I know the city and the county have both worked very hard to help us out on, and that we continue to fight,” Hidalgo said Wednesday. “But I trust that this will help mitigate the impact of what we see coming and also that it represents a change.”

So far, the city of Houston has contributed $40 million to the new program, while Harris County has contributed $18 million. The initiative is counting on the remaining $6.5 million to come from the private sector, Turner said.

All of the money contributed to the program will go towards the permanent housing of individuals, according to Mike Nichols, the President of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Nichols said a fund has been established for the initiative, which he said was "the first step to ending a trauma-filled life" for those experiencing homeless.

Mark Eichenbaum, the Special Assistant to the Mayor for Homeless Initiatives, called the program a "moonshot," expressing his excitement about what is to come.

“This is truly taking a crisis and turning it into an opportunity,” Eichenbaum said. “This is setting a new national standard and, truly, the entire country is watching what's being done here in Houston and Harris County.”

Additional reporting by Matt Harab.

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