What can Texas teach California about dealing with homelessness?

Officials from the Golden State have started looking at cities like Houston, Austin and San Antonio for solutions.

By Glorie G. Martinez & Laura RiceJuly 13, 2023 12:41 pm,

When it comes to policy, California isn’t usually looking to Texas for pointers. But when you look at the numbers, it’s difficult to deny that Texas has done a better job of addressing the homelessness crisis than California by some measures.

The Lone Star State’s reduced its homeless population by almost a third over the past decade, while published reports say California’s has grown by over 40% during the same time period. On top of that, Texas spent millions less of its state budget on homelessness than California last year.

In their search for solutions, California lawmakers have even traveled to Texas to try to get an inside look at how the state’s homelessness programs operate and to learn if they can be replicated or should be replicated back on the West Coast.

Marisa Kendall covers California’s homelessness crisis for CalMatters and joined Texas Standard to discuss the efforts. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Apparently, the city’s getting the most attention from California are Houston, Austin and San Antonio. Briefly, what’s Houston doing that’s so unique?

Marisa Kendall: Yeah, Houston has more than halved its homeless population over the past ten years by focusing almost exclusively on permanent housing rather than temporary shelters by upping its collaboration between its city, county, nonprofit and private sector, and by moving folks from encampments into a navigation center and from there pretty quickly into housing.

Another city you report on is Austin. What has caught California official’s attention about what they’re doing in Austin?

The big thing in Austin is a giant 51-acre tiny home community that serves as permanent housing for several hundred homeless residents. And it has amenities like a ceramic studio, a fishing pond… all kinds of things that you don’t normally see in homeless housing.

Photo by Jordan Vonderhaar for CalMatters

Tiny homes used as residences at Community First! Village in Austin on May 12, 2023.

What about San Antonio? What do you see there?

They take a very different approach, focused primarily on temporary shelter. They have a giant 1,600-bed shelter that sleeps nearly the city’s entire homeless population.

So of these approaches, are these replicable in California? 

Well, it’s difficult in California, primarily because everything is so much more expensive here. The median rent is almost twice as much as it is in Texas. And Texas just has more housing for people to move into. Texas permitted more than twice as many homes as California last year, even though California has about 9 million more people.

And of course, differences in how California and Texas fund their homelessness programs, too. 

Definitely. California has poured a lot more state funding into homelessness. Almost $1.9 billion last year into its main homelessness programs, compared to just under $20 million in Texas and its three main homelessness programs.

Jordan Vonderhaar for CalMatters

People experiencing homelessness eat lunch in the dining hall at Haven for Hope in San Antonio, TX on May 10, 2023.

I want to look back on this approach that Houston has had prioritizing permanent housing. What are the advantages that you picked up on?

So experts always say the solution to homelessness is housing. A temporary shelter, on the other hand, is a short term Band-Aid. I asked Mike Nichols about this. He’s the president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, which manages Houston’s response to the homelessness crisis.

Mike Nichols: It costs our community about $18,000 in federal funds to house someone for a year. The exact cost of keeping somebody on the street is probably five or six times that.

Now, what about disadvantages that California leaders might need to consider?

Yeah, I talked to someone in Houston named Rachel Gonzales, who really embodies the problem with neglecting to fund temporary shelter.

Rachel Gonzales: So I’ve been waiting since November, sleeping here outside in the street. You’ve got to think day by day. You can’t think about tomorrow, because if you think about tomorrow – think about a week from now – you’ll actually go crazy.

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You know, I seem to recall that California has laws that protect individuals from being penalized for sleeping on public property when no other options are available. Texas has taken a very different approach. Many cities have strict bans on public camping. I’m curious about what you’re hearing when it comes to how these different approaches have affected the homeless situation in these two states.

Yeah, in these camping bans, they don’t necessarily solve the problem of homelessness. They often just displace people further from the public eye. So in Austin, folks are now often sleeping in the city’s greenbelt areas, which means they’re farther from the resources they need in California. On the other hand, cities essentially have to provide a shelter bed for every resident they displace from a homeless encampment. It’s not a magic solution, but it does give unhoused people a little bit more power in that situation.

We’re hearing a lot from California about the situation with homelessness. Is it that it’s just more visible now? Have the numbers actually grown? What’s your sense of it?

The numbers have grown and, you know, the investment into fighting homelessness also has grown exponentially. There’s a lot of effort going into fighting this problem, but the issue tends to be people are still becoming homeless at a faster rate than the state can house them.

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