Housing First Works—in Houston. Why Hasn’t the Policy Reduced Homelessness in California?

Evidence shows getting homeless people into housing is the most effective first step. What is California doing wrong?

PUBLISHED JUL 12, 2023 7:46 P.M.
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"Housing First" prioritizes getting the homeless into housing before anything else.

"Housing First" prioritizes getting the homeless into housing before anything else.   PRA / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. Attribution 3.0 License

The problem of homelessness in California is staggering and getting worse. That much seems beyond debate. According to the federally required annual point-in-time (PIC) count of the homeless population in every state, all but nine states have seen a decline in homelessness in the decade from 2012 to 2022. California is one of the nine—and has seen a shocking 42.8 percent increase over that time period.

California has the largest population of any state, which makes it no surprise that it also has the largest homeless population. But California’s homeless problem is way out of synch with its population size. While just under 12 percent of United States citizens live in California, the state is home to 30 percent of the country’s homeless. Almost one of every three homeless Americans lives in California, according to data compiled in 2022.

Statistics help tell the overall story, but beyond the numbers the homelessness issue hits California on a visceral level. Homeless camps where unhoused people pitch tents and build cardboard shelters in public areas such as sidewalks, parks and freeway underpasses have proliferated maddeningly.

A Pervasive Feeling of Hopelessness

The homeless camps are obviously unsightly, but more importantly, they pose a public health risk. A range of diseases are breaking out in the unsanitary conditions, including some more associated with the Middle Ages than the 21st century, such as typhus and even plague.  

In September of 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he had targeted 100 high-profile homeless camps to be cleared off of state-owned land. A year later, the state had cleared out almost 1,300. In Sacramento, the city created a new online form in June 2023, which citizens can use to register complaints against homeless camps. More than 100 were filed in the first week.

Way back in 2019, Bill Bedrossian, CEO of Covenant House California, told The New York Times that backlash against the homeless is “the worst it’s ever been.” And journalist Jay Caspian Kang, who has covered homelessness for the New Yorker over the past few years, wrote in 2022 that he had hoped to cast a public spotlight on the “horrific” conditions afflicting and killing homeless people, but realized that “raising awareness, especially when it comes to homelessness on the West Coast, is mostly pointless.” 

Homeless camps are obviously unsightly, but more importantly, they pose a public health risk with a range of diseases breaking out in the unsanitary conditions, including some more associated with the Middle Ages than the 21st century, such as typhus and even plague. 

If the homeless crisis in California feels increasingly hopeless, perhaps it doesn’t have to be. One state in particular has made significant strides in reducing its number of homeless people. That state is Texas—a state to which California is frequently compared in the media and by political leaders such as Newsom and his Texan counterpart, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. Texas has seen its homeless population drop by more than 28 percent over the same 10 years that California’s skyrocketed. 

What is Texas doing differently to alleviate the problem of homelessness? And what, if anything, can California learn from the Lone Star State?

Houston and Housing First

In 2012, the total number of homeless people in Texas was 34,052, according to federal data compiled by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. By 2022, the number had fallen to 24,432. That’s a decline of 28.3 percent—and it is mostly due to the efforts of one city. In 2012, about one in five homeless Texans lived in the greater Houston area. And that area has made impressive progress in the fight to reduce homelessness. 

Over the same ten-year period, the homeless population in the Houston area fell by 4,063. That’s a drop of 57 percent, and accounts for 42 percent of the state’s total improvement. For every 10 people who came off the streets, four were in Houston. Outside of Houston, the homeless population fell 20.7 percent—not quite as impressive though still a lot better than California. 

The governing policy for homeless programs in Houston and in California is the same—the polilcy called Housing First. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Housing First is a policy that puts homeless individuals and families into “permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry, such as sobriety, treatment or service participation requirements.”

In 2016, the California Legislature passed SB 1380, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (now a Los Angeles County Supervisor). The law made Housing First the guiding policy of the state’s approach to the homeless crisis. Why has Houston seen overwhelmingly positive results from the policy, while California’s homeless crisis only gets worse?

The Evidence for Housing First 

Housing First supporters say the policy is “evidence based,” and judging by repeated research studies, they are correct. As early as 2000, a study in New York City found that of participants in a Housing First-style program called Pathways to Housing—designed for people with psychiatric disabilities who live on the street—88 percent remained in housing after five years. 

More recently, a meta-study of 26 Housing First research projects in the U.S. and Canada found that compared with programs that required treatment—such as for sobriety—first, Housing First decreased homelessness by that same 88 percent, and improved housing stability by 41 percent. 

Atlanta modeled its approach on Houston’s and saw a 38 percent drop in homelessness from 2020 to 2022 based on the city’s PIT count. With the end of federal funding through the American Rescue Plan, which helped create available housing, advocates fear that Atlanta will backslide.

What’s Wrong With California’s Housing First Plan?

“Despite the billions of dollars allocated to Housing First programs, the crisis has not abated: A growing number of Californians each year find themselves without permanent housing,” a report by the California YIMBY Education Fund noted earlier this year.

A meta-study of 26 Housing First research projects in the U.S. and Canada found that compared with programs that required treatment—such as for sobriety—first, Housing First decreased homelessness by 88 percent.

YIMBY, which stands for “Yes, In My Back Yard,” is an affordable housing movement advocating for the loosening of regulations that restrict housing development. In its report, the YIMBY Education Fund identifies a “key differentiator” between Houston’s results and California’s as the simple fact that California doesn’t have enough housing, and the housing it does have is too expensive. Without genuinely affordable units available, moving people off the streets is a lot more difficult.

A typical cost to build a single “affordable" housing unit in California is about $1 million, a 2022 investigation by the Los Angeles Times found. The paper examined records from seven subsidized housing developments, all in Northern California. When they are all completed they’ll offer housing for 600 families. 

“But their exorbitant price tags mean that taxpayers are subsidizing fewer apartments than they otherwise could while waiting lists of renters needing affordable housing continue to grow,” the Times report said.

The YIMBY report also says that Housing First programs in the Houston area “are coordinated among key stakeholders and benefit from pro- housing land use policies,” most notably the fact that in Houston there are no zoning regulations. By contrast, California like most of the country is rigidly zoned, and zoning laws heavily favor single-family homes—excluding more affordable apartment and multi-family buildings. The Greater Los Angeles region, for example, is 78-percent zoned for single-family. In San Jose, the situation is even more extreme, with 94 percent of land restricted to single-family homes by zoning laws.

Not surprisingly, the YIMBY report recommends implementing “state reforms that loosen the zoning restrictions and permitting requirements which are driving up housing costs.”

The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in California, according to the real estate site Zillow, is a whopping $2,215 as of July, 2023. In Texas that same apartment goes for $1,233, and in Houston the median price is $1,796

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