Annise Parker’s leadership leaves a lasting legacy in Houston.
Annise Parker was the mayor of Houston from 2010 to 2015 when homelessness went from 8,538 to 3,626 people. William Fulton invited Tony and I to dinner with her and the video below captures that informal conversation. A full transcript of the talk is below. It covers the many issues she faced in addressing homelessness including:
* The importance of creating a functioning system out of a collection of non-profits.
* Houston Housing Commission was holding on to a reserve of vouchers, but were released to address homeless.
* Housing costs in Houston are lower, lack of zoning, aggressive development policies, a lot of land.
* Lower housing costs are an advantage, but Texas doesn’t spend much money on social services. Most services are privately or federally funded.
* She created a business advisory council of leaders affected by the issue or with the ability to contribute to the solution, such as funders. Part of doing this was to prepare the community to support redirecting money to non-profits that performed the needed functions of the new system they were creating. The Council helped spread the work back through various funder groups.
* Won’t people move to your city if you build a system to house them? No. Most people in these dire straights are not making these kind of rational decisions.
* Communities that really make progress reducing homelessness may be spending the same amount of money as before, or it may be more money, but the impact on the individuals helped, and on the quality of life of the broader community, make it absolutely worth it.
* Illegal to feed large groups of homeless on public land without a permit and coordination with other groups to avoid wasted food.
* Many beds would go empty because of rules about who service providers would accept. She required these rules to be changed, or funding would go to groups that didn’t have these requirements.
* Some providers dropped out of the program because they had their own established funding streams and didn’t not rely on CoC or philanthropic money coordinated through the regional plan.
Annise Parker: Tony, welcome to Houston. Happy to visit with you and glad you’re interested in working to make a difference on this subject. What I discovered is that we’re already spending money on homelessness, whether we’re actually trying to solve the problem, or whether we just try to hide the problem. I had the opportunity to be able to get all the providers in the area to rethink how they approached homelessness. I hired a really good person to quarterback things, backed her up, and got out of her way. It was just easy after that! No, it really wasn’t easy, but it was much easier. The real key was getting the organizations and the individuals out of what they were already doing. And I’m sure this is the same thing in San Diego. We had lots of agencies working in parallel to each other, never converging on the problem and trying to solve it, but working in parallel. Everybody has their own piece of the mission and their funding source and what their outputs are supposed to be. Instead we were able to get everybody focused on how do we solve the problem of homelessness and reduce our overall numbers. With everybody coming together on a new mission instead of the separate missions that they had.
Tony: Kinda redirect, refocus everybody.
Annise Parker: Now it was helpful that we had some new money come in. You know the expression about moving people’s cheese. Nobody wants their cheese moved. They get nervous. So we had some new money come in. It was federal dollars focused on veterans homelessness. It astounded me that the president and first lady made a call for cities who could house 100 chronically homeless veterans in 100 days. I think only 3 cities said they would try it and we were one of them. I got to convene. The power of the mayor is to convene, get everybody in a room together and say “we’re going to do the right thing for veterans. We’re going to put all of our resources together. Everybody ante in. How many beds do you have? Who has case management? Who does this and that? We’re going to house the veterans. And I’m not going to take any of your money away because this is new money.” And we have a new partner, which was the VA. They had never really done housing here in Houston. And we did 101 homeless veterans in 100 days. And then we did it again. And then we did it again. Then we all came back together and we had the opportunity to day “well now we know how to do it. So we’re not going to go back to the way we used to do it”. And what we did for these veterans was every agency put their best foot forward and did what they did best and they were willing to do it. But as we decided how to go forward, I had to be willing to say, you’re getting money to house the homeless, but you only want people who look like this, or this set of problems, or fit this line on the form, and that’s not what I need. So I had to be willing to move money into those areas where it was more helpful.
We went out and we had conversations. They were important for us to find out what the real situation was, but the conversations where important because, just as we talk about the homeless, the men and women we were talking to think of the city as people who are coming to harass them. So by having the conversations, it was a good way to begin to establish a relationship.
Tony: What was the role of the county in all this?
Annise Parker: The county didn’t play a large direct role, but the county does do housing and we very quickly settled on the idea that it was Housing First and that we had to align our housing assets to go forward. Cities have a great deal of autonomy in Texas, much more so than counties. Counties are creatures of the state government. Cities are independent political entities. The county worked with us in more of a support role, but we were guiding the process. Houston does prevention, we do TB and STDs and things like that, but real healthcare is the county. The county will be saving a lot of money because the biggest expense that we had was emergency room care. We were spending on the order of one hundred million dollars per year for maybe 10,500 people. That’s a huge amount of money for a small number of people. And it was really coming out of the county. But in another division of labor, most of Houston is in Harris County, but Harris County… it was like there was a wall between the two that we had to break down for this. The big beneficiary is going to be the county in the long run.
Dennis: So they should ante up.
Annise Parker: From a financial perspective, but that’s not exactly the way it worked. They’ve been cooperative. We’ve been all working together to put more housing out there and using the funding streams we have to put housing together. The reason it was great to have the VA here at the beginning is that they had never done housing here, but they had housing vouchers that we used. And a huge partner was our public housing authority. They like to have a cushion of vouchers and they released all their vouchers to us. I don’t know why they like to hang on to vouchers. I don’t understand it.
Houston is the most affordable big city in America. Our housing costs are significantly lower than most other major metropolitan areas. Because of our lack of zoning and our very aggressive development policies, we usually have a ready supply of rentable units. So the first wave was to get the Section 8 vouchers and VA vouchers and get our veterans into existing housing stock. And then we decided to move out into the broader homeless population and we continued that until we exhausted the supply of vouchers. We had a market that we could move into a lot faster than a lot of other cities.
You have to have the wrap around social services to keep them housed. For many, it’s going to be permanent supportive housing, meaning housing subsidies and case management for the rest of their lives. And for a lot of voters, their mindset is that they don’t want to do that. “I don’t mind giving somebody a hand up or a hand out to get them back on their feed, but you mean I’m going to have to support them for the rest of their lives?” Yes you may because so many of the folks we came in contact with had either mental health issues or substance abuse issues or both. It’s not something that you can turn on or off.
Dennis: What about the construction of new apartments versus placing people into existing apartments.
Annise Parker: What we did first was place people in existing apartments. We exhausted our section 8 vouchers before we exhausted our housing. And then we sat down and create a plan to built something like 1,400 new units and identified the funding streams and where and how to get that done.
Dennis: The reason for new housing in Houston was because you want to place it in a certain spot in the city and because you need the facilities for certain wrap around services that are hard to administer in an apartment.
Annise Parker: If the only stat you look at is how many people you place, and you don’t look at how many people stay, what your retention rate is, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
One of the things that I did was create a business advisory group. We were working through the numbers. We were placing people. Mandy was running the shop. They were reporting back to me. But I created a business advisory council that had some of our major funders. People like Bob Eury in downtown Houston who bear the brunt of the problem, archbishop, cardinal, people with some stroke in the community, but also that were directly affected or had the ability to affect what we were doing. Every other month we’d meet with them and show them our numbers, get ideas. Part of that was to begin to generate the support for a massive philanthropic campaign to put more money into homelessness and to redirect some of the money that was going in. And I hate to say this, but great agencies doing good work, but if they weren’t in areas of priority, we needed the money to go someplace else. I didn’t want to hurt any agencies, but I needed the money to be in certain places. The business advisory council could see that we were accountable, they could give us feedback, but it also began to spread back through the various funders that we were doing it differently, we were making a difference, and it started making a difference.
Dennis: No more shelters?
Annise Parker: We determined very early on that we have plenty of shelters. We weren’t going to build any more shelters. We weren’t going to encourage anybody to build anymore shelters. This was going to be about taking people off the street. Shelters are for people who fall into homelessness and who have the wherewithal with a little help to get back out of homelessness. The permanent supportive housing that we were focused on is dealing with the chronically homeless that need more assistance.
One of the questions that come up is “if you build the system and provide these benefits, won’t people move to your city?” No, our experience is that a very large number of the people that we deal with, because of the substance abuse issues, because of the mental health issues, they’re not making those kinds of rational decisions, or do they have the ability to make that kind of large scale movement.
If it were just about providing housing, it’s a very inexpensive piece of it. The expensive piece of dealing with chronic homelessness is the case management, the ongoing treatment for mental health, addiction, trying to get folks re-socialized. That’s were the real money is. And the longer they’re on the streets, you have a whole complex of health issues that kick in. The biggest expense when people are on the streets is emergency room care. And probably the second biggest expense is the impact on quality of life, and the loss of income from businesses, the impact on the community, both those who are homeless and those who have to deal with the problem. The big expense when you actually decide to fix the problem is that you have to mentally accept that many of these folks are going to be under the care and custody of the state for the rest of their lives. We just have to accept that and work with it.
I think the money we’re already spending, but more effectively and with a better outcome, it may be the same amount of money. It actually may be more money, but the impact on the individual lives that we touch and the impact on the broader community is absolutely worth it.
By the time I became mayor, I had already been in local government for 12 years and what I had seen the city doing is passing so-called civility ordinances. I am not a fan or supporter of civility ordinances. That is a horrible euphemism. I ran into a buzzsaw as part of our work on homelessness because I passed a ban on congregate feeding of the homeless. If you google it, you there are people out there who are absolutely convinced that it’s illegal to feed the homeless in Houston. It’s absolutely untrue. It is illegal to feed large groups of the homeless without registering with the city. There’s the compassionate impulse, which, I adopted a homeless kid. I certainly have a little bit of that. There’s the you want to do the right thing for the city and more efficient utilization of resources. But there’s also let’s have a logical system and unfortunately we had a cottage industry of different organizations, mostly religiously based, that would come through and have congregate meals for the homeless. But they didn’t coordinate in any way and it was concentrated in downtown Houston. On a random Tuesday, you might have three different churches come in and swarm the same group of guys and hand out sandwiches. What we was say, you can feed the homeless, but you need to register with the city and we’re going to ask you to learn basic sanitary rules because a lot of people say they’re hungry, I can just give them anything. No, they’re human beings. There was one organization, and it just infuriated me, they’d buy boxes of donuts and then they would stack them in dumpsters near where the homeless congregated so the guys would find them. How inhuman.
All we ask is that you become familiar with safe food handling and you register. Now we have a master calendar and you can go online on the city’s website. For weeks I had groups coming in and saying god called me to feed the homeless and how dare you tell me not to. And I said you can as long as you don’t feed more than six people at a time on my property or on someone else’s property you’re fine. And you can feed the multitudes, loaves and fishes, on your property. But if you’re on public property or on someone else private property, we’re all good neighbors and want to do the right thing, but you’re going to coordinate. Other than one organization which is still out there protesting I’m sure, it’s worked beautifully.
Tony: I’m familiar with that. Sometimes the groups come all at once. It’s an abundance of food, and then there’s no food the next day. It’s a waste. Sandwiches will be left on the side of the road because there’s so many.
Annise Parker: There was another problem that we called the homeless vortex. Breakfast was here, lunch was here, dinner was here, so the were migrating. Because we really don’t have a great mass transit system, it’s better now than it’s ever been, but not great. So these were people on foot just circulating. And you can’t take your stuff with you, it just didn’t make sense. For awhile we began to consolidate some of the services. For awhile it made it worse around the areas into which we consolidated. And I got all the angry phone calls. Why are you congregating the homeless in front of my store? But we had to go through some pain before we could get to a more workable system.
The other thing, again not logical, everybody used a different database. Tony presented, we could figure out what he needed, what his assets were. We could find a place for him. Three days later, or a week later, we’re now doing it really quickly, but at that point it was a week or two weeks later before we could find a placement for him. But then we couldn’t find Tony again. Because he was in this vortex walking around.
So we had to force everybody to all use the same database. We had to categorize the individuals in the system so that everybody could find them again and know exactly where everybody is. Not for people with mental health issues, that’s a little big brotherish sometimes.
Some cities do the homeless village where they find some abandoned property somewhere and put everybody there. We decided to maximize the efficiency of the entities that are already in place, but to try to make them more compact. We didn’t do a greenfield development for the homeless. There was agencies and facilities already in place. The center of it downtown is the Beacon.
Why make a system that makes it easier for people to stay on the street if you can create a system where people can get off the street and have their dog and have their stuff and have permanent housing?
There’s no question that it helps that Houston has lower costs for housing and that at the time we launched it, we didn’t in anyway have a glut of housing, but we had some flexibility in the market so that we could push our vouchers out and find housing. But anything else we did, any other city could do. Could do, should do.
In Houston, it’s important to get to the bottom line, but it’s also important to show that what you’re doing is not working. That it’s an inefficient system.
Because our housing costs are lower, we had a little bit of an advantage. But it’s not that much of an advantage because this is also a state that doesn’t spent money on social services. Most of the services are privately funding. Those are federal dollars or private dollars.
One of the first reports that Mandy created when we launches our full on, we’re going to do this, was a list of all the agencies and how many empty beds they had every night. It was like more than a hundred beds. We only house women. We only house men. We don’t do substance abuse. We don’t do this. We don’t do that. Okay, but I need beds. And you have beds, so you either need to change how you fill those beds, or I need to find someplace else who has beds to get it done.
Dennis: So they changed how they did it?
Annise Parker: Some. Most of them. Some of them dropped out of the program. They had their funding niche and their donors and they didn’t have to change. But in order to access the entire system, and most of the agencies and individuals want to get together and solve the problem. It requires change. Simple things like everyone has to use the same identification system. Everybody has to use the same database so that we can track people. That’s a change.