Tony Rodriguez: Hi. I’m Tony.
Marc Eichenbaum: Hi, Tony. Nice to meet you. Welcome to Houston.
Tony Rodriguez: It’s a lovely town. People here are proud of the progress that you’re instrumental in. How did you get everybody together on this?
Marc Eichenbaum: Well, it was several things that happened at the right time at the right moment. One of the most important things is elected leadership. It’s actually something we learned from Denver when now Governor Hickenlooper was actually Mayor Hickenlooper of Denver and he decided to make homelessness his core issue. And when we went there we learned that it does take elected leadership to really pull together the community and to have a vision and get the community to buy in on that vision. Additionally, we saw when we went to Denver that they had a full-time person who was strictly dedicated out of the mayor’s office to the plan, and so when we came back that’s something that we got to tell our mayor at the time, Mayor Parker, that “Hey, if this is something that’s really dear and near to your heart and you’re serious about making a huge impact these are the steps we need to go on” so the very first thing was having elected leadership and that was Mayor Parker. Mayor Parker brought together all the different entities and she said, “We’re spending tens of millions of dollars every year and we’re only really achieving antidotal stories of success. We’re not moving that needle at all. So what can we do differently, spending the same amount of money but to achieve actually real results?” And so that takes a lot of courage. Elected leaders they’re pushing themselves out there but it takes that high-level elected leadership to really pull that together. Additionally, at the same time you had the federal government coming together and they were saying, “Hey, our– you need to have priorities. Priorities need to be on chronics and veterans and then families with youth and it needs to be on housing.” Along with that is that actually Houston was named a priority center– a priority city by HUD, which is not a good designation, that means we’re not doing well, but what we did is we strategically used those technical assistant dollars and we brought in some actual outside national experts in. In our case, we had national experts with CSH and they really helped us understand what housing folks truly meant, not what we thought it meant but what it truly meant, and wrap our hands around to we got this very, very complex problem. The idea that there are simple solutions to age-old complex problems is very appealing but the reality is that when we’re talking about people sometimes even if– a simple solution like housing has to be implemented and sometimes methods looked upon as being complex. Although it might be complex behind the curtain, for the end user, for the client we want to make sure that it’s as simple as possible. So we had a TA assistant come in, technical assistance. We had a mayor who wanted to make it a priority above all. We had HUD providing some– a roadmap of priorities and it just took getting some right partners on. It helped that a large percentage of our funding community came together and while we had lots of organizations that were willing to jump on at the very beginning there were some for good reasons that had been operating in a certain fashion for decades and we’re asking for them to change and it’s very difficult. So while they might have been a little skeptical at the beginning and they had lots of anxiety and it’s completely understandable we asked them to just try. “Just try. Dip your toe into the pool and if it doesn’t work out we’ll go back. You can go back to doing what you were doing before or we’ll modify it but let’s just give it a try.” And it helps controlling the purse strings because while most of the nonprofits really did jump in in the deep end and tried it with great success there were some that didn’t and didn’t want to and that’s completely fine and that’s up to them. They’re just not going to receive any of the funding that goes through the system to help with homelessness. So we pulled together all these different funding streams so we had funding coming from the federal government to the city in the form of entitlement grant funds; these are the ESG funds, these are CDBG funds, these are HOME funds, so they’re all coming through and we have some hospital funds as well so we had that bucket. We had the biggest bucket, which is the federal funds going to our continuum of care, and then we have all those private dollars as well and in the city bucket we also have some bond– affordable housing bond funds and some special district funds, but what we were able to do is those three buckets, city, CoC, and private funds, we were basically able to align that. And now that funding is not being done strictly in one– blindly, in their own lane. Now it’s everybody working together. When all the funding streams are actually combined and strategically doled out, the investments doled out, then we can maximize the impact just like how we can maximize the impact of organizations actually working together.
Tony Rodriguez: Wow. That’s amazing.
Marc Eichenbaum: The very first thing we did was veterans. A work group was made of about 30 different organizations. They said, “Let’s try to do a hundred veterans in a hundred days” and they did that. Then they said, “Let’s try to do three hundred veterans” and they did that. So they used that small success to sell it so– to get other organizations on board, “See, it can work,” but also “This is exciting. Don’t you want to jump on the bandwagon and be a part of something special?” and that’s what this really was. They held a community charrette process where they had over 300 folks come together I believe it was for 2 to 3 days, there were local, national, state experts, and out of that charrette it all came together. The community said, “No. We want to invest our dollars and we want to be part of best practices and we want to make sure– and best practices to us means housing first and we want to make sure it’s data driven.” It was community led. The difference in Houston, and this is different than in other communities, we didn’t have 40 different community meetings and we didn’t bring in a consultant and pay them $100,000 to do a study that takes 2 years to do. We held just a simple charrette, brought in all the people at once. We used our technical assistants and outside consultants but we didn’t– we wanted to act; acting was important. And we didn’t want to wait until we had a perfect plan with every single issue taken care of. We said, “Let’s start and we will adapt and modify as needed.” It wasn’t done heavy handed but it was done as a team but there were some folks– and what they say, “Change is easy. People are hard,” but we found people to be– most people to really want to try to jump on board and those that weren’t we said, “Let’s discuss the data. Let’s look at different interventions and what the right intervention is and which one gets the best success rates. Maybe we have been investing dollars in interventions that aren’t really having the greatest return of investment on, so how can we maximize that?” So it was aligning of the stars. It was the– having high elected leadership really lead and take charge of it. We had brought in experts, TAs. We were also– got the roadmap from the federal government and we also I didn’t mention had coalescing of all of our funding and then we had the private-sector community really there, businesses, corporations saying, “We want to be part of this.”
Tony Rodriguez: How did the Denver experience add into that? Maybe you mentioned it earlier but I’m not clear on it.
Marc Eichenbaum: Like everybody, when we first started we wanted to go to the places who were setting the bar high and at the time we said, “Who- who’s responding to homelessness really well?” and at the time that was Denver, and so when we went to Denver we learned about how important it was for high-level elected leadership to really lead the charge and we also learned how important it was for the foundations to be on board and how important it was that if the government’s really focused on it, about them having full-time individuals working on this, making it a priority. It’s interesting. When we talk about elected leaderships it’s a double-edged sword and that’s why you have to be really careful how it’s done. It has to have the power and backing of elected leadership. It has to be high-level elected leaderships really important issue to them but at the same time you have to make sure that when there’s a change in leadership that the system, the plan to housing keeps on going. And so while you might want it to be the mayor’s plan we were always really sure to say, “While the mayor might be leading it it’s not her plan” or “it’s not his plan” because if that next mayor comes along and says, “Well, that was a pet issue of my predecessor. I want something new.” And what we wanted to make sure to do is we didn’t want that to happen. So this was a plan that while it had the leadership really making sure it was going forward and propelling it forward it didn’t live and didn’t die with that elected leader, that we made sure to institutionalize what we were doing to make sure that it could continue operating no matter who was in charge.
Tony Rodriguez: It was Houston’s plan–
Marc Eichenbaum: Right. You’re exactly right.
Tony Rodriguez: You’ve worked with two mayors on this. How did they lead this initiative and keep it going?
Marc Eichenbaum: It does take elected leadership and it’s seen in many different facets. The first thing is the power of the soapbox and this means not mentioning it in a speech one time a year but this means really talking about it whenever you have an opportunity. Mayors get invited to speak to all different types of groups. People just want updates on what’s going on in the city. This is pulling together all the different affordable housing providers, pulling together all of the regular housing providers and asking them to be a part of this, bringing together different funders, bringing together the community. This is saying, “Hey, we’re spending a lot of the public funds all over the place but because this is a priority to me I want to target already preexisting funds on this one issue to really achieve measurable impact.” It is making sure that things are progressing, asking for status reports. We do dashboards. The mayor has a homeless leadership team, leaders in the ecumenical community, leaders in the private sector, president of the Houston Texans to the archbishop of the Catholic diocese. They all look at the numbers, they help fund raise to bridge the gaps we have in our capital structure and the– building the housing, and it also was really powerful for the mayor ‘cause the mayor’s getting pulled every way by the community and for the mayor to say, “We’re going to concentrate on no longer short-term solutions, short-term Band-Aids, knee-jerk reactions, and instead we’re going to focus on permanent solutions but what I need is I need your patience. It’s saying no more about just calling my office and complaining for every little issue that you feel that touches you. I’m going to work on that but if you want me to work on that and– but do it with a permanent solution so it doesn’t keep on popping up in return I’m going to need your patience.” Homelessness has been around since the beginning of man. There’s no simple silver bullet that can fix it in a matter of days, weeks or months, but what we know can fix homelessness is the simple solution of housing but to get to that housing and all the logistics it takes really takes the entire community to come together. When we talk about what did Houston do finally we focused on best practices and making data-driven decisions and the unprecedented level of collaboration, but people use the term “collaboration” very freely and if I was to ask some service agencies before, “Hey, do you collaborate with each other?” they’d say, “Yes. I go out to lunch with the executive director of another agency once a month” or “Yeah. We team up and we do a clothing drive in December.” That’s not true collaboration; that’s not true collective impact. What that is is really making sure that your day-to-day activities are now not done in a silo but that it’s actually part of a well-oiled machine. It’s combining your efforts, combining your resources to maximize that impact so you really drive home at the end of the day we’re trying to do one thing, transformative change through collective impact, and that’s what it has taken. We were able to go to some agency who used to be everything to everybody. I mean they were operating a soup kitchen and an overnight shelter and they did outreach and they did case management and we were all saying, “What do you do really well? Okay. Well, you do that and you really focus on that and you become our main provider of that service and we’ll work with others to bridge the gaps of the other services here” and now that was like a weight lifted off their shoulders that now they could become really amazing experts and really move the dial in that one field and they’ll know that others were picking up that slack. One big thing that was done is that at the very beginning we found that we actually had a good number of beds out there but it wasn’t the right people in the right beds. So you might have had a chronically homeless individual who needed permanent supportive housing but they were placed in kind of transitional housing and you had that person that didn’t need that level of services that’s in permanent supportive housing but they were placed there and they needed to be in transitional rapid rehousing. And nobody would refer to each other because everybody needed their beds to be completely full so that they would get funding; it’s human nature. And I wouldn’t refer to another agency even though that’s the agency that person needed to be at because I don’t know if they would ever refer to me and my bed’s going to go unfilled and I’m not going to be able to operate. So by having a coordinated access system we can basically guarantee everybody that their beds will be full; you never have to worry about your beds not being full because we’re going to give you a constant supply of people and it’s all going to come through one door. No longer does a homeless individual have to go to the right service provider on the right day at the right time, talk to the right person with the right knowledge to get help. Now no matter where they’re at everybody gets assessed through the same portal, they get the same information, they get the same opportunity to be placed on the path of housing, and that’s the beauty of it. It also helps that working with our agencies you’re going to get referrals but you’re going to have to take– we’re going to– we’re focused on housing our most vulnerable homeless first, okay, and you cannot decline to take individuals and if you do decline that’s fine. You just have to provide a reasonable explanation but no more just picking and choosing the people that you think are going to succeed in your program ‘cause what happens is the most vulnerable continue to stay on the streets ‘cause you take those that are less vulnerable because you feel they have a higher chance of succeeding in your program, which will have higher numbers out there. Another thing that would– helps is that being stationed in the mayor’s office is crucial. If myself or my predecessor were stationed in just a regular city department, we would not be able to have the moxie to have meetings with certain organizations or to say to nonprofits, “Hey, I know that you’re really– that you’re concerned because we’re asking you to do something differently and you’re concerned it’s going to hurt you in the pocketbooks that you might not get that funding from private funders. And I can say the mayor or his office we will contact that funder and make sure that they know that you’re part of this amazing collaborative transformational system approach to ending homelessness and we will do everything we can to make sure that it does not impact your funding at all.” So if you have– the antidote that’s always talked about in the past is the shelter that goes back to its board and says, “We fed 200 more people this year” and everybody celebrates and the reality is that you want to celebrate when you’re feeding 200 less people because that means there’s less need out there. And so when you are valuing substance over volume it’s a huge shift especially in nonprofits that are filling out grant proposals and one of the main questions that’s always asked is “How many people are you serving?” Well, geez, if I was serving 800 last year and I write 600 this year that could impact my funding, but the truth is that because of that decrease it might be because they’re doing stuff completely different and having results that were never expected, truly transformative results, and we want that to be valued. It’s what the continuum of care values, it’s what the city and the mayor’s office values and it’s what our private funding community values, and those that don’t we want to make sure that they will so we’ll go to bat– if there’s an agency that has– is running into a lot of issues with neighbors or so forth, if they’re willing to be a part of The Way Home, they’re willing to be a part of our collective system and change the way they operate, focus on housing first and being a part of the system, then we will go to bat with them, but if you’re not part of the program then you’re on your own because we have a limited bandwidth of who we can support. And we’re going to support those that are truly about supporting the system and ultimately supporting the individual on the streets.
Tony Rodriguez: Everybody we talked to has this determination to be a part of this and a willingness to like you say give up and do what they do best and let go of the rest. It’s like a car, the engine over here and the tires over here. You’ve got to get it all together to run.
Marc Eichenbaum: And what really helps is while– the mayor and the mayor’s office can really help pull it together but there are some individuals too such as Houston Endowment that they are so well respected that they also—their brand, their name, pulls a lot of weight with it and they have the power to pull people together and then on top of that it’s just really important to have some outside third-party experts. So you have different organizations, they’re all competing for the same pots of money, and it’s all about survival for them, and when you bring them all together in a room they’re all going to have different opinions and this is human nature. They’re all going to have different opinions on what’s the best thing to do and the best way or– and what they do is probably the best intervention and so forth, but to have that independent outside third party come in that doesn’t have sides, doesn’t have a long-term relationship with a certain service provider and really come in and say, “This is what’s best practices. This is what’s working.” So for us, it was not only bringing in CSH but it was also putting in outside experts to provide additional support to our coalition so we embedded CSH folks there at our coalition, we had CSH helping the city, and additionally one of their experts we were so impressed with and had such expert knowledge we said, “We’re going to tap you to be that first special assistant to the mayor to help lead this.” And what happened is when she came in she had such a high level of understanding and experience and knowledge that folks were willing to try what she was selling and they believed in her and that was very, very important. If we went and just would have hired somebody out of the Houston community to come, put them in there it might– it would not have been the same because it’s human nature that these simple solutions to very complex issues is a very romantic idea and I’ll tell you what; it makes really, really sexy news articles. I hear about it left and right from tiny houses to let’s do day labor panhandling bands to– and you hear all of these ideas and this and that. While it doesn’t always make– there’s– it’s not always a sexy story of we’re going to do the hard work to create enough housing and build this crazy collaborative collective system; while that’s not sexy the results are. Sometimes it’s high impact but it might be low PR but at some point when you really start achieving those results that’s when the community really sees the benefit, but you have to have that elected leadership to say, “I need your patience as we build it out and create it.”
Tony Rodriguez: What role did the county play in this?
Marc Eichenbaum: We have a bifurcated form of government here. Our county is controlled by a completely different set of elected officials and historically the city and county are not known for collaborating together but this is one issue where the city and county did and still are. The county actually controls the mental-health system as well as our public hospitals. The city doesn’t bear any of those costs. The cost to the city is really ambulance costs, any type of first-responder costs including police, cleaning up the parks, cleaning up the streets, our jail cost and so forth, but the big brunt of the cost is actually felt by the county. The county teamed up with the city and we issued actually a joint RFP for permanent supportive housing so we took together– we combined our entitlement dollars for one of the first times ever and were able to release that joint RFP, which helped out tremendously. We still work with the county and in fact every other week there’s a pipeline tracking committee meeting and it’s really county leaders and city leaders come together and we look at the pipeline of permanent supportive housing units, where are they at in development, are they operating, where are they at in underwriting, where are they at with the RFP process, and so we can track and make sure that the developments of units continue to be on track. Some of the places that do it best are ones that have really figured out that housing the homeless is actually a health issue, that whenever you– we look at cost analysis. So we looked at other studies done throughout the country and we were able to determine that in 2011 our population of 2500 chronically homeless individuals were costing taxpayers over $103 million every year in public resources. That is jail costs and cleaning up the streets but mainly that is hospital costs, yeah, and that’s just the chronic population, and so that helped tell the story that if responding to homelessness is not a moral issue to you, it’s just not that high on your scale of issues, think of it as a financial issue and that through housing the chronically homeless in permanent supportive housing we can reduce costs by up to 70 percent; that’s the power of housing. And so places like in L.A. where the actual– the homeless initiative is actually out of their health department because that was– it was seen as housing is just not a roof over the head; housing is actually a form of healthcare. We realized very early that providing services to people on the streets is very ineffective and extremely cost prohibitive, providing those services to people in housing was key, and we also realized that if we didn’t provide services to people that were housed they wouldn’t stay housed so you have to have both at the same time and that’s what makes it so effective. While in our case the mayor is more on top of homelessness and leads it, it is with strong support, strong assistance from the county judge, and the county judge is really focused on– here on ex-offender reentry programs, which is not homelessness but has a strong tie and connection to homelessness, working on diversion programs and so forth. We also share our data and we’ve been pulling in the data from everywhere so we can really see to see who are the most vulnerable, who are those high-cost utilizers, and we can focus on them, and we’ve actually worked on some innovative initiatives with some healthcare companies to where we were able to house some of their clients and they paid us to house it because ultimately they were saving money. So the collaboration is just not at the funder level; the collaboration is just not at the service-agency level; the collaboration is not even between the private sector and the public sector. There has to be collaboration between different governments and if that– if you got more than one local government that’s between local government, state and federal and it’s even within one entity so even within the city. One of my primary jobs– we have 16 departments and homelessness touches 9 of them and so it really is helpful for me to come in and being able to wrangle everybody together and being able to help coordinate all they’re doing into one central plan and one central action.
Tony Rodriguez: What are the top ten tasks you have as your role here in government?
Marc Eichenbaum: Well, every day is different. I spend I hate to say the majority of my time in meetings but I’m meeting with the service providers. I am going to meetings at the coalition, project-management meetings with all the different heads of outreach or the actual housing piece or the assessing or our income program or rapid rehousing or PSH. I am meeting with council members to talk about issues just within their district. I’m meeting with other council members to try to get them to sign on to a piece of legislation that’ll be coming to council that will help the system and help the homeless. I deal with lots of media and lots of press. I go out and I talk to community meetings but I also get my hands dirty. I’ll put on the boots and jeans and I’m out there in the field. I am a trained assessor as well and without that personal knowledge and then– I don’t think I’m worthy of being in this position. I need to know what’s it like outside of city hall, what’s it like in the streets, what’s it like for our assessors, what’s it like for the homeless, for our outreach teams, for our paramedics, for our different service providers. We develop some initiatives our self and I help propel those initiatives. I’m dealing with our other federal– counterparts at the federal level or at the local level, researching legislation, putting together advocacy action plans. I am getting more folks on board and dealing with– when a service agency has an issue I’m their first guy they come to and that’s a benefit of being part of the system is that you have somebody inside the mayor’s office that if an issue pops up we’re one of those folks that can help you figure that out or if you want the mayor to come to an event we’re one of those that can help out. We are there to assist our partners and stay in– hand in hand. I research policy; I’ll draft policy papers. We brainstorm new ideas, new initiatives. We’ll look to see where things need improvement but the biggest thing is this is not a City of Houston plan; this is not a mayor’s plan. This is a regional Houston community plan and it is– while it’s– all the organizations are part of the continuum of care plus more ‘cause we have over a hundred different organizations all part of our initiative called The Way Home and the city is just one of those partners on it. We like to feel that we’re a major partner of it but we share the credit, we share the issues, we share the sweat, the work of everything with our partners, but we’re there for them because we know they’re there for our homeless individuals.
Tony Rodriguez: What advice could you offer me on this matter? I was recently elected to speak on behalf of the homeless on the regional care board that’s drafting a plan for the entire region on how to deal with homelessness.
Marc Eichenbaum: Well, congratulations.
Tony Rodriguez: Thank you.
Marc Eichenbaum: I would say sometimes in plans we have a tendency to make sure that we keep all of the different stakeholders happy and by doing that we write a plan that is not always as strategic as it could be ‘cause we watered it down to make sure that everybody- everybody’s bucket had a little bit of money and everybody was happy. One thing that Mayor Parker was really big on is that if we spread the peanut butter so thin across the bread we won’t taste it when we bite into the sandwich, and so if we have lots of different buckets for homelessness and if we try to put a little money into each bucket then we end up not being able to really help anybody and it’s being targeted or even when it’s saying interventions. Well, we chose to focus on permanent supportive housing; based on the data that shows that was by the far the most successful but even– there’s three different types of housing interventions for those that are non-chronic singles. Do we put a little bit in each to make everybody happy or do we say, “Hey, what you were doing was great but we think it can be even better and we want to help you. Look at these stats; look at the data from other places; look at this story– this is amazing. Let’s give it a try” so to really be focused on making it as strategic as possible, to really be focused that it’s doable. I can’t tell you how many plans get written and get put on the shelf to never be touched again and one reason is because plans– I really don’t believe that plans are the appropriate time to dream. If you’re going to come up with something that will never have a chance to ever being funded, there’s no chance in the world, then the plan isn’t– it’s not right for the plan. Funding is very difficult, there are so many needs out there, and housing is really difficult especially in San Diego. The first thing to do is say, “What can we do with already preexisting resources?” We are able to achieve a lot with preexisting resources. We just ended up spending it in a targeted fashion in investing in data-driven proven solutions; that’s largely how we were able to transform. We were able to also get all those different funders on board. My first year I was– my salary was actually paid for by Chevron; I’m not paid for out of the city general revenue fund. In fact, the City of Houston puts around $100,000 of its general revenue into homelessness; that’s it. The rest of the funding comes from just targeting the entitlement grants and the private dollars and the CoC funds sprinkled in with a little bit of city housing bond funds and some other small amounts but we’re not a city that’s spending a lot. I’m trying to get more buy-in but we were not going to let that be the single reason of why we can’t take steps, that there can be simple steps that places can do that don’t– money is super important and we need money but there are still simple steps we can do to improve how we operate.
Tony Rodriguez: Our homeless levels are about the same as yours used to be; ours is about 8500, stabilized for the last couple years and yours was around that or maybe it was a little higher. How much money did you need to get it down as low as you’ve got it now, which is about 3000 I believe?
Marc Eichenbaum: It’s tough to come up with all that because then we monitor vouchers and– but what I can tell you is that we largely used for supportive services, especially for the chronics, they’re all 1115 vouchers with 1185 vouchers so these are already sources that are out there. One of the biggest issues is how do you pay the rent; how do you pay the operating cost of the housing. We could not have done it without the support of our housing authorities. Both the City of Houston housing authority and the county housing authority came together and provided a couple thousand vouchers just to be used for The Way Home to house our chronically homeless. So when we look at what it takes to help we– especially the housing piece there’s the capital funds that’s needed to build it from the ground up, there’s the operating funds and there’s the rent, and then there’s the supportive service funds for PSH. So if we got the supportive services funds taken– largely helped with 1115 and also just looking into whatever federal benefits, healthcare benefits, that individuals have and how that can be used tagging along with federally qualified health centers then the rent, the operating, is done through largely vouchers– low-income-housing vouchers and then the capital stack. We didn’t build all of our housing from the ground up; a portion of our housing was built at the ground up in communities that are predominantly designed for formerly homeless individuals, but we would never have enough money to build all the communities up. So what we did is we went to the private market and we went to go look for developers and property owners and management companies and landlords that’d be willing to be a part of The Way Home. What we told them is that “We’ll guarantee your rent and the utilities get paid; you won’t have to worry about it. You’ve got 20 units in your complex. You’ll get a check for all 20 units every month. Additionally, our folks have a much lower eviction rate than the general public, which is huge. Evicting an individual is very costly for an apartment complex so we can bring down that rent– we can bring down that cost for you. If you ever have a problem with one of our tenants, you don’t ever to have to deal with it. Just call the case manager and the case manager will handle it for you.” There’s still a lot of individuals that have a lot of anxiety (of how) about [ph?]– to do this because they feel that every homeless person might cause issues or problems because the unknown is scary. What it took was it just took a couple people to do it and then based on their success we were able to get them to go out and almost testify to other landlords and other property managers. In Houston we’re at 90 percent occupancy, which is probably better than it is at San Diego. It’s tough even with ten percent vacancy but I was getting up to Seattle. They teamed up with the Seahawks and they invited all the different property owners together to the stadium for a meeting for there to be a call to action, and that’s another way where the mayor’s soapbox can work, for the mayor to get up there to do– issue a challenge, to issue a call to action to private-property owners to be a part of something special. And we’re not asking for you to donate units. We’re just saying, “Work with us.” There at the Coalition there are people whose job it is just to develop relationships with those landlords and to get units but that’s tough. We could have all the money to pay for the units but we wouldn’t– maybe not– we might not have those units and so that’s why we have to develop those units to keep them in a steady stream to be part of the system. And we’re saying, “Do you have any vacancy? If you got a vacancy, we’ll fill it and some of it is that you got to work with us” so they might say, “Sorry. We have a policy of no felonies” and then it’s up to our housing navigator to say, “Yeah, but that was seven years ago and it was for a nonaggressive felony. They don’t have anything else on their record and that was a long time ago. Will you work with us?”
Tony Rodriguez: I don’t think that’s going to work in San Diego. I think that’s a small apartment solution–
Marc Eichenbaum: No. You’re right so you’re going to have to build a lot and we spend most of our HOME funds on homeless housing and then we have a lot of– and a lot of our tax-credit projects are for homeless housing the city invests quite an amount of money in. We have to make sure they’re done correctly. We want our homeless housing to blend in with the community. Sometimes it sticks out. You know why? Because it’s the nicest community– facility in the entire community. We want it to not detract but we want it to be– to provide to– and it’s usually the nicest, safest places in these communities. People drive by them all the time and have absolutely no clue. A lot of them get flooded with people stopping by wanting to rent units there and a lot of our communities are mixed income so while it might be all affordable it’s not a hundred percent for the homeless. The homeless might just have fifty units out of a hundred and fifty and that– doing the mixed income and what we’re really working on now is providing programming at these communities to fulfill the social needs of their tenants so they don’t have to come back to the homeless service system to just get their social needs met. Trust me. It is scary and it’s difficult to dangle your toe in the pool of the unknown. You want to know if you’re going to try something somebody else is going to try it too and you’re not going to be alone. And it’s just asking people to give it a try even if it’s for a month and it’s really putting everybody around the table and getting commitments, yes, yes, yes, yes, ‘cause you might get close to that no but that no is going to say no anymore; because they don’t want to be the only no at the table they’re now going to say yes. Some of the biggest skeptics now are the ones singing the gospel the loudest. In fact, we just did the third leg of the stool to responding to homelessness, if one leg is healthcare, the other leg is housing, what about income. And so for years we’ve been focused on we need to have training programs because the homeless they can’t work right now, we got to train them up to a certain level so they can get and hold a job, but the reality is that thinking was not true; it was a fallacy. And what the Golden Rule was– we learned the key of this was we really just needed to find jobs that would fit the skill level of that person today. So in a matter– since March of last year we– almost 400 people, formerly homeless individuals, some are still homeless, but they’ve all gotten jobs now and we track. It’s not that we gave them a referral; it’s not that we connected them to a job, which that doesn’t mean they actually– everybody can employ. It’s that did they keep it a day later, did they keep it a week later, a month later, six months, a year later; what is the wage they’re earning. To do that we said, “We don’t have any money to do this so how can we do it?” Well, we said, “There’s already a competitive public-employment system out there done through the state’s workforce office– commission” and we said, “What can we do to get that system to work better for our folks?” And so now they have specially trained counselors– the state pays for it, it’s out of their offices, and they’re specially trained to work with our most vulnerable individuals, to work with the homeless, and we’ve trained– the homeless system trained them and works with them. And now when an individual gets assessed for housing they’re also being assessed for income at the same time so at the end of that we’ll know where that person falls down, what’s the right housing intervention and where they are on the list to be housed based on their vulnerability level, but they’ll also walk away with a scheduled appointment to meet with a employment counselor out of our Income Now program. So we were able to create this amazing employment program without spending any more dollars and we said, “Why create a whole new program just for the homeless when there’s one already out– there’s a public employment system already out there?” Now we would love to do supportive employment and we would love to do some other programs to help individuals get their benefits. We don’t have the funding for that right now but that’s not going to stop us from trying. So income is really, really important. Folks can go stay at bunkhouses; folks can go stay at motels; folks can get a place of their own or if we can get them housed this can allow them to live a life of more self-sufficiency. It’s really coming along with that and building individual choice into it. I give the analogy of when I was little I’d be in my room about to pick it up– I was about to clean my room. My hands might be about to pick up my toys and my mom would come in and say, “Marc, clean your room.” I’d be like “I’m not cleaning it anymore. You didn’t have to tell me to clean it. I knew I needed to.” And so it’s the same concept. When you demand somebody to do something or when you tell them to do something most folks aren’t going to do it and– or they’re not going to do it well or they’re not going to have an open heart and an open mind to it. So building individual choice throughout all the levels of the system has really, really been key, and one interesting thing we found out with our shelters is that our shelters were trying to be the– everything to everybody and oh, with families and children and chronics and non-chronics, and by doing that we found that those that we were really trying to target we really weren’t helping, and if you try to appease everybody you end up helping nobody. And so now we have a day shelter that’s just for our chronic population and they don’t have to worry about dealers trying to come in and infiltrate it anymore and we can really do heavy-handed outreach and work with them. And then we have other places for our non-chronics to go and we have other places for our family and youth to go. It’s really about making sure that the shelters are the right environment to make it an environment of choice. We run into our chronic individuals all the time, those that we’re focused on, and “Why aren’t you at the day shelter?” They’d be like “Well, I don’t feel safe there.” “Well, why not?” “Because there’s so many other people there and others who are up to no good got in.” So how can we make that an environment of choice for the people we’re trying to target and that’s what we looked at. At the end of the day, it’s always about creating a method to the madness so you got a lot of organizations out there doing amazing work but if we can create a strategy to it all, if we can make sure that everything is right sized, go into an organization and say, “Hey, you- you’ve been– you’re doing it great but we actually have way too much of what you’re providing and we have a gap right here. Do you mind? And we will– we’ll go to bat and get that funding for you if you can fulfill that gap” and a lot of them are like “Sure. We’d love to do that.” I don’t want to paint the most rosy picture. We’ve been able to reduce overall homelessness by nearly 60 percent in 5 years, chronic homelessness by over 70 percent. We became the largest city in the nation to declare that we effectively ended veteran homelessness. That does not mean we do not have homeless on our streets; we still do and in fact it sometimes has raised the community’s expectations even higher. The homeless that are still there are actually more visible because as communities passed laws or they’re– get pushed out of the parks and you know this; you know how it goes. Where is that one location I can go or that location is where everybody gets herded to and now it’s much more condensed and much more visible, but the difference is that we know who they are, they’ve all been assessed, and they’re all somewhere on the path of being housed. So we use permanent supportive housing for those who are chronically homeless, we use rapid rehousing for our homeless families with youth, but what about our normal short-term homeless individual? We do not have enough housing for them. We’ll never have enough housing for them; we’ll never have the money. So the intervention we use for them is income. We’ve seen that most of them are being– are able to get off the streets of– by themselves within a matter of months but what can we do to shorten that time span and that is really connecting them to employment opportunities as quickly as possible.
Tony Rodriguez: Was there some kind of plan that you had? Did you have a written-out plan for all this before it started?
Marc Eichenbaum: You’re right; we did have– it’s our action plan and every continuum of care has to have an action plan that they submit to the federal government, and I would say ours was a little different because we didn’t hire consultants to write a– do a study and then a hundred-page plan. Ours was at first only ten pages and very graphically rich and then after our graphics showing our data then we break out into some columns showing point-by-point priorities underneath every project and the scope and how it’s going to go, but we didn’t fill it with just tons of words and tons of words. Our plan it’s beautiful and it’s out of our continuum of care, The Way Home plan, and I– surely you got to check it out; it’s packed full of information but it’s not there to put up on– it’s not this 50-page constitution that nobody’s going to read and it is– we embrace the federal priorities and it’s broken down for each one for veterans, for chronics, for families, for youth, for all, and it’s on– it’s all on there. When you look at income, which is going to be the primary intervention since we don’t have the money for housing for those that are short-term homeless, for those that are able bodied of really using our competitive employment– public-employment system through our Texas Workforce Solutions. For those who are chronically homeless and can work, then a lot of it’s supported employment where they would have a on-the-job counselor there on site helping them out, kind of a job coach, and then there’s SOAR, which is going to help that individual get their SSI benefits, going to help them get their veteran benefits. There’s a reason why we don’t call it an employment plan or employment program; we call it an income plan and that’s because a lot of the especially chronically homeless individuals are not going to be able to work and that’s fine. They still have an opportunity to get income and that income can help them with their housing; it can help them with their services; it can help them get their daily needs met. We were so transfixed on fulfilling the daily needs of every individual, “Oh, you want a sandwich today? You’re hungry today. Let me get you a meal,” and that’s what the entire system was focused on instead of thinking about those long-term gains, those long-term solutions. And when we looked at that one of the biggest things is looking at ways that things can be brought to scale. There’s great ideas out there. I love social-entrepreneurship programs. You’ve probably heard of it, kind of that pizza restaurant that hires the formerly homeless to work there, the cleaners that hires certain clients. That is great and it’s amazing but can it be brought to scale, and so when we look at investing public resources we are so focused on planning that can be brought to scale and what we’re focused on is all of our services that can be brought to scale ‘cause at the end of the day we’re trying to move that needle. It takes a lot when an assessor first assesses an individual. It’s a very difficult job because that assessor might be telling that individual that there’s no immediate assistance for them so if you’re chronically homeless, you come in, they’ll say, “Hey, we’re putting you on the list of being housed but your vulnerability is very, very low. It might not be for a couple more months.” And if I was an assessor the temptation to just click a different box because I know that could get you housed a little bit quicker is always there, but what we found is when it came down to house– time to house we’d have to document everybody’s homelessness and make sure that they’re eligible and we found a lot of these people we weren’t able to do that because they weren’t properly assessed at the first place, but if we have a non-chronic individual this person is desperate; they need help. If they’ve only been on the streets for a couple months, we have to say, “We don’t have housing for you. You should consider yourself– actually think of it as being lucky because there’s so many other people that you’re in good shape compared to these folks” and that’s why we’re working with them first to get them housed, but now what we can say is, “But we have an income opportunity for you. If you’re not very vulnerable and you’ve only been out for a couple weeks or a couple months, then that shelter is the right place for you right now.” Housing also allowed us to free up shelter beds so you might know some people who have been living in shelters for months or years and because of that the shelters have come out and limited them, “You can only stay here for so long,” but you free up a shelter bed that one person has been staying in for a year that one shelter bed could help– 50 people could stay there over a course of a year, but now what we’ve been able to do is go to those shelters and say, “We have a place for you to now get people to and that’s housing.” Before let’s say you came in, “Oh, good news. I got a housing voucher for you.” Okay. I give you that voucher and now it’s up to you to traverse the 660 square miles of the city of Houston to find that magical apartment place that would be willing to take your voucher. It is difficult for somebody who has a house over– has a roof over their head and a stable job to do that, let alone somebody who’s had to be out on the streets. So now what we want to do is we want make sure that it’s easy for that client so that person is first assessed and the assessor– and then they’re passed off to a navigator. That navigator if there’s more than one unit available will drive them to the units. The navigator will help them get all their materials together. That navigator is going to get them moved in and after they get moved in then the person is handed off to a case manager and a case manager stays with them indefinitely and helps tailor those wraparound supportive services that meets the individual’s needs but that person’s never let go; they always have somebody that is their assigned person to come to or that they– or always keeps a hand– holding their hand. Those assessors have to be professionally trained because there’s so much need out there. My office we get calls– I mean there’s tens of thousands of Houstonians every day who are stably housed but they’re running into– they’re about to face some housing instability but they’re not homeless. There’s so much need over there so it takes professional assessors to really do it in the right way. By doing that, it makes it so much more efficient and it expedites things all down the road.
Tony Rodriguez: You thought this out.
Marc Eichenbaum: And one thing that’s really cool is you walk into a housing navigation center there and you might have saw five different assessors and navigators but they’re all from different agencies. This one person might work for HACS, this one person might work for SEARCH, this one person might work for Star of Hope, all different agencies, but now because we’re all working as a collaborative system they’re all stationed and housed together. And so when they go to a staff meeting they’re not really going to a staff meeting of all the agencies’ employees; they’re going to a meeting of all the housing assessors or a meeting of all the housing navigators no matter what agency they’re with. They come together on a weekly basis and we have that third party through our lead agency, the Coalition, that helps facilitate those meetings. So we have meetings of just outreach workers, we have meetings of just assessors, meetings of just navigators, just even– I would hold meetings with just our downtown providers, and I work with the business community a lot too and we keep those dialogs going and bring together a collaboration. It’s the patience of the community. It’s having the will to focus on long-term solutions; it might take some time. It’s having the gumption and gall or chutzpah to really try something different; it’s willing to target those public resources, to be focused on data, build in accountability, and make sure that what you’re doing can be brought to scale to really help the most people as possible. Everybody can come with stories about how they helped Sally and John and how they helped transform their lives. I’m curious is it set up in a way that it was able to help a thousand Sallys and Johns in the same time period instead of cherry picking certain data points or certain individuals but it’s also important that we tell the story to the public. One of my goals for the future is that our homeless that are housed are as visible as our homeless that are still on the streets because what happens is the public only sees the homeless that are on the streets so they only see the problem; they rarely get to see the solution and they rarely get to see all the people that used to be there that aren’t. It’s going to be through another coordinated strategic public-awareness campaign to really rework with those that we have housed and see if– and find those that are going to be brave enough to tell their stories and to highlight what has helped transform their lives and to make sure that we don’t stop. One story in a blue moon doesn’t do anything. To really achieve that market saturation in the messaging it’s going to come repetitive, repetitive, repetitive, and it all comes down to the human. And that’s the difficulty in my job is I sit there with all these charts and graphs and numbers and I’m talking about hundreds and thousands and it really dehumanizes it, and I have to constantly remind myself that I got to put the human element back in it but at the same time I have to do it in a way that respects the individual and doesn’t look like we are trying to take advantage of that individual and it’s on their terms and that they know by telling their story that they have a chance to help so many more out there.
Tony Rodriguez: How many people have you housed in permanent supportive housing?
Marc Eichenbaum: So when it comes to chronically homeless we’ve housed over 3600 individuals in 5 years and– but that’s– only tells half the story. Then we look to see how many of those people are still housed and over 90 percent– close to 93 percent of those individuals are still housed a year after being placed there; 2 years later 90 percent of those individuals are still housed. So we look at the exit but then we say, “Is that a positive or negative exit?” Some people might exit that program but they went on to live in housing and they’re no longer back on the streets and so it’s been– well, the national rate is around 80 percent being effective, still housed a year later. In Houston we’ve seen that through investing in permanent supportive housing it’s been even more successful than the national average.
Tony Rodriguez: I think the fear from the general public is that if we start building this we’re going to have to keep building forever and that number is going to grow.
Marc Eichenbaum: Well—
Tony Rodriguez: Have you felt that fear?
Marc Eichenbaum: No.
Tony Rodriguez: No?
Marc Eichenbaum: No. I mean the housing doesn’t create the situations. The problems and issues arising, people not having a place to live, is not created and will not increase once you start building housing that– and you have to just acknowledge that you’re never going to be able to build enough housing for everybody but what can we do? We can build enough housing for our most vulnerable individuals, our most high-cost frequent utilizers of system resources. We can build enough housing for them but it’s not that somehow you’re going to increase homelessness by building housing. I think in Houston while we’ve housed nearly 8000 individuals that had direct correlation with reducing homelessness by nearly 60 percent I’ve not seen anywhere that by building housing it’s actually increased the need but it’s true there’s always going to be need there. I mean don’t think by building housing you’re not going to have anybody on the street, you might have less but it’s not going to take care of it all, or that you might not ever have people falling into the homelessness. Every year individuals– but for the grace of God I could be on the streets but they say a hardship or a medical issue and they face housing instability and they end up on the streets, and so building housing doesn’t turn that spigot off; there’s still a flow of individuals. Building housing just helps make sure that those most vulnerable have a place to go and we can get to folks before they become vulnerable in the future.
Tony Rodriguez: We’re always going to need that. If you have a population–
Marc Eichenbaum: So we’ve reached steady state with veterans and we hope to reach steady state for chronics this year. One of the most exciting parts of my job besides seeing the folks who had been promised everything to them in the past, they really didn’t have trust for anybody to help out, seeing their lives transform that’s huge, but one of the other big, exciting things of my job is getting to see cities out there who say, “Hey, we’ve heard about it. We’re interested and we’re ready to take the next step.” We were in that same boat. We didn’t invent anything that we’re doing. We didn’t invent Housing First. We didn’t invent PSH or rapid rehousing or even coordinated access but what we try to do is we try to do it quickly and bring it up to scale quickly and try to make targeted collaborative systems and to build systems doesn’t cost money, to build housing it does, but just to get everybody working together. And so it brings me lots of joy to see cities like San Diego who is there and floating with this idea. That’s half the process was even getting to the point to– where the city of San Diego is now. The city of San Diego has amazing supportive-housing programs, they have amazing service agencies there, and they have really dedicated public servants, and so to see that coming together now and at least wanting to investigate and perhaps and take those next steps to really do something transformative it’s amazing. And so I mean I have no doubt that even if you don’t get helped immediately that you’ll know folks around you that are getting helped and you’ll feel that the community and the government and everybody is there at least trying and doing everything that they can do. Houston is a very compassionate city. We are number one in the country for philanthropy and it’s about pulling all of those resources together and getting folks to rally around that one issue and getting them to see the exciting potential that’s around it. We’re not talking about just transforming lives; we’re talking about institutionalizing a transformative system that can transform thousands of lives into the future.
Tony Rodriguez: Thank you.
Marc Eichenbaum: Thank you.
Tony Rodriguez: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Tony Rodriguez: Oh, boy, I love that guy. <laughs> I want to steal him down to San Diego.[ph?] We’ve been doing interview after interview and I’m a little sleepy but I was awake <laughs> but a little sleepy. I should have made this interview first in the day maybe, early in the day, but still I got a lot of information from it and it was just incredible, eye opening and just more information on the same of what we’ve been hearing throughout Houston through all the people we talked to. And we just got to bring this back to San Diego and let them view it.
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