The Coalition for the Homeless is Houston’s infrastructure organization. They carry out coordinating and other tasks that are better done centrally in the system designed to end homelessness. As of January 2017, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless officially carries out this role in San Diego. See also Houston’s regional plan to end homelessness.
Sean Quitzau: So today we are going to talk to Marilyn Brown. She’s the president and CEO of Coalition for the Homeless and the Coalition for the Homeless is Houston’s lead agency for their COC.
Tony Rodriguez: Hi, it’s nice to meet you, I’m Tony.
Marilyn Brown: Hi Tony.
Tony Rodriguez: In San Diego, and we’ve really been looking forward to talking to you about what you’ve done here in Houston for the homeless community and can you tell me a little bit about that?
Marilyn Brown: Wonderful Tony. I’m Marilyn Brown and I’m the President and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless and we are actually leading the program to address homelessness here in Houston which we call The Way Home. The Way Home has well over a hundred agencies, funders, different organizations that work together to build the system that is very user-friendly, client friendly, to try to move individuals into permanent housing with the supportive services they need as quickly as possible. We started in 2012 and we at that time had a whole lot of individual agencies trying to do everything all by themselves because they really wanted to help each client as they came in. And so they felt like they needed to address housing and food and clothes and GED and everything that that one client needed.. healthcare.. and so what we did was really take a very.. sounded very simple strategy that took a lot of pieces. Instead of saying, “What programs do I have that help.. that I can put Tony in?” We flipped the question and said, “What does Tony need,” and so by asking the question in that way, we were able to identify the needs and how quickly we can move Tony into housing and what would it take in order to support his ability to be in that housing long term and stay there.. and so what.. we pulled together all of the agencies, we talked about who did what best.. people transformed a little bit so that they did more of what they did and then we partnered with the other services that they weren’t as qualified or as good at doing. So in a simple way, we.. a simple explanation of that is the people who build and run housing aren’t very good at case management and the people that are really good at case management don’t really know a whole lot about construction and property management. And so instead of each of those doing the part that they don’t do very well, we partnered them so that the housing person could just build and operate housing and particularly permanent supportive housing, and then the agencies that could bring in all of those case management support services. What we say is we just wrap the services around the individual and it’s customized to what that individual would need. The proof is in the pudding. Five years later, we have housed over 3500 formerly chronically homeless individuals and they’re in permanent supportive housing and at this point, there’s a 90-percent success rate. So we’ve had very little turnover, very little recidivism. We focused on the national goals that were given to us by the opening doors which was the federal plan to end homelessness that was put together by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and certainly supported through the funding that comes from HUD, Housing and Urban Development, and so the focus was to really transform your system to address chronics and depending on how long you’ve been on the street, a chronic individual by the federal definition, is one who has been without shelter for a year or more. It can be consistent or it can be broken up and with a disability. So these are some folks that have been out there for a really long time with physical, mental disabilities, maybe a substance abuse, things that were just compounding and getting worse. You know better than I do, living on the street is a very hard way to live.. and your health breaks down, so we wanted to address those individuals first. The second priority was veterans. Whatever war they fought in from Vietnam up to those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan right now and we’ve housed over 5000 veterans. So we know it’s working and the focus is on.. it’s very client centric. “What do you need to move into permanent housing and what support services will keep you there.” And so that’s really been the key to addressing that first focus group of chronics and veterans. A couple years ago, we were able to expand our funding and our housing opportunities to families and youth. So youth.. unaccompanied youth and young adults.. so 17 to 25, they have a very different way that they communicate and to talk with them and even reach them but the key for all of our success has been to stay focused on housing is the solution and supportive services is the key to that success.. so those two tied together. And really all of our programs is just how intense either one of those need to be. For someone who needs help the rest of their lives and supportive services, they get it. For somebody who just needs a little extra while they’ve lost their job maybe trying to get a new job. So as we moved into families we kept that same focus of housing with supportive services but what we do there is it’s called rapid re-housing. It’s about moving someone as quickly as possible into a permanent housing solution. They sign a lease that we’re able to give them rent subsidy and supportive services to do whatever they need to do. Sometimes it’s get more training, sometimes it’s learning how to write a resume, sometimes it’s daycare so they can go look for jobs ’cause they have children. So whatever those needs are, we’re able to wrap those needs around that person until they’re able to stabilize and we’d have about 600 families that have benefitted from rapid re-housing. They get up and on their feet and nationally we know that 80 percent of the people that receive the rapid re-housing help never face homelessness again, so we know it works.
Tony Rodriguez: Wow, that’s amazing.. all in five years, huh?
Marilyn Brown: Yeah, all in five years.
Tony Rodriguez: We were at this meeting and this guy was just saying that, you know, “Why spend 140,000 dollars for one unit for one person and I don’t want my taxes to go toward that, and I’m stepping over homeless as I leave my house,” and, “Why give these people who got themselves in this mess any help at all,” you know, “They should.. they wrecked their lives they should fix their lives,” and you know, you get those kind of people that are I think not really in the majority but they do exist.. what do you say to that?
Marilyn Brown: We, first of all, find no one who given free choice, chooses a homeless life, and so something has happened. Sometimes it is a combination of bad decisions but sometimes it’s just things that happen. And I think about my life and there have been times when whether it was a bad decision I made or something that happened to me, a loss of job, something like that, and I had a support system that was able to help me at those times when I couldn’t make the rent. You know, my parents, my family.. and some folks don’t have that or their problems are more severe than a family can help. For example, someone who’s experiencing schizophrenia or a severe mental health issue, the family is not capable or qualified to help with that and if there really isn’t help there in the community from the system, then these are folks that end up out of choices. So I think my first answer is nobody’s chosen to be there and every night that you sleep and you know this better than I do, but I imagine that every night that you sleep in a shelter or on the street, it compounds your problems over and over and over so that getting yourself back on your feet, is not something you can do without the assistance of others. We have also found that it is actually less expensive to provide someone with subsidized housing and support services than it is to ignore them because there’s.. you know, when you’re sick, your only option on the street is to go to the emergency rooms. Many times, multiple ambulance calls, there’s the condition of living on the street brings in the need for sometimes police for your safety and for the safety of the neighborhoods.. trash, as humans, we have waste, whether it’s individual waste or stuff and so living on the street you don’t really have a way to dispose of those things. So when you add up the cost of city, county, government services for someone who’s not housed, you’ve spent way more than you would by providing that person with a subsidy, so that’s the economic reason. There’s a heart reason which is that’s how we should be.. show compassion for our neighbors. These are our neighbors and I think it’s really easy and Tony, you’ve probably experienced this, it’s really easy for individual citizens driving around, walking around, to put blinders on and not see you as Tony.. you’re just that man, and it’s really easy to make judgment calls but every person has a story. Every person has a family. Every person had parents, they may have brothers and sisters, they may have children and so when we’ve taken the human element out, that becomes a much easier argument for someone to make and what we have to remember is each person has a name and has a story. Unfortunately at that moment where we’re encountering them, they are at the worst place in their life and it’s our honor and responsibility to show compassion and provide help. So financially it’s the right thing to do and it is the right thing to do. And so our answer to folks is yeah, sometimes it is about, you know, just getting a job. We did a survey a couple years ago and we found that 30 percent of the people who were sleeping on the street every night in Houston, had full-time jobs. So it’s not that they don’t wanna work but if you’ve lost your apartment and.. particularly around eviction or something, you’re not gonna get another apartment if you don’t have first month’s rent, last month’s rent, security deposit, probably have to put a deposit to get your electricity turned on.. it takes a lot of money to get back up on your feet and if you’re working a minimum wage job, you can’t work that many hours. There’s a national statistic that says that it’s about 40,000 dollars a year of city services to provide for each person that’s on the street. And so.. and of course, it may very well depend on the cost of housing and I imagine the cost of housing in San Diego is a lot higher. There’s not one trigger of what sent someone into homelessness. We often think about the movies, the TV shows. They focus on the homeless individual who is on the street. We know statistically that only about 25 percent of the entire homeless population are living unsheltered in a chronic homeless condition. Seventy-five percent of the people are there because of an economic reason. They’ve lost a job, maybe they had a job but not insurance and somebody got really sick.. the bills got more than the income that was coming in.. families that divorce.. you’ve gotta support two families, sometimes they’re not able to do that. There are economic reasons that really are the trigger for 75 percent of the people in a given year that find themselves experiencing homelessness, and they just need a little bit. Like I said, sometimes it’s about four to six, to maybe nine months of a little bit of support while they get their selves back up on their feet. One small group of population but very important are anyone that’s fleeing domestic violence. That person needs the safety and security of being back in their own apartment, particularly if they.. you know, wanna.. with their children, they wanna start a normal life as soon as possible. We definitely found that it is overall less expensive and more compassionate to help someone find permanent housing.
Tony Rodriguez: Do you have a lot of organizations that you have to get on the same page and they do different things. You mentioned one does food service here the homeless have.. another may be healthcare. How did you coordinate all that and what exactly do you do?
Marilyn Brown: Well, one of the first things we did, is we called everybody in a room and we said, “Map out what you would tell an individual.. how you would help an individual,” and I don’t know if when you were a child you played the game pickup sticks where you drop a lot of colored sticks.. that’s exactly what that map looked like.. it was a mess. Nobody could figure out how to get help and so with that visual, we were able to immediately get buy-in that we needed to collaborate and coordinate our system. So beginning in 2012 is when we started the transformation work. It is still continuing. We are in year six now. There’s still pieces that are being brought on and new agencies that are being brought on but the basic framework is that we at the Coalition for the Homeless serve in a role that the federal government calls the lead agency. So we are the administrative agency. We provide no direct client services. We serve agencies that serve clients. Every day we realize there’s probably another piece that makes better sense being done at a central location than to be disbursed. For example, one of the first things and we were already serving as the agency that managed what we call the HMIS, Homeless Management Information System. So all the individual partners enter data on whatever service they’ve provided to whichever clients they’ve seen that day so that there’s a master database. And so once we had data of where people were, where they were being served, where the overlaps were, where the gaps were, we began the system transformation. The role of the coalition is to really.. has been and continues to be to facilitate and lead that system. As I said, we named ours. The government gave us.. you know, a typical government initials, COC, which meant “Continuum of care,” and so what we wanted was really something that everybody could get under, and so we call ours, “The Way Home,” and it stands for changing the path for Houston’s homeless and so that reminded us that it was all about the individual homeless client and how we could help straighten and change that path. In that, the coalition facilitated meetings and meetings and meetings and meetings because one of the things.. and this was change, and even in.. deep down in everybody’s heart, they knew that something needed to be changed but change is frightening. Even good change is scary and so particularly these very.. all individual agencies, they were all their own organization, they each had their own board of directors, they each were formed for a particular reason and now we were saying, “We might need to tweak that reason a little bit,” and we’ve learned a little bit about what works better than other things. We had to stop some of the services we were offering, we had to change some of the services we were offering. One easy example is everybody gets hungry every day and so a good way to engage an individual is to have the food service provided inside one of our agencies that can then provide other services, specifically assessment for housing. So we had individual groups who really felt like they were doing the right thing providing.. taking food down to a park or taking.. dropping food off at a corner. The reality is food is a great motivator for us all to come into the agency. So the longer someone can sustain themselves, because again for the homeless client, this was change. They were hearing something was different but it was frightening to trust it because even if whatever your condition of your life is you’ve figured that out and you have this.. you have a routine, and so we were asking you to change that routine some. And so from simple things from, “Where are you getting your lunch and your breakfast,” to major things which included then the creation of the.. what we call the coordinated access. It is a virtual single front door. What it means is wherever you present, whatever agency you go to first, wherever you are, there is a standard housing assessment that a trained assessor will provide that assessment to you. Because we had all this great data in HMIS, we knew who had beds, who had open units, who had services, and so we built a program that kinda like hotels.com, you’d tell us what your needs are, or what.. you’d answer these assessment questions, we’d be able to match you in the system with available units if there were. The whole thing is getting supply and demand right.. how many people need housing units and how many housing units do we have. So we still work off of a wait list but because of that housing assessment, people are prioritized based on vulnerability. So if we only have two units and you and I are both in the list, the person who has the more physical disabilities, mental disabilities, substance abuse, they’re gonna get that unit. We also embraced the concept of housing first which meant, “You can get that unit with no requirements.” I said earlier that we believe that given free choice, no one will choose to be on the street, but sometimes we weren’t giving people free choice. We were saying, “The housing unit comes with a condition.. you gotta be sober. You gotta be something else.. you gotta have a job, you gotta go to these classes.” Housing first means you come in, you have safe stable housing and then you choose which of those support services you wanna take advantage of. There is no requirement. We are actually so excited, we’re about to open in the next three to six months, housing for a chronic inebriate. If you just can’t.. aren’t interested or can’t lick, you know, your drinking problem.. if you wanna drink, we still think you should be able to sleep inside in safe, stable housing. So we’re gonna.. one of our partners is opening a unit with 11 places for people who not only don’t have to stop drinking to come in but they don’t have to stop drinking once they’re in. What we found is once you’re safe and stable, it’s a little easier to make some of those decisions about your life but that it’s not a requirement so we’re very excited about that. So for our system, we’re an agency, I have a board of directors that I report to, but we created a separate continuum of care, The Way Home Steering Committee, that is made up of 15, 17 individuals, that are on that COC steering committee, either based on the job they hold or an election to represent a certain constituency that the community, the partners together said, “These are the people that have access to the resources and the knowledge to make the best decisions about our system.” So representatives from all of our government jurisdictions that have access to funds, city of Houston, and our county, we have two contiguous counties that are part of our continuum of care, so they all have representatives, but we’ve learned that people that have the money don’t necessarily have the answers. So there are two elected positions for service providers who bring that level of knowledge and there are two elected positions for consumers. So someone who is currently or has recently experiences homelessness, is on that decision-making body. So that is a separate body, it is nobody else’s board of director. So to build our system, we believe in the involvement of everyone to address the change. We think that you gotta be face to face and work things out so we design something, we start it and then we meet as often as it takes, sometimes that’s weekly, until we tweak it to get it right. Because you design it for everyone and then you tweak it as an individual you know, comes into the system and maybe it doesn’t work for that person.
Tony Rodriguez: Thank you so much.. very, very informative.. a lot of things to think about. We’re a little bit down the road, you’re ahead as far as getting all this going for the homeless in San Diego but thank you for your information.
Marilyn Brown: Thank you for being interested. We absolutely learned from others and so we’re happy to share and we do nothing but wish good luck, so thank you Tony.
Tony Rodriguez: Thank you.
<break in recording>
Marilyn Brown: Good to see you Tony, I hope you’ve had a good three days.
Tony Rodriguez: Oh boy, yes, filled with information.
Marilyn Brown: Good. What we did was we looked at what our many partners already provided and you’re exactly right. With, you know, we didn’t necessarily.. we found a place where it made sense to start the coordinated access, we didn’t create a place. So the BEACON was the logical place because it was the day shelter and that’s where so many of the unsheltered homeless went because they offer showers and meals and so we started there and they gave us a little corner and it’s grown into its own office size. What we did as far as staff, again, we didn’t hire new people but what we looked at was what had been happening was that each agency had its own intake coordinator, and so depending on where you went, you know, you went through an intake process. And we you know, said, “Well, why don’t we repurpose those people and train them to be the coordinated assessment..” we call ’em assessors, and then we actually.. so they work for various agencies but they physically report to the coordinated access office at the BEACON and then as we grew and brought more and more assessors on and again, the language is we closed all the side doors so nobody could show up at an agency and go through an intake and be immediately helped. They all had to go through coordinated access and so that meant all of those people whose jobs it was to do intake no longer had a job. So we were training them to become coordinator assessors and so now an individual can still go to one of those facilities but they are assessed in the same coordinated system.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, what <inaudible> is about.
Marilyn Brown: Yeah, the self-finance department.
<off topic conversation>
Marilyn Brown: So this is our finance department. You know, one of the things we do when we were thinking about roles that the coalition could play as that role of lead agency, and so, you know, we’re not a provider of direct services so every time we think about “What is my office, what does this office do for the system,” it was anytime there is something that benefits more than one partner, it makes sense for it to be done out of here. So one of the roles we have added in the last couple of years that’s really kept the finance department busy is really serving as the fiscal agent for grants that go to multiple agencies. So they don’t have to.. six of them, apply.. we apply on behalf of six, and then we manage the money and they submit their receipts to us.
Tony Rodriguez: A lot of responsibility.
Marilyn Brown: So a lot of responsibility but it is also just like we said a couple of days ago, when we said housing providers should provide housing, case manager agencies should provide case manager. We’re administrative agencies, we can do the administrative stuff and that lets case managers be case managers and they don’t have to do as much paperwork. So our finance department has taken on a load. At any given time we’re managing grants totalling two or three million, to at one point, we had one seven-million dollar grant. So we were managing about ten million on behalf of the agencies of which we got our administrative fee but they did all of the.. they spent it all on direct services to clients so that worked out really well. We’re coming down now as we stroll to our project management team and these are the people who boots on the ground, are the ones that are really interacting with all of our partners to implement all the change. Gary Greer, [ph?] who’s been here a really long time so his job has changed but really his main focus right now is our income program. So you know, once we house people, we know they have to have access to income whether it’s benefits or a job in order to help maintain that housing and we do that in a partnership with our state partner, the Texas Workforce Commission, because one of the other things we wanted to make sure we didn’t do was recreate systems that already existed. They have a huge database of available jobs. Our agencies were going door to door, up and down the street going, “Would you hire this guy,” and that made absolutely no sense. So Gary is really bridging that gap. Cleaning off his desk behind us, is James Gonzales. James really works with our Rapid Rehousing which is of course the programs for the.. right now it’s limited to families and young adults. So that’s the quicker movement back into a permanent housing. James also works with our.. as we’re reaching out to our young people, age 17 to 25, we’ve learned, you know, they travel very differently. We talked a little bit about this Monday, how do you communicate with them, how do they trust you. They’ve obviously, particularly if they’re on the street, they’ve probably run away from home or something so you’ve gotta build that trust that you really are there to help them, not to, you know, endanger them.
<off topic conversation>
Tony Rodriguez: Are they both employees of?
Marilyn Brown: They are employees of the coalition.. yes. So the coalition employees, our project management team, they’re about half of the team as you can see, we’ve got some others that are out that work with the various components of the program, housing, income.
Tony Rodriguez: So what does he does do? I guess, he doesn’t work with individual clients to get <inaudible>?
Marilyn Brown: He does not work.. these folks do not work with individual clients. What they do is either manage, “How do we get the money.” You know, we work with some of the grants, we have a grant coordinator in here. But mainly it’s bringing together three or four agencies that used to do it on their own and figure out how collectively they could be more successful. So as we learned was that part of it is just like.. I mean, you think everybody knows everybody that’s doing the same kind of work but even our agency staff, they’d go in, they’d sit at.. you know, they’d be at their agency.. they wouldn’t know what the guy next door was even doing. So just learning you know, one of the simple, or.. it didn’t turn out so simple, but one of the first barriers to getting somebody into housing is if they’ve lost their ID or they don’t have an ID and then you go back to.. then you gotta have a birth certificate.. you know, access to your birth certificate. So we had two or three agencies that were trying to do that and we had one agency that was really good at it. So what we did was say, “Send everybody over here at that ID step, and then you all can do something else that you do better because you just were trying to fill in that need for a client without realizing what the system could do.” Our HMIS team.. I know I heard you guys talk a little bit about HMIS, we have served as the lead.. the coalition has served as the lead agency for HMIS which is Homeless Management Information System. So it’s the master database, all agencies that receive federal funding are required to enter data in it and we’ve been collecting this data for.. since you know, early 2000. We were just collecting it, we were recording it but we weren’t really analyzing it and looking at it and letting it tell us things and so really one of the transformations was to really let that data be a two-way street.. all our agencies. So any person who went to an agency for whatever service, their case manager entered that into our data system. So when we were making the decisions about where the need was, where we should put the coordinated access, physical hubs, where we should do anything. We were able to pull data and we were able to cross-reference whether those clients, if we served them here, then did we really need to, also, have this duplicate service open? Were there people that would’ve been left out? And again, one of the great examples that our data told us was we had an agency that was started by a church, and they really believed they were doing the right thing, and they were– back to this ID, they were providing vouchers to get their ID. And we were saying, “It’s really more effective if they go to this other place, because after they get their ID, they can be assessed for housing.” And they were struggling with whether to stay open or not. And so we ran the data and we learned that, like, 70, 80 percent of the people that went there only went there one time, so they got their voucher and they never showed up in the system anywhere else, which told us they weren’t really homeless. You know, they may have been in need of an ID, but it wasn’t because they were needing homeless services. So was that the right use of those dollars? And of those who really did need that ID, they would show up at the Beacon for lunch. So we’re, like, “If you do it down there, you’ve got two birds with one stone.”
Tony Rodriguez: San Diego must’ve heard that message, because that’s been a change recently. I have breakfast at the Salvation Army, and usually to get the ID, you have to wait in long lines at other places or go all around town. Presbyterian Ministry does it, but it’s a ways away. But now, they do it every Friday at breakfast.
Marilyn Brown: Now, you’re getting your breakfast. So you can take care of two things at once, and you’re probably going to show up for breakfast. <laughs>
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah. I have.
Marilyn Brown: This is our HMIS staff. Everybody’s busy, busy. This is Tony.
Tony Rodriguez: Nice to meet everyone…
Marilyn Brown: Tony is here from San Diego. The main person that handles the reporting and taking care of all of those compliance things. Any time you have multiple people using a database system, guess what? They have questions and their password gets– you know, they forget their password, all of that, so a lot of what we call the issue track, these two ladies handle. Because you don’t want to discourage anybody who’s in there doing data. Erol is our analyst and loves to get lost in the numbers and try to say, “What do the numbers tell us?” A couple of years ago–gosh, it may be more than a couple now–we realized that there was such turnover at the staff level– I’m going to walk through your office so we can see the training room. There was such turnover at the staff level that we needed to have a continuous training program to teach people. Because it’s a specific software that is used and so there’s some knowledge to it. So we hired Yvette to be our trainer. This is Tony.
Tony Rodriguez: Nice to meet you. My pleasure.
Marilyn Brown: And she has this wonderful…
Tony Rodriguez: Oh, in the room, okay.
Marilyn Brown: …wonderful training room…
Tony Rodriguez: Oh, wow.
Marilyn Brown: …that is dedicated so that she can– you know, and she runs multiple scheduled classes, two or three a day. Every day of the week she’s doing something in here. So new users, any time somebody’s new to the agency, if they need refresher courses, if it’s the next level of how to analyze the data and run reports themselves. So they are, actually, in here working on the system they will go back to their office and work on. Across the country, there are probably three or four software providers who provide the system that is acceptable to HUD. So we don’t all use the same actual software, but we all use a software that is dedicated to provide the information HUD requires. So the generic term is an HMIS system, Homeless Management Information System. We happen to use the one that’s– oh, it’s changed names. It was called Client Track. It’s Ecovia now, out of Salt Lake City. Well, there was a change in ’06. We went from another software to this one. It’s called Service Point…
Tony Rodriguez: We just talked to Yvette about the software input, and we understand that you changed providers. What’s the reason behind that?
Man 1: Right. So it started out back in 2004, we were– I don’t even know– I wasn’t part of the Coalition back then. So at that time, we had one of the major software providers. I used to work at an agency, so I know that there were some difficulties. Okay? And then, the community, they didn’t really like the way that the software, kind of, worked. You had to jump from one place to another. It wasn’t, kind of, a nice flow to it and then, there was issues with missing data. But you have bad data quality, you always have issues with that. So then, the community started talking about possibly changing, switching to a different provider, and I think we went through that process. It took, maybe, I don’t know, six months, nine months, or so, before they chose another product and then, it took another, I don’t know, six months, at least, to get the switch in place and to make the transition, and that’s when I joined the Coalition, actually. Yeah, so we’ve been using this particular software since 2008. Initially, we had issues again, until we, kind of, ramped up our training and our data quality, hired more people here, and now, we don’t hear about things about HMIS. HMIS used to be a bad four-letter word.
Marilyn Brown: <laughs>
Man 1: Now, we don’t hear that any longer.
Man 2: What’s the provider?
Man 1: Current provider is Ecovia. Their software is called Client Track.
Tony Rodriguez: What is the role of the county in all of this?
Marilyn Brown: Okay. Well, we, actually, have– the federal government just determines a jurisdiction that each Continuum of Care is responsible for. So they draw the lines and so, originally, when the Continuum of Care McKinney-Vento money started coming into the various communities, it was decided that in our area, it would be our county is Harris County, of course, City of Houston. It’s the biggest city in that and then, a second county, Fort Bend County. So that’s our jurisdiction. A lot of the money that goes into support homeless programs, in addition to the money that goes directly to providers through the McKinney-Vento, but there are other funding sources called Emergency Solutions Grant, CDBG, Community Development Block Grants. That money comes in what they call, in a government world–and you’ll have this in San Diego–the Entitlement District, and the Entitlement District has a certain amount of funds based on population and some other things. So the City of Houston gets a lot more money and so they have more to invest than Harris County. But Harris County has been a partner in our legislative setup. The counties have the responsibility of indigent care, so the hospitals, things like that. So there’s always been, definitely, the county has been at the table. But when you’re looking at quantity of money, more was going to the city. One of the things we were very fortunate of in 2012, when we began the transformation work to create what we have now, is that the person, the woman who was mayor at the time, accepted homelessness as a personal agenda item. So you met her, Mayor Parker. So she was able, from the pulpit of being the mayor and the attention that that gets, and the access to direct money and funds to people– she chose that as one of two or three things she wanted to accomplish during her term, and we do have term limits. So she was term limited out. But that is really what drove the leadership of the city. Certainly, the government partners, we absolutely could– none of this would’ve happened. Those at the federal level and, particularly, for us here at the city level, because the mayor took it on as a personal item of importance to her, and directed help from the police and help from the housing department and help from the health department to really bring those sources, those people together, and we’re so fortunate that the gentleman who became mayor in January of 2016 continued that.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah, and she’s something else, too.
Marilyn Brown: Because you never know when the next mayor comes– you know, the next elected official comes in.
Tony Rodriguez: Sure. They don’t want to…
Man 2: You were talking about the county and you were talking about the three counties involved…
Marilyn Brown: Yes. So one of the things you talked about is– and having just visited with the HMIS department, and Tony asked me this question. The database is limited to people who are served in the agencies in our jurisdiction. And so we absolutely– we had those two counties and there’s a whole lot of people, as I’m sure there are in San Diego, that live further out and commute into the city for a job. And so there’s a county to the north of us, Montgomery County, that was in another jurisdiction in the beginning, and so their database and our database didn’t interact with each other, and I laugh all the time and say, “If I’m driving up North, I have no idea when I left one county and went to the other.” And if I were walking, I wouldn’t know, and so if I was getting breakfast over here and lunch over here, I wouldn’t know that those two were in different systems. And so in the summer of 2016, so we were four years in, that county came to us and said, “We think there’s a lot more crossover with our population and Houston than with the jurisdiction they were currently assigned to, which was actually headquartered out of Austin, Texas. So they were not connected, at all. But because the jurisdictions were set to control the flow of money, you can’t just switch. So we went through the whole process and got HUD approval, and they left one jurisdiction and joined ours. But the very reason was because, from a client centered perspective…
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, it made sense to do it.
Marilyn Brown: The client didn’t know, and there was a lot of travel back and forth because it’s a major highway that goes up from our county to their county. So that’s really the area that we’ve grown and all of the– every Entitlement District, city or county, every Entitlement jurisdiction has a seat on our Continuum of Care Steering Committee. So when we made up the steering committee, because they control the other government funds that can be directed towards homelessness, so whether it’s a small city– in Harris County, we have big ‘ol Houston and then, we have a small city called Pasadena, and both have an equal seat on our steering committee.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, well, that’s great. I just found out recently that I was awarded a seat on a committee to determine…
Marilyn Brown: Wonderful.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, and what advice could you offer me to make an impact…
Marilyn Brown: Well, I absolutely say speak up, because– and we have two, what we call, consumers. Because you consume these services that these people are talking about, whether it’s housing or supportive services, absolutely speak up. I think it can be a little intimidating. But you know what? You know much more than anybody else at that table about the reality of this decision…
Tony Rodriguez: That’s true.
Marilyn Brown: Because we sit around and we draw it on white boards and we make it look good. But just like you were talking about, something as simple as, “Wow. I can get my ID at the same place I get my breakfast.”
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. It was easy.
Marilyn Brown: It was easy. But without really realizing– because we forget you don’t have a car, how you travel throughout the day, you really need to speak up. They really value your opinion. Because this group can create the prettiest system in the world, but if it doesn’t work for the person who’s got to navigate it, if there’s no– like, we don’t have a lot of good mass transportation in Houston. So one of the first things we did was look at where all our service providers were and try to bring some co-location, and so we realized that a system had been created that was, like, 40 square miles that a person such as you would have to travel to get all the services they needed. Well, that’s crazy. We had one bus that ran during the day. So you’d have to– you know, it was a special bus just for– it was called Project Access Bus. So it wasn’t a city bus. So if we brought the services closer together, and you could just walk a couple of blocks or go across the street, or even better, co-locate services, then you can move on quicker to get things taken care of.
Tony Rodriguez: That’s great advice. Thank you for that.
Marilyn Brown: Yeah, so speak up. When we began this work in 2012, we used consultants. We hired people to come in and really do a financial model of what did we already have, as far as number of units? What did we have that could be transformed from a transitional unit to a permanent housing unit, which is one of the things we tried to do, and we also looked at– and I don’t really know how they did it. But they used the data out of HMIS to come up with our best guess at the time of the number of permanent supportive housing units we would need to bring an end to chronic homelessness. With what we had, we said we needed 2500 more. So first, we figured what he had and what we could reuse.
Tony Rodriguez: Refurbish, yeah.
Marilyn Brown: Refurbish, thank you, and repurpose. And then we said, “And then, we’re still going to be short 2500 units.” And so then, Mayor Parker took on the campaign to try to go out and raise the money that it would take, redirect some government dollars. We still are shy a couple hundred units, and it’s coming pretty close. So each year when we do the count and we really look at that unsheltered number on a single night, and we look at the number that were housed, one of the first things we see is, as this number goes down this number’s going up, one to one. So we know that people that are no longer on the street are in housing. But then, what we’re also looking at is this is how much housing we said we needed, and how close are we getting to it? And I’d say there was all sorts of analysis going on, but the additional 2500 units is going to put us– and like I said, we’ve probably either brought on development, new development been built or is in the process of being built, that we’re actually seven million dollars shy of the goal to raise the money to finish building the housing. It ended up being a good 660-something million dollars, which figured build it and operate it for 10 years, what would that cost? And we were able to repurpose government funds to cover everything but 15 million. So we only needed to raise 15 of the 665 million, because we were able to– and that’s where the government jurisdictions, because they could say, “Oh, well, we can repurpose this money,” or “If you’re giving tax credits to that person, we can say 10 percent of it needs to be designated for homeless housing.” So we really saw some creative thinking amongst the people who control the decision making on how the government dollars were spent. We mentioned earlier that the Housing Choice Vouchers, which used to be called Section 8, a Housing Authority President sits on our Continuum of Care, both, our county and our city one. And one of the first things he did was he realizes when he opens up his list for people who need affordable housing, there’ll be 80,000 people that’ll show up, and then just shut the list down. And so out of those, they do a lottery and maybe 20,000 even get to stay on a list. What he was able to do is say, “You know what? I’m going to help as many of those people as I can. But I’m going to get what’s called a preference, and I’m going–” he set aside 250 vouchers a year for four years, so that we now have a thousand vouchers that are there to pay for housing for our chronically homeless.
Tony Rodriguez: We just talked with him today. There’s no loss of motivation.
Marilyn Brown: Oh, he’s fabulous.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, his goal…
Marilyn Brown: Well, good, I’m glad you met him.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, but he’s goal– Mark, his goal for the future is to get everybody housing, and he’s breaking new ground. He said recently there was a measure passed that has said they can go lenient on some of the rules, like redoing old places. If there’s a crack into a wall, let that go, as long as they have heating, you know, for a little while. But…
Marilyn Brown: Yeah, so some of the– yeah, the inspection and things and really working in a bureaucracy to, kind of, push the edges. And you’re right, we are very fortunate. A lot of people come to Houston and say, “How in the world did you do this? What was your special sauce?” And we laugh all the…
Tony Rodriguez: <inaudible>
Marilyn Brown: Yeah, well, we laugh all the time, and we say, “When you really think about it, it’s Mark’s boss, Tory [ph?], who I know is meeting with your housing authority folks next week when they come here. Tory came to his job, I came to my job, the guy at the Harris County Housing Authority came to his job, all– really about five of the six main players all started fresh within about a year of each other. So we came in at a time when there was an opportunity to not be stuck in the, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” And so by putting that energy together and not having anybody that was, like, “Oh, we tried that 10 years ago. It didn’t work.” We didn’t know.
Tony Rodriguez: I’m so glad you mentioned that. Because in San Diego, we really need the county to step up and play a bigger part, and in the county, there’s people that have been there a long time, and recently, they’ve been voted two years only, now. So a lot of them are leaving and we’re getting fresh blood. Maybe, that’s just the…
Marilyn Brown: Makes a difference…
Tony Rodriguez: …thing that we need…
Marilyn Brown: You just come in with a different set of reflection. I will tell you that our county staff person– you know, and I said five of this were new? Well, the sixth one was her, and she says all the time– she’s our current Chair of our CoC Steering Committee, and she’s like, “I’ve been waiting on you all. I was waiting on you all. I’m so glad you’re here. I finally have people that I can really be creative with.” So were very lucky.
Tony Rodriguez: I noticed a lot of plaques on the wall in there of all the people that you talk with and all the people you organize with. What other roles do you play here with all that group of…
Marilyn Brown: Well, we really see ourselves, our role at the Coalition, and we’ve said this before, we don’t provide any of the direct services, but we convene and we facilitate. So we bring the people in. We bring the people that are doing the– just like when you asked me about you being on that committee, I can’t make a decision about housing if my partners that do housing aren’t at the table telling us what to do. So just like your voice is important, we bring in the agencies that are providing the services and we talk through how we could do it differently, and we meet and meet and meet and meet. Because this is change, and even though it’s good change, it’s uncomfortable. Coming to agreement on everyone using the same assessment tool took lots of encouragement and time, people willing to try it first. And so one of the other things we do, and the main function of the Coalition is to really provide the leadership and the staffing to provide the Continuum of Care Steering Committee with the materials they need to make the decisions to move the system forward. And so we gather all that in, what we call, the work group setting, and so the work group will meet as often as it needs to and as long as it needs to, to come up with a recommendation. So when we started Coordinated Access, they met every week for, probably, six months and worked their way through that tool, before they finally said, “Okay. Now, we’re ready.” And then, my staff takes it to the monthly Continuum of Care Steering Committee meeting, and at that point, they vote it and approve it to be used for the whole system. We use a carrot and a stick, and so we try the carrot and encourage people to get involved as much as possible and invite and listen to their voices, and we can’t do everything everybody wants, but come to some consensus. But– and this is through the Continuum of Care Steering Committee, we also– they have the power of the recommendation of who receives funding from the federal government, and if somebody just doesn’t want to change, we say, “We appreciate that. You no longer qualify for federal funds. You are welcome to go raise money in the private sector, if you really want to keep providing this. Because we follow data driven best practice, evidence-based policies and programs.”
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, “Get on board or you’re on your own.” <laughs>
Marilyn Brown: There you go. There you go.
Tony Rodriguez: That’s amazing.
Marilyn Brown: Yeah, and so we’ve had to use the stick a few times.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, boy, that’s amazing. I was telling Dennis about the hardest time being a homeless person is at night, when you get your tent and you bed down by yourself. You feel like nobody cares. There’s no safety net. But as I’m learning, a lot of people care and a lot of people are working around the clock…
Marilyn Brown: Oh, that’s nice to hear. Yeah, and I know it’s the same way in San Diego.
Tony Rodriguez: It is.
Marilyn Brown: And they’re lucky to have found you to be willing– because one of the things I think of, I just think folks in your situation are so courageous.
Tony Rodriguez: <laughs>
Marilyn Brown: I would no more stand up and share my worst days with the public, and I’m just so impressed with everybody who shares their experience so that we can make it better.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, well, Dennis’ boot mark is on my butt, right there. <laughs>
Marilyn Brown: <laughs> Well, you know, I think one of the keys to the Continuum of Care success and the transformation of the opening doors was bring the people to the table who have to live this. Because they’re the only ones that can really help you guide it.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, wonderful. Thank you for all you do.
Marilyn Brown: Thank you.
Tony Rodriguez: Okay.
Marilyn Brown: I want to know where you’re living, as soon as you get housed.
Tony Rodriguez: All right. I’ll keep in touch.
Marilyn Brown: I want to know when you’ve found housing in San Diego.
Tony Rodriguez: Okay.
Marilyn Brown: Because I know you will.
Tony Rodriguez: Okay.
Marilyn Brown: One of the things, again, that when we look at what is a role that Coalition can play, because we represent multiple agencies and not just one agency, and advocacy really came out, and particularly this year, both at the local, state, and federal levels. There’s a lot of change, what’s going to happen at federal budget. When we were so fortunate for four to five years to have the very loud voice of our city mayor, and it’s a strong mayor’s form of government, and so what was important to her became important to everybody that worked for her in the city council. The fear is when she’s no longer mayor, what happens? And this new mayor, he took office January 1, 2016, so we’ve been through one year, and you just see a different– it’s a different kind of management style and everything else. He is 100 percent supportive. But because he wasn’t involved in some of the beginning stages…
Tony Rodriguez: <inaudible>
Marilyn Brown: …and to learn where we are and how we got there, what becomes a very big combination public perception problem and advocacy problem is that in Houston, we have council people listed by district. So they’re very beholden to the neighbors in their district, and if the neighborhood is a place where– you mentioned you live in a tent. Well, if the combination of where several folks live in a tent, to a neighbor that’s out walking their kid or the kid’s going to school, you know, it’s frightening.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, it is.
Marilyn Brown: You’re frightened of them and they’re frightened of you, because there’s an unknown, and there are many people who are on the street who are suffering such mental illness that it really is even hard to engage in a conversation.
Tony Rodriguez: That’s true.
Marilyn Brown: And so there’s a measure of fright, and I get that. What we don’t want, and what we are now beginning our advocacy program because we didn’t have to do it before, but to really say the temporary Band-Aid solutions that answer the voice of the neighbors, really, are not helping the person. Do we want to remove them or do we want to help them? And that’s where the public, once people understand, once they get to know Tony and understand Tony and understand that Tony has a dog and they have a dog, and there’s a lot of things similar, then because it’s that faceless nameless, and to realize that it’s just another fellow San Diegan, however you say that, or Houstonian, who’s down on their luck, and what can we do to help them? And so the advocacy, because the natural response is pass an ordinance or put people…
Tony Rodriguez: Check the box, movers.
Marilyn Brown: …up and send people off– yeah, clean out and send a crew in and clean up under the bridge. That hasn’t helped you, and what we want to stay really in front of the public, which then influences how the politicians act is, let’s respond to this social issue in a compassionate way. And I think what we’re learning– and again, this is all brand new. We are just putting our toe in the water. But remember, we said at the Coalition, we have a governing board of directors that is separate from our Continuum of Care Steering Committee. So it’s my board and my agency that has said, “We will speak for the system.” So it’s different people. It’s not the people that are making the decisions about where the money’s going. They’re going to need the support to make those decisions. But that’s one of the benefits that we felt, by separating those two boards, that one wasn’t the same, because…
Tony Rodriguez: And one is the Continuum of Care…
Marilyn Brown: …you would have…
Tony Rodriguez: …and what is the other one?
Marilyn Brown: One is the Continuum of Care and one of them is just the regular board of directors that is required for me to be a functioning legal agency. So it’s my bosses.
Man 2: So is your board some of the same members in the CoC? They’re all separate?
Marilyn Brown: When we started, we had crossover of about three members. But they vote on money that we get. We are in a mutual of understanding we sign every year, because they’re not a legal entity. They are not organized as a legal business. But because they’re making recommendations to the federal government, particularly HUD, as to how money is coming, and some of that money comes to us to do this work. So we actually sign an MOU. So in a business sense, we look at it as they’re a customer. They happen to be our largest customer and we are providing the service they need to be successful. That includes leading, facilitating, convening, and so all of that work. Now, when we get to advocacy and training and some of that other…
Tony Rodriguez: That would fall to you, I would think.
Marilyn Brown: …we feel like that’s our role as one of the partner agencies. So we bounce back and forth to being the supporter of the system and a member of the system, and 501(c)(3)’s can lobby up to a point. It’s a real tender point. Advocacy is educating and giving elected official and the general public information about the results of a certain action. A lobbyist will say, “Please vote for this bill.” So the difference is, as an advocate, I will say, “If this bill passes, these are things that may happen that you hadn’t thought about, yet.”
Tony Rodriguez: In your opinion, do you think it would be important to have an outside advocacy group?
Marilyn Brown: I know, for us here, that was the separation of the group that is the advocacy group and the group that is the policy making system creation board. It was important for those to be separate. Mainly because we only have so much time to get things done and to recreate and transform and make this system work, didn’t leave a lot of time to do the advocacy work. But I also think sometimes you might come head to head with, this group is going to decide about how to spend money that they have available, and the advocacy group can be clamoring for more money.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah, making information available?
Marilyn Brown: Right.
Tony Rodriguez: <inaudible>
Marilyn Brown: Right.
Tony Rodriguez: Very good.
Marilyn Brown: Okay. Wow.
Tony Rodriguez: Boy, you got all the answers.
Marilyn Brown: Well, we’ve been doing it…
Tony Rodriguez: We need you.
Marilyn Brown: We’ve been thinking about it. Good. Good. I’ll talk to both of y’all.
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