Bayou City

Houston Is $1 Million Closer to Housing Every Homeless Person Stuck on the Streets

For five years, Jay Jeanjaquet was stubborn — but so were Houston's homeless outreach teams. 

It was a while before the outreach teams could convince Jeanjaquet to accept permanent housing and aid from the city, he told the Houston Press. Years earlier, Jeanjaquet, an Army veteran, began suffering bad bouts of depression, and he became suicidal. He eventually wound up on the streets after losing his home, cycling from shelter to shelter throughout the city. Finally, though, he had a chance encounter with case managers, who had been searching the streets of Houston for anyone in need of a permanent home.

"Keep in mind, I was pretty stubborn at first," Jeanjaquet said. "But the outstanding thing about it was these people were working on their own time, chasing me down the streets, telling me I needed to start doing this and that. It was such dedication — I was in awe about it."

It's with this type of persistence that the City of Houston has found permanent housing for more than 3,300 chronically homeless people and more than 4,920 homeless veterans like Jeanjaquet, having reduced overall homelessness by 57 percent since 2011 and, the city says, essentially obliterating veteran homelessness altogether. In 2012, Houston and its partnering homelessness organizations sought to build or make available 2,500 apartment units as part of its comprehensive homelessness initiative, called The Way Home. 

Now, with only 207 units left to be built, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced at a press conference Thursday that JPMorgan Chase has contributed $1 million to help the city reach that goal. Thanks to that latest grant, just $7 million separates Houston from the goals the city established four years ago; Turner said he hopes to raise that money, potentially through generous private-sector partners like JPMorgan, by next year.

"The homeless are more than just nameless faces on our streets," Turner said. "They're our mothers, our fathers and in some cases our children. Homelessness is a top priority for this administration, and for Houstonians. That being said, a transformative shift has occurred in the way that we as a community respond to homelessness. We have shifted from managing homelessness to solving it, by focusing on the permanent solution of housing."

He added that more than 100 organizations have ditched their silos and are instead working together under The Way Home's expansive homeless-outreach network.

Marc Eichenbaum, the mayor's special assistant for homelessness initiatives, told the Press in an earlier interview that, in the past and in other cities, placing certain "conditions" on homeless people seeking housing, such as strict curfews or a ban on drinking in the apartments, can deter them from accepting the help. That's why, he said, Houston's homeless housing is free of any of those rules, and if the homeless have zero income, the housing is entirely free of cost too.

Recently, we shadowed Eichenbaum on a trip to the underpass near Wheeler Station in Midtown, where dozens of people often congregate — and the kind of personal approach toward helping the homeless, the kind that ultimately persuaded Jeanjaquet to accept help, was evident. 

"Excuse me, ma'am?" Eichenbaum said to one woman sitting in a wheelchair, wearing four layers of clothing despite the Indian summer heat. "Are you homeless?" 

He asked her whether any of the outreach teams had talked to her yet about finding housing, and she said one, called SEARCH, had talked to her last week. "Where'd you stay last night?" Eichenbaum asked. "Right here? This is a tough area — all these people doing drugs over there, stuff like that. You're a good person. So I want to make sure you've been assessed for housing. What's your name? I want to look up where you are in the system."

He did the same with a dozen others, some of whom he already knew on a first-name basis, some of whom he and organizations like SEARCH had already helped, but who kept coming back to see old friends camping out under U.S. 59 — some of whom are doing kush. It's a habit that other city-affiliated workers, such as drug counselors and case managers, are trying to help them break. And that's a whole different, massive operation.

Still, it's one that Eichenbaum has helped oversee as well, given the city's comprehensive approach to identifying root causes of homelessness and trying to get each and every homeless person on his or her feet for good. Which, Turner said, adds up to huge savings.

Turner said that an estimated 30 percent of the city's homeless population is chronically homeless, but that population consumes 75 percent of the city's available homeless-outreach and emergency resources, costing taxpayers roughly $103 million per year. That's why, Turner said, this permanent housing solution the city has aimed for is a crucial one. He estimates that, for every homeless person housed, the city saves $28,000 a year, totaling up to $70.6 million annually.

"It is less expensive to house the chronically homeless with supportive services," Turner said, "than it is merely to walk by them on the street."
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn