What if Anchorage could reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness in the city by more than half?
A housing system in Houston, Texas, has done just that — a hyper-coordinated effort between service providers, city leaders, private business and philanthropy has reduced homelessness by more than 60% over the last decade.
Anchorage city leaders and service providers in recent days met with a group of homelessness response leaders from Houston to learn how they pulled that off, and how using similar strategies here might work.
And the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness is launching a pilot program that aims to permanently house 150 people in the city’s emergency shelters this winter, using lessons gleaned from Houston.
Later this month, Anchorage Assembly members will consider a proposal to put $1.5 million toward the pilot program. Mayor Dave Bronson, who is focused largely on temporary shelter over housing, has voiced support for the pilot.
There are stark differences between the two cities. For example: Anchorage’s long, cold winters, life-threatening for unsheltered people, versus Houston’s short periods of extreme weather, such as hurricanes and heat waves.
Houston also has an abundance of large apartment complexes, versus Anchorage’s limited supply of affordable housing and its low vacancy rates. And Houston is one of several metropolitan areas in Texas — unlike Anchorage, the state’s urban hub and home to 40% of its population.
The cities also have plenty in common, said Mike Nichols, president and CEO of Houston-based Coalition for the Homeless.
In Anchorage, just like in Houston, the cost of housing people is far less than the cost of temporary, emergency responses like shelter, Nichols said.
Nichols and the other Houston experts said during a visit to Anchorage that a pragmatic, housing-first approach can still work for Anchorage, and that its unique challenges can be overcome — if everyone works together toward the same goal, using the same principles.
In many ways, that’s already happening here, they said.
“And it’s not really happening in a lot of other cities in the country. So Anchorage can be that beacon for not just the rest of the state, not just the rest of the Pacific Northwest, but actually for the country,” Houston’s city homeless coordinator, Marc Eichenbaum, told reporters on Monday.
Like Houston, Anchorage has an existing network of homeless service providers, philanthropists, businesses, community leaders and political leaders who are all focused on alleviating homelessness — though some have clashed over the best course forward in the recent past.
A ‘pragmatic approach’
Recently, Houston has received national recognition for its successes in reducing homelessness. Other cities are looking to adapt strategies of the model to their communities, such as Denver. Mayors of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York have taken interest.
Rather than focusing on shelter or transitional services, government funding in Houston focuses on a solution — getting people into permanent housing, Nichols said.
The system works, and they have the data to back it up, said Catherine Villarreal, the Houston coalition’s spokeswoman.
Since 2012, Houston’s homeless response system has permanently housed more than 30,000 people. The system has about a 90% success rate, meaning that those people remain out of the system for more than two years.
When homelessness is politicized, the housing-first approach is often cast as “progressive,” when really, “it’s fiscally responsible,” Nichols said.
“It’s not a bleeding-heart response. It’s not a ‘housing is a human right’ response necessarily — although, of course, we believe that,” Villarreal said.
“We believe that it’s a pragmatic approach. It is, this is cost savings, this is the most effective use of our dollars, this actually solves a problem instead of just pushing people around or prolonging it,” she said.
The Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness estimates it needs a total of $4.63 million to house all 150 people in its pilot program using Houston’s model, according to its executive director, Meg Zaletel.
Right now it has just under half of that funding, enough to begin with 75 people, though the Anchorage Assembly will soon vote on whether to direct $1.5 million in city funds toward the effort.
The program pays for 200 hours of case management for each person. It can pay for deposits, rent, utilities, holding fees for units, and fees to get individuals ready, like IDs and documentation, applications, viewings and transportation. The coalition estimates it will cost $31,000 per person for a year.
“That’s about $75 a day to house an individual. We know shelter costs $100 a day. So we have a great opportunity to really not only do the economic thing, but do the human thing,” said Zaletel, who is also the Assembly’s vice chair.
“As we make space in the emergency cold weather shelter, more people can come off the streets and into shelter,” she added.
‘It’s going to take time and effort’
Here’s how Houston’s system works: The Coalition for the Homeless is kind of like the conductor of the orchestra, or an air traffic controller.
It coordinates and helps direct more than 100 entities, including service agencies, local government, public housing authorities, philanthropists and community groups all moving toward the same goal — housing people permanently, directly from streets and shelters.
To do that, the coalition gathers three key resources: money, service providers, and the apartment units people move into. And it collects data from agencies that’s then used to inform and focus their efforts.
They start with the most vulnerable people — those most likely to die on the streets, Nichols said.
An engagement team recruits landlords, demystifies assumptions around homelessness, offers $1,600 incentive fees and holding fees, and landlords sign agreements to lease units to the homeless response system.
Once that network finds people housing, they are given a support system of case management to help them transition from the trauma of homelessness and begin to heal, Nichols said.
“In Houston, there’s an acceptance that mental health and substance issues are chronic issues. And there’s no magic bullet,” Nichols said.
“Like high blood pressure, like heart disease, it’s going to take time and effort for people to move forward. And that time and effort really works when they’re housed,” he said.
It wasn’t always successful. In 2011, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development came down on Houston and voiced concerns over its failures, said Ana Rausch, vice president of programs for Houston’s coalition.
“That was like a slap in the face, a wake-up call to everyone, not just the coalition,” Rausch said.
After that, the city essentially redesigned its system. Instead of scattered agencies and government efforts on their own programs or goals, sometimes competing for the same resources, they began to collaborate intensively, Rausch said.
“At the beginning of when we restructured our system, there was a lot of broken trust with clients,” Rausch said.
That’s true in Anchorage, where homeless residents have been shuffled from city emergency shelter to outdoor encampments and back again for the last two years.
But trust can be rebuilt, and will be, once residents begin to see housing progress, Rausch said.
Houston, unlike many other cities, reduced its unsheltered homeless population by 17% during the pandemic, while homelessness grew rapidly in other cities, Rausch said.
Many, including Anchorage, turned to putting people up in hotel rooms or large emergency shelters, like the former Sullivan Arena shelter.
“We said that housing people is health care. And so we needed to house them, instead of putting them in a temporary location,” Rausch said.
Houston’s success hasn’t come without significant challenges nor without some community pushback on plans.
Now, it is facing a shortage of affordable and low-income stock, amid rising housing costs and dwindling vacancies. The COVID-19 federal funds that have boosted its efforts will dry up in 2024.
Hurdles in Anchorage
Anchorage’s coalition is taking on some risk piloting Houston’s model, but “we are saying we are ready to try to do this, understanding our local conditions,” Zaletel said.
Anchorage’s housing market is tight. But generally, single adult homeless residents won’t be competing for the same housing that young professionals in Anchorage are seeking, Zaletel said.
The coalition hired a real estate consultant to help break down barriers and overcome hesitancy from local landlords, she said.
“We can’t let a low vacancy rate stop progress,” Zaletel said. “Because if we just said, ‘Until more housing is built’ — in a community where it’s really hard to pencil housing — we’d never move forward.”
And the city would just continue to spend “millions and millions” on response, without making a dent, she said.
“We think that there is still room in the market that’s affordable and attainable,” she said.
The coalition is working with local nonprofit Henning Inc. on the project, Zaletel said. Henning is running city emergency shelters this winter.
“Henning is really good at finding units. It’s that word-of-mouth connection. Anchorage is a relational town. It’s all about taking the time, making relationships. They have done it with landlords,” she said.
While the city’s homelessness response system isn’t coordinating at Houston’s level yet, collaboration has been growing, Zaletel said.
During a recent Assembly meeting with the Houston group, Assembly members voiced interest in getting the city’s private sector more involved.
Member Kevin Cross said he thinks “building this bridge and working with property owners who want to try to do the right thing, but not get abused for it, is very important.”
Funding is finite, and the coalition’s effort to continue to transform Anchorage’s system response to homelessness, beyond the pilot program, will face unique challenges.
“What y’all are facing every winter makes it just more difficult, because there is always going to be a demand for shelter. And that’s a very expensive proposition,” Nichols said.
But there are untapped opportunities and resources in Anchorage, the Houston group said.
For example, a yearly allotment of federally funded housing vouchers that come through the local public housing authority is crucial in Houston, Rausch said.
In Anchorage, that entity is largely the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. But it doesn’t currently dedicate a percentage of some voucher types to Anchorage’s homelessness response system, according to the coalition.
”That would be a huge game-changer,” Rausch told Assembly members.
Mayor Bronson during a news conference with the the Houston group touted Anchorage’s recent conversions of hotels into 330 affordable housing units. Bronson said he hopes to continue that success and move people from shelter to affordable housing, “ultimately shifting the cost away from the municipal taxpayer.”
“Houston’s success factors, affordable housing, citywide collaboration and adequate intentional funding — that’s a key part of this, intentional funding — resonate with our vision here for Anchorage,” Bronson said. “We are committed to replicating some of these successful elements and adapting them to our unique context here.”
Still, Bronson said that he believes emergency shelter should be the focus of city government, as a matter of public safety, like police and fire.
Houston takes an opposite tack. There, shelters are the responsibility of private organizations, Nichols said.
“Housing makes us a more resilient city,” Eichenbaum said. “Every person that we can get off the streets today is one less person you have to house when winter comes.”