The homelessness conversation by California Voices features authors involved with the issue to help Californians grasp the solutions and areas of consensus. Read more voices on homelessness.

Guest Commentary written by

Sara Martinez

Sara Martinez

Sara Martinez is the vice president of communications and development for the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County.

When I joined the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County almost 10 years ago as an eager 28-year-old, I had no idea what I was signing myself up for.

Over the last decade, Houston has accomplished incredible things when it comes to addressing homelessness. Overall homelessness has decreased by more than 60%. We effectively ended veteran homelessness in 2015 (and to this day can get homeless vets back into housing within a few weeks), and an end to chronic homelessness is tantalizingly in sight.

Our progress has been well documented, and communities from all over the world frequently reach out to us to ask how we did it and how they can do it, too. When the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed asking what Houston can teach L.A., journalist Marshall Ingwerson nailed it when he listed the three keys as scale of effort, excellent organization and pragmatism.

Our community has historically benefitted from an abundant supply of affordable housing. As we have identified funding for both rental assistance and supportive services, we have been able to create an inventory of permanent housing that gives us options to present to clients that fit their needs and preferences.

Allow me to brag about our organization, the lead homeless response system in the region, for a moment. We unite service partners and maximize resources to rehouse people as quickly as possible. Our oversight of the local Homeless Management Information System gives us client-level data, allowing us to make decisions grounded in fact rather than anecdotes. And we listen to our partners. While our partners rely on us to build capacity and provide big-picture planning and strategy, we rely on their practical knowhow to get us from theory to implementation.

We are pragmatic to a fault. In 2011, the founding partners of what was deemed The Way Home coalition made two commitments: that we would invest all available public resources into permanent housing, and that we would prioritize the most vulnerable – those most likely to die due to homelessness – for housing first. This laser focus has served us well. 

Pragmatism also means not getting distracted by shiny objects, or problems of the moment. We remain focused on the big picture.

But what does this mean to Californians who are reading this and wondering how they can do it too?

The first step in that journey needs to be to set aside individual priorities and commit to collective impact. The scale, organization and pragmatism in Houston have really only worked because, when we formalized the Continuum of Care in 2012, leaders at key agencies (nonprofits, public housing authorities, elected officials, government workers, etc.) were willing to say, “What I have been doing hasn’t been working, and I am willing to admit that and try something different.”

For nearly a century, all of these groups had been responding to homelessness, but we had yet to resolve it. Whether it was allocating staff to serve clients that may never come through their doors through coordinated access, or eliminating or changing programs that they had offered – sometimes for decades – the partners of our system were willing to change from what they had always done. People were more open to collaboration, which can be uncomfortable, shared accountability, constructive problem-solving and a focus on data-driven decisions. 

Our housing authorities also made a commitment to set aside vouchers for people experiencing homelessness and to set a preference to process those vouchers quickly, and nonprofits committed to utilizing those vouchers as quickly as possible.

When the data showed it was working, it only made it that much easier.

Still, Houston has changed in a decade. Our housing market is getting tighter and less affordable. Each new day can pose new challenges. But I know we will continue our progress because – when I come to work – I don’t see hand wringing. I see a continued, shared commitment.

more from california voices

California Voices: Homelessness

California is struggling to address its homelessness crisis. To better understand the solutions and areas of consensus, CalMatters asked a few of the people involved to simply explain what California should do about homelessness.

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