How Texas shrank its homelessness population — and what it can teach California

A small homeless encampment in Houston, Texas on May 5, 2023. Photo by Jordan Vonderhaar for CalMatters
A small homeless encampment in Houston, Texas on May 5, 2023. Photo by Jordan Vonderhaar for CalMatters

By Marisa Kendall  
CalMatters Homelessness Writer 

LaVoy Darden is looking for someone.  

Making the rounds through Houston’s homeless encampments as an outreach specialist for a local nonprofit group, he offers snacks, builds trust, and puts people on a waitlist for affordable housing. On good days he gets to tell them they’re moving into a home.  

But first, he has to find them. Today it’s a scorching 93 degrees, and there aren’t as many people out and about as usual. He spends hours combing the streets of Houston in his van – stopping along the way to update other clients on their housing searches – before he spots her. 

He leans out the driver’s-side window and yells. “Hey! You move in Monday!”  

Sending someone from the street into permanent housing is the ultimate goal for Darden and other outreach workers like him all over America. But it seems to happen more often in Houston, where the homeless population shrank by more than half over the past decade. Compare that to California’s major cities, where the population surged by double-digits, and in some cases triple-digits.  

It’s not just Houston. Texas as a whole last year recorded a 28% drop in homelessness since 2012, while California’s homeless population grew by 43% over the same period. In Texas, 81 people are homeless for every 100,000 residents. In California, the rate is more than five times worse. 

And that’s despite the fact that Texas spends far fewer state dollars on homelessness. Last year, not counting federal money, Texas put $19.7 million into its three main homelessness programs – equal to about $806 per unhoused person. California, on the other hand, poured $1.85 billion into its three main programs – or $10,786 for every unhoused person. 

How do residents view homelessness in each state? The difference is stark: Homelessness is the No. 1 issue on California voters’ minds, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. In a 2020 poll of Texas residents, it didn’t even crack the top 10.     

Why is Texas doing so much better on homelessness? Right-leaning observers are quick to blame the discrepancy on California’s too-progressive policies. Liberals may distrust the statistics coming out of Texas. But the reality is more nuanced – as California leaders are realizing, while their cities and nonprofits send delegation after delegation to Texas. 

With homelessness causing major tension in many California cities, and local and state efforts to get people off the streets continuing to fall short, Golden State leaders are desperate for new solutions. So desperate, that they’re going to a state whose deep-red policies California Democrats are better known for scorning than emulating. 

San Jose’s homelessness response team visited Houston earlier this year. City and county representatives from the Los Angeles area went last fall. They came away jealous of some of the advantages Houston has over California cities – such as the lower housing costs that make it easier for the Texas metropolis to find or build homes for people.  

But the Californians also were impressed by the way the city coordinates with the county and other local organizations, prioritizes funding for permanent housing instead of temporary shelters and finds places for people before clearing encampments. 

“What those folks are doing – really focusing on housing folks – is working,” said Alex Visotzky, senior California policy fellow for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

In April, two city council members from the East Bay city of Richmond headed to Austin to tour a 51-acre tiny home community that provides permanent housing for 350-and-counting homeless residents. Elected officials from Sacramento trekked to San Antonio to see a 1,600-person shelter that offers everything from dental care to counseling – serving nearly the city’s entire homeless population in one place. 

Many experts agree California can learn something from these solutions. But unless the Golden State fixes its housing affordability crisis decades in the making, copying the Lone Star State will go only so far, said Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center.  

“Elected officials in California are desperate for quick-fix solutions,” he said. “They want a silver bullet to be able to solve homelessness for them. And so when they see results like what’s happening in Houston…they say, ‘that’s great, we want that.’” 

California Democrats often at odds with Texas GOP 

Texas may seem like an unlikely place for California to find inspiration on anything – especially social services. After all, the Republican-led state is completely out of sync with California’s liberal majorities on everything from guns to abortion to LGBTQ rights – feeding an ongoing public feud between Gov. Gavin Newsom and his Texas counterpart, Gov. Greg Abbott.  

Adding to the animosity, the California Legislature and some Golden State cities don’t even allow publicly funded travel to Texas. Some Californians who have made the trip have had to seek exemptions by arguing the travel is in their jurisdiction’s best interest. 

“When best practices are happening somewhere, don’t worry about what state they’re in,” said state Sen. Dave Cortese, a Silicon Valley Democrat. “I have no problem looking them right in the eye and saying, ‘I don’t like where you’re going in terms of reproductive rights. I don’t like where you’re going in terms of your stubbornness on mass shootings and gun safety. But I do like what you’re doing on the housing front and I’d like to replicate some of that.” 

Attitudes on homelessness also differ widely between the two states. Earlier this year, 70% of Californians said homelessness is a “big problem” in their part of the state, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll. That’s up from 63% in 2019. By contrast, just 3% of Texans polled in 2020 said homelessness was the most important issue facing their state, according to the nonprofit Texas Lyceum. 

The three Texas cities getting the most attention from California – Houston, Austin and San Antonio – are blue islands in a red state. Houston, a bustling metropolis of 2.3 million people, is Texas’ largest city. Austin, the state’s capital and a mecca for artists, students and foodies, is famously quirky – and urges everyone to “keep Austin weird.” San Antonio lures tourists with the historic Alamo mission and picturesque, restaurant-lined river walk. 

Cortese, who recently called for an audit of California’s homelessness spending, tried to bring a version of the Austin tiny home village to Santa Clara County while serving as a county supervisor several years ago, but the idea never got off the ground.  

He and others in California argue what the Golden State is doing so far isn’t working, even though Newsom poured nearly $21 billion into housing and homelessness since he took office and vowed the issue is a top priority.  

“I don’t want to see any more people die in the streets and call that compassion,” Newsom said last year. 

His administration is well aware of the buzz around the Texas programs. Hafsa Kaka, the governor’s new senior adviser on homelessness, said Newsom’s policies compare well against the Texas sites.  

Houston, Austin and San Antonio employ the same “housing first” approach that California has used for years, she said. 

“While Austin built 350 small homes, we are putting 1,200 across the state, including 500 in Los Angeles,” she said in an emailed statement sent on behalf of Newsom’s office. “California continues to make unprecedented investments into housing and homelessness, which includes shelter and wrap-around supportive services, cleaning up encampments, and creating more housing. The state has invested more to increase housing supply than ever before in our history while holding local governments accountable.” 

But the difference in outcomes in Texas versus California is unmistakable. The Houston area’s homeless population dropped 57% between 2012 and last year, dipping to 3,124, according to the federally mandated point-in-time count. A New York Times article published last year highlighted the “remarkable progress,” catapulting the city that was already known in wonky homeless policy circles into the national limelight – and catching California’s attention.  

Los Angeles County’s homeless population increased 106% over the same period. Sacramento County’s jumped a whopping 230%. 

Experts agree the point-in-time counts supplying those numbers —  which generally rely on volunteers and outreach workers tallying every homeless person they see over one night — miss portions of the unhoused community. But the counts can be a useful tool to measure the change in a city’s homeless population. 

Cheaper rent, more housing 

One reason more people find housing in Texas: costs. The median rent for a one-bedroom home in the state was $1,233 in early June, according to Zillow. In California, it was $2,200 – making it harder for people to get and stay housed here. 

Land and construction costs are cheaper in Texas, too, and the Lone Star State has fewer regulations that restrict construction. The city of Houston, for example, has no zoning – coupled with a strong mayor who can push projects through – making it easier to build and harder to block housing. 

Last year, Texas permitted more than twice as many new homes as California, even though California has about 9 million more residents. 

That means even when a California city is doing everything right, it’s still not going to be as successful as its Texas counterpart in reducing homelessness, said Jennifer Loving, CEO of nonprofit Destination: Home in Santa Clara County, who visited Houston in March.  

“We do all the same stuff,” she said. “And the major difference is how much housing they have, how quickly it’s getting built.” 

But despite its lower housing costs and dramatic drop in homelessness, Houston hasn’t managed to get everyone off the street.  

As Darden, the outreach worker, continues his rounds, he ends up under the Highway Spur 527 overpass, where seven tents are arranged on a dirt lot amid a few dining room chairs and other scattered furniture.  

Several of the people Darden speaks to at the camp already are housed or in the process of getting housing. 

One of them is 71-year-old Albert Mack, who has been homeless in Houston off-and-on for 15 years, alternating time on the street with housing placements that didn’t pan out. He left his last apartment because the neighborhood was too dangerous, he said. Now, he’s once again on his way to living indoors – he’s just waiting for a copy of his birth certificate from his home state of Alabama. He’s excited. This time, Mack said, he’s going to stay housed. 

“I can take me a shower every day,” he said. “I can be inside. I don’t have to worry about nobody bothering me.” 

More permanent housing, and collaboration 

When people like Mack get housed, it’s not only because rent is cheaper. Texas cities are doing other things differently than California, and Houston is a good example. 

Texas’ largest city pours its homeless funding – including COVID emergency dollars – into long-term housing instead of shelters that offer a temporary fix. Most of that housing is in privately owned apartments, where vouchers help formerly homeless people pay the rent. 

California, on the other hand, divides its resources between temporary and permanent homeless solutions. The state funneled COVID funds into short-term hotels that as of last year had given 50,000 people – almost 30% of the state’s unhoused population – brief respites from the street. Newsom’s administration later used COVID and general funds to turn nearly 13,000 hotel rooms, apartments and other units into longer-term homeless housing. 

And in Texas’ largest city, government agencies have a reputation for working together. Houston collaborates with Harris County and local nonprofits on a shared plan.  

In Los Angeles County, by contrast, four different local government groups apply separately for limited homelessness funding from the state. 

“I think that what we haven’t done is come together with a single plan,” said Cheri Todoroff, executive director of Los Angeles County’s Homeless Initiative, who went to Houston in September. “And that’s really what we were looking to learn from Houston.” 

L.A. County is working on creating a collaborative leadership commission, mirroring Houston’s, that would include elected officials, businesses, nonprofits and other leaders. 

Strict homeless enforcement in Texas 

Other parts of Texas’ approach to homelessness are more punitive than practices favored by California cities and state officials.  

The red state passed a law banning encampments throughout Texas in 2021, obligating cities to clear camps and empowering law enforcement to cite and fine campers. California Republicans proposed two similar bills this year, but got no traction. 

Individual cities in Texas also have their own local camping bans. In Austin, for example, police sometimes force homeless residents to move out of encampments, even if they have nowhere else to go, and cite them if they don’t comply. 

Texas Gov. Abbott cultivates a hard-line stance against homelessness – leading a charge to clear encampments on state property, publicly attacking Austin’s Democratic leaders for being too soft on homelessness and pushing for the state’s camping ban. “No one has a right to urinate and defecate wherever they want,” he tweeted before the camping ban passed. 

Seeming to take a page out of Texas’ book, California cities also are growing increasingly punitive. For instance, San Diego recently approved a controversial encampment ban, and other cities have taken similar steps. But a major difference: Due to 2018 federal court ruling Martin v. Boise, California cities cannot clear camps or unilaterally ban encampments unless they have shelter beds to offer. Texas, in a different federal district, is not subject to that ruling. 

Other aspects of Houston’s approach also might not translate well in California. Because Houston prioritizes long-term housing – the city and its county partners have moved more than 28,000 people into permanent housing since 2012 – it neglects the type of short-term shelters that quickly get someone off the street.  

Five days a week, 60-year-old Rachel Gonzales goes to The Beacon day center to eat breakfast and lunch, shower and do her laundry. At night, when the center is closed, she heads across the street to sleep on the sidewalk – without even a tent to protect her from the elements. 

Beacon staff are trained to connect clients to permanent housing, and last year, about two-thirds of those who signed up gained a place to live. But the process can take months.  

Gonzales has been waiting since November.   

“I don’t think it’s gonna be anytime soon,” she said. “You gotta think day by day. You can’t think about tomorrow, because if you think about tomorrow, think about a week from now, you’ll actually go crazy.” 

Encampments still visible in Houston 

Houston’s lack of shelter beds and long wait times for housing allowed homeless encampments to proliferate, frustrating local residents – as they have in California. So, the city in 2018 began a push to “decommission” homeless camps. Now, former homeless camps dot the landscape – grassy strips by the side of the road or patches of dirt under overpasses that used to hold dozens of tents, but now are empty and circled by chain-link fences.  

How homeless camps are removed is one of the most contentious issues of the homelessness debate in California. Though the Boise ruling prevents cities in the Golden State from clearing camps without offering the occupants shelter, activists say many people aren’t given options that work for them. Some people may not be willing to give up a beloved pet in exchange for a bed in an animal-free shelter, for example, while others may have mental health conditions that make it hard to sleep in a crowded room. As a result, they instead scatter throughout the streets, losing contact with their caseworkers. 

In Houston, when it’s time to clear a camp, outreach workers spend a month or more getting to know the occupants and figuring out what they need. Anyone they can’t immediately house generally is offered a spot in the city’s 100-bed navigation center, which opened in January.  

The navigation center is a big step up from traditional shelters where dozens of people sleep together, occupants have to leave early each morning, and residents often see no discernable path to long-term housing. At the navigation center, people sleep four to a room, can bring pets, and during the day can relax in a comfy living room with TVs, a pool table and snacks. Entire encampments move into the center at once, allowing people to maintain close friendships forged on the streets.  

“They make you realize you are somebody again,” said 51-year-old Terry Hardison, who has been homeless off and on since 1999. He was living under a bridge before coming to the navigation center. On a recent Saturday afternoon, he sat on the couch in the center’s common room, watching “G.I. Joe” on the TV with friends. 

But with only 100 beds, the navigation center can’t come close to accommodating everyone. People Darden meets on the street constantly ask how they can get in. He has to tell them the hard truth: Most often, they can’t.  

For those lucky enough to get a spot, there’s one big way the navigation center differs from a regular shelter: It gets people into permanent housing.  

Of the 57 occupants who moved through the navigation center since it opened, as of early May, 91% went into permanent housing – and it generally takes just 30 days. Navigation center clients are bumped up to the top of Houston’s housing waitlist.  

California also has navigation centers, but they haven’t been nearly as successful because there’s often no direct path from there into long-term housing. San Francisco’s largest center, for example, reported just 8% of the people who left its program ended up in permanent housing last year. 

For other people, housing success stories play out outside the walls of the navigation center. Back in Darden’s outreach van, he’s making someone’s day.  

The woman on the side of the road hears Darden yell, telling her she’s moving into her new apartment Monday. She’d been referred for a placement before and never followed through. But this time, after one of her friends recently died on the street, Darden believes she’s ready to end her homelessness. 

The woman stops what she’s doing and breaks into a happy dance. The dream of a permanent place to call home – something that seems so impossible for so many people living in tents and cars from Texas to California – is finally hers. 

Darden grins. “Whew, I feel a lot better now,” he says, steering the outreach van back toward his office. “It feels great. Just to see the look on their face.” 

Related To This Story

Latest NEWS