Inside of a homeless shelter
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Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Homelessness is Exceptionally Hard to Solve

Houston has received complimentary national press coverage for its big plans regarding homelessness. On the street level, though, little things can be big problems. The Sharpener, a news website for the Sharpstown area of southwest Houston, has run a series on the problems of Dale, 58 with a bushy grey beard, and Leroy, 64, with a salt-and-pepper goatee. Last December they lived under a bridge. They had been without IDs since theirs were stolen and lost three or four years ago.

Dale and Leroy tried a few times to get new IDs, but something always went wrong. They wanted to get government housing vouchers to get an apartment, but without a residence address, birth certificates, or Social Security cards, it was hard to get the photo IDs they needed to get those vouchers. Houston is dealing with that problem through establishment of “navigation centers” for the unhoused. That’s what Austin has at Sunrise Community Church, which I wrote about last week.

Sunrise accepts mail for all — yes, you have an address — and helps with IDs. Every day it offers showers, food, and coffee, along with housing needs assessments, drug and alcohol treatment referrals, phone and tablet charging. Monday is laundry day, Tuesday is HIV/STD testing, Thursday is health care, Friday is for SNAP (food stamps) sign-ups. Both Tuesdays and Thursdays are days for external and internal upgrades: clothing closet, mental health consultations. What looks like a shiny candy or drink dispenser by one outside wall dispenses free Narcan, a lifesaver for those who have overdosed on fentanyl.

Sunrise pastor Mark Hilbelink said its navigation center last year helped more than 800 people get off the streets. Michael Busby was typical among those who benefited. He told the press that Sunrise staffers “helped me out a lot. They helped me restore my sanity. They help out with housing, they help out with medication, they keep your meds for you, and they give them out to you every day or every week.”

In Hilbelink’s words, “It’s so cool to be able at the end of the day to say, like, we brought John Smith in, we addressed John Smith’s mental health needs, we addressed his physical health needs, we addressed his substance abuse needs, we addressed his community needs, we put some food in his belly, we helped him get an ID, like all under one roof.”

Mark Hilbelink (center)

Hilbelink wants the unhoused to be housed, but he understands that the deeper problem is mental health. It’s crucial that people salvageable via medications take them every day. He also sees the downside of the “worst first” policy that Austin and many other cities follow. Addicts who have committed crimes and been homeless for a long time get housing priority over those recently homeless. That policy costs more and is less likely to succeed.

Hilbelink sees early intervention as key. Instead of either leaving a person on the street, or spending huge amounts to give him an apartment, he offers an analogy promoting a middle-of-the-road approach: As in driving, start off with an inexpensive car, work hard, and eventually get a Lexus if that’s what you want, but don’t by the Lexus initially — or expect someone else to buy it for you. That’s better than offering a homeless person the equivalent of a lottery ticket: Some win big but most get nothing.

Instead, Hilbelink believes in asking: Do you have someone else you can live with for a while? A friend, a long-lost aunt? If not, try getting an inexpensive apartment, and instead of waiting for an official to hand you one, try developing a relationship with the owner, find a way to make some money, and negotiate to get a price you can afford. That’s not an easy process, and Hilbelink rightly calls homelessness “the problem,” one exceptionally hard to solve.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a question, “Who is my neighbor?” With great effort, Sunrise Community Church has made Austin’s homeless its neighbors — “this costs us everything,” Hilbelink says — and upset some of its home-owning neighbors. They think it unfair that one small place near them has become Austin’s major service area for those living on the streets all over the city. Hilbelink says, “I’d like many more Sunrises, but a city council member who encourages one in his neighborhood is committing political suicide.”

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.