When you’re facing an intractable crisis like homelessness, you’ll try to find answers anywhere. Despite a recent history of quarreling governors, California officials are looking at Texas.
And maybe for good reason: While California’s homeless population grew by 43% (and 439 out of every 100,000 residents are homeless), Texas’ homeless population shrank by nearly a third (and only 81 out of every 100,000 residents are homeless).
Texas also spends less on homeless programs. Not accounting for federal funding, Texas spent about $806 per unhoused person last year. California? About $10,786 for every unhoused person.
To find out more on why Texas’ approach may be working better, CalMatters’ homelessness policy reporter Marisa Kendall went to the Lone Star State and took a deeper look at programs in three different cities.
In Austin, a tiny home village called Community First! Village is being emulated by some California cities. The village houses nearly 350 formerly unhoused people and has a vegetable garden, a gift shop, a hair studio, and volunteers who live on-site.
What makes it so successful? First, it’s big. The village sits on 51 acres and plans to add 530 more homes by the end of 2023. The organization that created the homes also primarily depends on private contributions. Tiny homes in California, however, mostly rely on city, county, and state funding. And unlike in California where tiny homes are almost exclusively seen as temporary shelter, the village is a viable option for permanent housing — and residents can even be interred there after death.
Much Easier to Build in Texas Than in California
For Texas’ biggest city, the homeless population in the Houston area dropped by 57% between 2012 and 2022 — while increasing by 105% in Los Angeles County.
One reason is that there are few regulations and no zoning ordinances that limit housing construction. And when it’s time to clear an encampment, outreach workers spend a month or more getting to know occupants. Those who can’t immediately be housed can opt for the city’s navigation center.
In the center’s first four months, 91% of folks who stayed went into permanent housing. In contrast, San Francisco’s largest navigation center reported last year that only 8% of people landed in permanent housing.
San Antonio’s Haven for Hope
Though a shelter in San Antonio, known as Haven for Hope, doesn’t see nearly as many of its occupants moving to permanent housing, it pulled more than 7,000 people off the streets last year. The massive, 1,600-person shelter serves 85% of the city’s total homeless population and provides residents with on-site medical clinics, childcare services, and staff that will help folks find housing, get an ID or apply for disability benefits.
Haven for Hope differs from California shelters because one of its two programs requires regular drug and breathalyzer tests from its residents. This runs against California’s core tenets of “housing first,” which is so strongly held that programs that don’t follow it cannot receive state funding.
And state funding has remained a major point of contention in California. In April, local officials rallied at the state Capitol to push for $3 billion in guaranteed annual state funding to go toward homelessness. But the 2023-24 budget only includes $1 billion for local programs.
For more lessons from Texas, read Marisa’s stories on Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.
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About the Author
Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an ed-tech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento Bee as a Kaiser media fellow and was an intern reporter at Capitol Weekly. She’s a graduate of UC Davis and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.