How Houston uses data to back its housing-first homeless strategy

Editor’s note: This is the fourth piece in a series on the factors that have led to the success of Houston’s homeless response system and the challenges the city faces and will continue to face in addressing homelessness.

In Houston, there’s only so much money available for serving individuals who are homeless. Leaders of the region’s continuum of care, The Way Home, must be selective about which organization receives money and for what purpose. 

With federal, state and county funding, the system had over $60 million at its disposal last year to address homelessness in the region, said Marc Eichenbaum, a special assistant to Houston’s mayor for homeless initiatives. The city does not allocate general funds to address the issue, only federal grants. In total, the Houston region spends the least on homelessness compared with “virtually any other major city in America,” he said. 

“With such a limited amount of public resources, we’re going to invest it wherever the data shows that we get the biggest rate of return,” Eichenbaum said. He is a member of the steering committee that sets the continuum’s goals and strategies and works with the city and counties on determining how to use and leverage various funding sources. 

“Often, agencies will come to us with amazing ideas,” Eichenbaum said. “But at the end of the day, our response is, ‘Show us the data.’ And we’re going to let that data guide us onto what we’re going to be investing [in] and championing.”

This data-driven approach has helped the city implement a housing-first strategy that has reduced homelessness in the region by 63% since 2011. 

All homelessness systems that receive federal funding must consistently enter client-level data into centralized management systems that allow analysis and reporting of system performance, said Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

Washington, D.C.; Portland and Mulnomah County, Oregon; and King County, Washington are among the communities that use homelessness data similar to the way Houston has, Oliva said in an email. 

Still, it is “very uncommon” for cities to utilize Houston’s level of data integration, “where decision-makers can see families interacting with multiple systems,” said Alisa Hartwell, data and research analyst at New York University’s Housing Solutions Lab.

Oliva said that highly data-driven systems have “rich” understandings of who experiences homelessness and what resources are available to them.  

“Data makes systems more efficient,” Oliva said. “It identifies outcomes for programs — both positive and negative — and helps communities identify gaps in services and resources that might not otherwise be obvious.”

How the data is collected

Every time a person engages with Houston’s homeless system — when they receive homeless-dedicated health care, walk into a local soup kitchen, seek shelter or engage with an outreach coordinator — service providers enter data into its Homeless Management Information System. “They are basically getting clocked in,” Eichenbaum said. All agencies can view a lot of that system-level data through a single dashboard, he said. 

Typically, more than 21,000 individuals interact with Houston’s homeless system every year, said Eichenbaum. Many of those people aren’t homeless but utilize the system and engage with different partners to meet their basic needs. The Coalition for the Homeless, the organization that manages the continuum, refines the data to identify those who are actually experiencing homelessness, he said. 

Houston officials also gather data during the annual point-in-time count, when jurisdictions throughout the country hit the streets and tally each person experiencing homelessness on a single night in January. Houston received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to spend three days on its count so the city can capture everyone, including those living in wooded areas and bayous, he said. 

Enumerators ask the individuals they count a list of survey questions that provide even more data, including how long they have been homeless, their veteran status, and whether they have substance abuse issues or are victims of domestic violence. 

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