Houston's new plan to help panhandlers, homeless

- The Mayor of Houston has a new plan out Thursday to continue tackling homelessness.

The plan expands upon the success of Houston's "The Way Home" program, which partners more than 100 local independent resources for those without housing. Since it's inception six years ago, the program has seen a 57% decrease in the number of people without permanent housing in Houston. They estimate the current nightly average to be around 3,600 with only a third of those people sleeping on he streets.

For comparison, New York City's homeless population has increased almost 50% in that same timeframe, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors "Hunger and Homelessness" survey.

"We cannot be enablers," emphasized Mayor Turner at his press conference Thursday, "and there is a meaningful way to of moving people forward."

In the plan, a proposed ordinance will outlaw tents on public property. The city will continue weekly cleanups of encampments.

The Mayor hopes to take back the city's underpasses and eventually turn them into public facilities. It's an idea he gained during a trip to Mexico City, where he says he saw small markets and businesses set up under highways. The Mayor says he has already begun coordination with TXDOT to create such opportunities in Houston.

"As we tell people 'no you cannot be here', we also need to provide them with where they can be," Mayor Turner said, saying the city will expand it's Homeless Outreach Team to assist in relocating people to housing alternatives.

With 215 shelter beds scheduled to go online at a new Star of Hope campus on Reed Road this August, the Mayor is also calling on the community to identify temporary outdoor shelter locations

"These will be low level outdoor temporary shelters with a limited number of people - no more than 75 - professionally managed," said the Mayor.

Mayor Turner also called on private property owners to volunteer vacant units and facilities for use in temporary housing. He did not provide detail on how such housing arrangements would be managed.

Another proposed ordinance in the plan will target panhandling by creating rules against what's being called obstruction of roadways. Houstonians will soon see a campaign discouraging support of panhandlers, and instead offering ways to donate via text or online directly to organizations tackling homelessness.

The Mayor recognized how difficult it might be for some neighbors to not support those they see asking for change. He says the campaign against panhandling would be "coupled with a pilot program to connect panhandlers to employment opportunities with the Texas Workforce Solution." 

There will also be increased coordination with charitable food and substance abuse programs, and requests for increased funding for mental health.

"Simply feeding them and not providing them with the other things they need is not enough," said Mayor Turner. "And if [we] are feeding them to make ourselves feel good, but at the end we step away from them and they are there and still need social services - they still need a job, still need mental and behavioral health issues - we have to be careful that we don't cause them to congregate then leave and it becomes a situation and problem for others to deal with."

The Mayor states he'll make his case for mental health funding to legislators in Austin during this year's session.

The ordinances do still need to pass city council, while other aspects of the plan will begin to roll out as soon as the next 30 days. All in all, Mayor Turner projects Houston will see 500 people placed in permanent housing within the next 6 months.

To read Mayor Turner's full details on the plan, click here.

Have a story about helping the homeless? Have thoughts on Mayor Turner's plan? Share them on reporter Kaitlin Monte's Facebook page at: facebook.com/kaitlinmonte

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