New Hope Housing offers solutions to Houston' homeless population

On any given night last year, more than half a million people in the United States were homeless, without any safe shelter or place to call home. New York City and Los Angeles lead the nation in homeless populations, and California alone accounts for 53 percent of all homeless people in the country. 
 
While homelessness is an emergency in other large cities where 50,000 to 80,000 are without shelter, in Houston, it is merely a persistent challenge, said Joy Horak-Brown, the president and CEO of New Hope Housing. 
 
Houston has had some success addressing the issue, as the local homeless population in our city has declined by 54 percent since 2012. There were 3,938 homeless in Houston, according to the 2019 Point-in-Time Count, slightly down from 2018, though there was a slight spike after Hurricane Harvey. 
 
“There is still an urgent need for affordable housing at all income levels in our city,” Horak-Brown said. “We are working as urgently as possible to be part of that solution.” 
 
Today, New Hope Housing maintains eight properties across the city with 1,200 housing units, and three additional apartment communities are either on the drawing board or in construction. In addition to low-cost, safe housing, the organization offers its residents access to primary and behavioral health care, financial management and life skills training and rental support where needed, with a case management counselor at each of its sites. 
 
“The seed money for New Hope Housing was raised by the people of Christ Church Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral of the Diocese of Texas. It’s a religious institution with a long and rich history of social outreach,” Horak-Brown said. “It’s Houston's first religious institution since Texas was a Republic and Sam Houston was its president. But, while we have our roots in the Episcopal faith, we never were under church control and are not today.”
 
While the church was raising money to restore its historic cathedral on Texas Avenue, the congregation decided for every dollar they raised to build their own church home, they would match it with funds to serve the community, Horak-Brown said. That’s how $1.25 million was raised to buy land and build the first 40 single room occupancy (SRO) housing units. 
 
As New Hope Housing’s first employee, Horak-Brown joined part-time in January 1996 to help raise funds for the continued construction of 127 units, and she has been working at New Hope Housing ever since. 
 
Born in upstate New York, she grew up in Corpus Christi. She worked in corporate management in the oil and gas industry, lived in South Carolina for awhile and returned to Houston in the mid-1990s, looking for a new career.
 
“I had always wanted to work in the non-profit space ––in the Texas Medical Center or in the arts," she said. “Through a very happy series of coincidences, I was introduced to New Hope Housing, a fledgling organization with 40 housing units and $75,000 in the bank.” 
 
The problem of how people become homeless and why they become stuck in that cycle is a complex one. A contributing factor is the rising cost of housing for the lower-earning end of the city’s workforce. 
 
Housing costs burden the lowest-earning quarter of Houstonians who make dramatically less than the median, but still have to pay a similar price for housing. Houston's lowest-earning quarter makes 73 percent less than a median worker, but their housing costs are only 15 percent lower, meaning that housing eats a much larger percentage of their salaries.  

According to researchers at Apartment List, nearly half of renters in Houston are paying 30 percent or more of their income on rent, with almost one-fourth of renters paying 50 percent or more. 
 
In 1982, Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg, Ph.D., now founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, launched the institute’s Houston Area Survey to examine demographic patterns, economic outlooks and attitudes of local residents.
 
In the last 10 years, the study has shown, while housing costs have risen most quickly for the lowest earning workers in Houston, there are other problems they face as well. In the past year’s survey, 35 percent of those said they had struggled to pay for housing. Another 40 percent said they could not come up with $400 for an emergency if needed. Twenty-five percent said they had no health insurance; 33 percent said they had difficulty paying for food.
 
“If you have a job that is minimum wage or a bit more than minimum wage, but still a very modest income, all it takes is just one trigger or two,” said Horak-Brown. “It could be a problem with the automobile, or you become ill and aren’t able to work for a few days or weeks. And, suddenly, you find yourself evicted. And, if you don’t have family to assist you, you are homeless.
 
“Typically, the people you see who are living in tents or in encampments are chronically homeless, living on the street for a year or more,” she said. “Or, they have cycled in and out of homelessness. They are the hardest to house.” 
 
She continued, “They are people who have been in the system for long enough that they no longer trust the system, and very often, they have problems with substance abuse and/or mental health.”
 
The very fact of becoming homeless leads to a decline in mental health, she added. 
New Hope Housing offers a high-quality and debt-free Housing + Services model with programs to address mental and physical health concerns and substance recovery. Budgeting, literacy, case management, life plans, job search assistance are also offered. 
 
“These are all good things that you might be able to consider if you have a stable place to live,” Horak-Brown said. “That's your foundation and your launch pad. Without that launch pad, it is highly unlikely you are going to be able to address any other needs that you may have. The housing is first and foremost.”
 
Deborah Quinn Hensel is a freelance journalist and staff reporter for Houston Woman Magazine.
 
Editor’s Note: If you would like to help (if even in a small way) solve the crisis of homelessness and the need for affordable housing in Houston, please visit newhopehousing.com/donate/.