Houston Shelter Struggles To Serve City's Homeless

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently released a comprehensive study of first-time homelessness. Houston, Texas, is one of the cities that it focused on in the study and host Michel Martin talks with Hank Rush, president and C-E-O of Star Hope Mission, about the issue of homelessness in that city. Star Hope Mission provides transitional living and emergency housing in Houston.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, mistresses, alleged bribes, sexual harassment, oh my. The news is full of stories about male politicians behaving badly. On this last day of Women's History Month, we will ask: Do women in politics behave any better? We'll ask NPR's Cokie Roberts. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, we're going to continue our conversation about homelessness in America. A few minutes ago we heard from the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, about the department's new study on the costs of first-time homelessness. Houston, Texas was one of the areas profiled in the report, so we decided to take a closer look, and we've called Hank Rush. He's the president and CEO of Star Hope Mission, which provides transitional living and emergency housing in that city. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. HANK RUSH (President and CEO, Star of Hope Mission): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So this study, as you just heard, focused on first-time homelessness. Do you have any idea of what percentage of people coming to your facilities are homeless for the first time?

Mr. RUSH: Sure, Michel. About, over the last year we've seen a major increase in the number of people in the Houston area who have become homeless. And about 10 percent of the number that we've seen are folks who you would've never expected to become homeless. Neighbors down the street, people in the suburbs, folks who have good jobs, a couple of cars in the garage and who end up, for various reasons, out of work and unable to maintain their housing. And so it's a very interesting and difficult and traumatic experience for so many people in our community who would never have expected that before.

MARTIN: And when you say they would never have expected it, why not? Because they're still employed or because they had been well-employed, or what is it that distinguishes their circumstances? Is it a sudden loss of income or something like that?

Mr. RUSH: Yes. I think, you know, obviously with the economy, with the unemployment like it is nationwide, folks who've had one or two income households and living a suburban life or whatever, who experienced one or two job losses, perhaps both the husband and wife lose their jobs. Or it's a single-parent family where they're just barely getting by, but they have a steady income, they've had a good job and that is lost. Or they have a combination of job situation, then a medical crisis in their family that causes a lot of extra expense. They just can't keep up. So we see a good bit more of that now than we ever have before.

MARTIN: How are these individuals and families being accommodated by Houston overall? I mean, we're not hearing as much about people, you know, tent cities and things of that sort in Houston as we are in some places.

Mr. RUSH: No. Well, Houston has a wonderful network of providers. Many of them, most of the services in Houston are provided by private funding. Houston is a very generous and wonderful community and cares a lot about this segment of our society, those who are chronically in this situation of homelessness and those newly homeless and so we're very blessed to be in a place like this.

And it's a time when we see the city rising to the occasion. All of our groups and efforts here are working together very well. And looking at some of the new initiatives that are going on nationwide to try to provide more permanent supportive housing for people and working to move people through the system more quickly. If a family becomes homeless because of financial issues, job issues and they don't have other serious impediments to their independent living, such as addictions or chronic homelessness or chronic poverty to deal with, lack of educational skills, then they can move through the system much more quickly.

And Houston's rapidly working to provide more housing and more options for those. And service providers like Star of Hope, which has been here 100 years, serves 1,000 people a day in the Houston community in four different centers around the city...

MARTIN: What's the strategy in Houston? Is it - you operate shelters.

Mr. RUSH: Right. We actually operate a whole continuum of services here within the Star of Hope. And it mirrors many of the service providers who are smaller in Houston, who do individual pieces. But we offer emergency shelters for families, for single women and single men, all the way up through permanent supportive housing for multiyear program activity where people have a job, they have their own lease, they pay their own rent, but we support them with community center-based activities and services and an extended set of our community services to them for three more years beyond completing programs here.

MARTIN: What I was interested in is, what do you think might work better? 'Cause one of the things that you've pointed out is that for a lot of people, it's almost like a shock to the system. I mean...

Mr. RUSH: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: That something happens, and then another thing happens. And all of a sudden, people find that they're up against it. But for many people, this is not a chronic circumstance, this is something that I think we would all say is perhaps long-term dysfunction. That this is kind of a crisis mode that happens suddenly and with perhaps not a lot of warning. It's unanticipated and whatever resources people had to deal with these situations have been exhausted or just weren't sufficient to the task.

Mr. RUSH: Yes.

MARTIN: But is there something that would work more efficiently for people in a less traumatic fashion without all the turmoil that comes with being homeless?

Mr. RUSH: You know, Michel, the most traumatic thing I've ever seen is a family standing on the front sidewalk of our women and family shelter downtown with a black plastic garbage bag full of all their earthly belongings waiting to come into the shelter. And so, prevention for - to keep a family from having to go through that is absolutely one of the most important things we can do.

And when a family like that does come to our shelter, one of the first things our intake workers do is they try to intervene in that housing situation they previously had. They get on the phone, they call the family member, they call the brother or sister they've been living with. They call the apartment or whatever and see if we can work out the ability of that person, that family to stay in their housing.

The bottom line is once they've come out of that, they are stable again. They are capable of independent living and they have an income stream. And they're able to function as an individual again. Then follow up with them after they've left through a myriad of different mechanisms to keep them involved, to stay close with them and to be able to help them should they lose a job again quickly or should they have other issues that they need help with for additional services, that that prevents them from going through it again.

MARTIN: And, finally, I know you have a busy day and you've been very generous with your time, before I let you go, we've been in times in this country when we've dreamed big. You know, we've said we're going to end poverty. We're going to, you know, go to the moon. We're going to do big things. Do you think we can say that we actually could end homelessness in this country?

Mr. RUSH: You know, I just don't think you can say that we'll end it because you can't intervene in every person's life, every family's life in the middle of their crisis, even know about every crisis ahead of time to be able to prevent everything that someone's - choices that people are going to make, or situations they're going to be in.

But what we can do is have a very efficient and effective system that helps them as soon as that need is identified and services are made aware of their need and that gets them back on their feet as quickly as possible. We just have to be able to surround them and help them with those needs and get them back on their feet as quickly as possible.

MARTIN: Hank Rush is the president and CEO of Star of Hope Mission. It provides transitional living and emergency housing in Houston. And he was kind enough to join us by phone from his office there. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. RUSH: Thank you, Michel.

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