Reaching Out

On January 29, hundreds of volunteers canvassed the streets of Houston for the annual Homeless Count. This is an opportunity for homeless service providers to learn more about the homeless population by physically reaching out to them. The Homeless Count is an example of ways Houstonians are working together as a team to end homelessness. As I stated in the USA Today article,  Mental Disorders Keep Thousands of Homeless on Streets,  the collaborative efforts of Houston’s homeless service providers is successfully tackling homelessness in our City. As portrayed in the USA Today infographic, the way that our system works is through outreach, assessment, matching and referral/waitlist. 

Houston Tackles Homelessness

The outreach team for the count is made up of 3-4 individuals and typically includes a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, a social worker, a mental health provider, and a Coordinated Access Assessor. The Houston Police Department Mental Health Division also operates Homeless Outreach Teams, and a police officer is included in those teams. Outreach teams are equipped with iPads and Wi-Fi “hotspots” to be able to assess clients in the field. These tools can be helpful as it allows outreach teams to immediately and effectively interact with clients who are fairly disengaged and hesitant or unable to access services. The teams ask each homeless individual a series of short questions known as Vulnerability Index Assessment to determine the severity of their situation and what housing option best fits the person. The questions on the Vulnerability Index Assessment focus on markers with a scale from 0-8, with eight being the most vulnerable. Those markers focus on items such as the number and frequency of emergency room/hospital visits, age, if the individual has one or more serious and/or chronic illnesses, and the presence of “tri-morbidity,” which is co-occurring psychiatric, substance abuse, and chronic medical conditions. The Vulnerability Index also asks other questions, including but not limited to: 1) the length of time of homelessness, 2) where the individual sleeps most frequently, 3) where they access services most frequently, 4) veteran status, and 5) source of income.

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), the Vulnerability Index was created through collaboration between Common Ground, Dr. Jim O’Connell, and the Center for Urban Community Services. Common Ground created a new nonprofit organization, Community Solutions, in 2011 and launched the 100,000 Homes Campaign. Houston’s homeless service providers adopted the Vulnerability Index to help prioritize our most vulnerable homeless citizens for placement into permanent housing. 

From Homeless to Housed

The waiting period to be placed in housing is typically 14 days.  Some clients are living in shelters during the time of their assessment, and choose to remain in the shelter while they wait for housing. Clients who are living on the street when assessed typically choose to remain living on the street, but Coordinated Access staff make the option of shelter available to them. Homeless service providers can also help assist the client in getting into shelter if they choose.

Clients are sometimes able to provide a phone number or Community Voice Mail number to Coordinated Access staff, who can then contact the client once housing becomes available. For clients with no means of contact, once housing is available, Coordinated Access staff will flag the client in the HMIS database. Then, when a client accesses services at an agency using HMIS, agency staff will get a notification to direct the client back to Coordinated Access to continue the process to housing. Also, there is one day each week when clients who have been assessed can go to the primary Coordinated Access assessment hub (this primary hub is located at a day shelter in downtown Houston) to check in with a Coordinated Access staff member on the status of their case.


The successful implementation of a county-wide placement system has reduced the rate of chronic homelessness in the area by 57 percent. Since 2012 we have housed 3,300 homeless veterans and are on target to eliminate veteran homelessness in 2015.  The newest collaborative effort among Houston’s homeless service providers is The Way Home.  Launched on July 2nd, the goal of The Way Home is to end chronic and veteran homelessness by 2015, to end family and youth homelessness by 2020, and to build a system in which no one has to be without housing for more than 30 days. We are confident that we can reach these goals working as a community. The results from the Homeless Count completed in January is expected to be released this summer.  The data will let us know the current status of homelessness in Houston. We will take this information and as a team, work together to provide supportive housing for Houston’s homeless.