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Lubbock's Point-In-Time Count shows hopeful drops in homelessness

Open Door is a housing-first homeless service in Lubbock.
Kaysie Ellingson
Texas Tech Public Media
Open Door is a housing-first homeless service in Lubbock.

The South Plains Homeless Consortium recently released its annual Point-In-Time Count. That report gives an idea of how many homeless people there are in Lubbock and data that helps evaluate needs in that specific community. This year's report shows a decrease in people experiencing homelessness in Lubbock. It also shows there's been a drastic decrease in chronic homelessness in the past five years.

Chad Wheeler, executive director of the local housing-first organization Open Door, recently visited the Texas Tech Public Media studio to give more insight into the report.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Sarah Self-Walbrick: This year's Point-In-Time Count identified 259 homeless people in the community. What else did the report tell us about this population?

Chad Wheeler: The report tells us different demographics within the population, as well as some things like: Where are they staying? How long have they been in homelessness? Different experiences that are obstacles to them in homelessness and how they might return to housing.

A couple of key things that we saw from the report, like you said, the total number has decreased. And so 259 people, that is almost cut in half from where we were five years ago, which is very, very significant. It tells us about different demographic subpopulations within homelessness, like chronic homelessness, which is having been homeless for a year or more. We counted 24 people in chronic homelessness, which is a 72% decrease from 2017. And we've seen that number steadily decrease over the last five or six years. We also counted 13 veterans, which is about what we have been counting in previous years. With some populations, you have a lot of inflow-outflow changes. So even if you're housing a lot of veterans, which our local agencies do, we have new veterans from different periods of time that are entering our system throughout the year, so that kind of impacts the number.

Self-Walbrick: You touched on this a little bit already, but, chronic homelessness is a key metric that's measured in that point-in-time count. Tell us more about how people end up in that situation and what we can do to help them out of it.

Wheeler: People end up in chronic homelessness because they fall through the gaps of different systems. The mental health system, different systems of care, as well as the homeless service system. So people get stuck, they kind of go through a lot of the services, and nothing's working for them. And so they end up in homelessness for multiple years. Usually, it's because there are co-occurring disorders present. Compared to the general population, people in chronic homelessness, they just have a complex set of obstacles that make it very, very difficult for them to move out of homelessness. So it's not just “get a job.” It's also how we address physical health, chronic illness, chronic mental illness, substance use disorder, a variety of issues, and maybe all at once, that may be present. We really need systems that are comprehensive in their care to try to address that population. What we've been able to do over the last six years is provide what's called permanent supportive housing. And that is housing that's dedicated to that subpopulation, and it has a high level of support around them, to get them connected to the care they need to stabilize and stay in housing.

Self-Walbrick: Open Door operates under a housing-first model. Can you kind of just explain that to us and how that helps with chronic homelessness issues? 

Wheeler: Housing-first essentially says housing is the foundation from which you can address other problems. So previously, some homeless service systems, they would try to address a lot of problems, and then give housing as a reward maybe at the end. So get a job first, get clean and sober first, address mental health issues first. And then once you get all those things sorted out, then maybe you'll move into permanent housing. And what providers found, really over the last three decades, is that it's nearly impossible to address those complex issues when you're living on the streets, when you don't have the stability and safety of a home. But once people do have that stability, and they have wraparound support, once they're in housing, they're able to then address a lot of those issues.

That's the approach and we have seen enormous success. Our housing retention rate, which is of all the people we house, how many stay in housing over time, is 95%. Which is incredible when you're talking about a population that has co-occurring disorders and a complex list of obstacles in their lives. To be able to get people in housing and keep people in housing is really key. Because you can house a lot of people, you can provide services to a lot of people. But if it doesn't stay, if you just have a revolving door, you've not really made a lasting impact on the system.

Self-Walbrick: Open Door is just one organization, what other resources are already in the community to help those experiencing homelessness?

Wheeler: We have a lot of great agencies in Lubbock that are playing different roles in addressing homelessness. There are so many different facets and experiences within homelessness and it doesn't just take one approach.

So the Salvation Army does a great job of providing our emergency shelter, as well as transitional housing and rapid rehousing, and a lot of other services to people in our community. They have been, really, the longest provider in Lubbock providing those services. Grace Campus is providing care for people in kind of temporary situations where they're transitioning from homelessness into permanent housing, and they have a lot of people that they serve on a daily basis and are critical to our system. Vet Star, they do a great job serving our veterans, as well as the VA. Even organizations like Women's Protective Services that are dedicated to survivors of domestic violence.

Everybody's playing their part. And what we're seeing as a community is those numbers decreasing year after year. There are a lot of factors that impact the numbers of homelessness, but I think all of us are very glad to see those numbers decreasing.

Self-Walbrick: And what are some resources that are needed in the community? 

Wheeler: I think we still need mental health and co-occurring disorder resources for very high-acuity people. So even with all the things that we're doing right now, there are some people whose needs are so severe, that the programs that are in place don't have or they're not equipped to meet their needs, but they're not severe enough, or there are obstacles in the way for them to get in care, like at a nursing home, or an assisted living facility. But really, what they need is that kind of that level of support. It's a very small percentage of the population whose needs are so high that our providers have a hard time serving them, but they're not high enough to qualify for these other programs. That's why we have a few people who are still on the streets and in pretty serious conditions that are just so challenging to meet.

There are constantly other needs that are in the community. But that's one of the ones when I think about needs, that I really don't know a clear solution, that is in play right now…that's the one.

Self-Walbrick: You work with this population each day, so you have a different perspective on homelessness than most people do. What do you want the average Lubbockite to know about their homeless neighbors?

Wheeler: That they’re people just like you and me. They are worthy of dignity, and actually, dignity makes a huge impact on their overall recovery and well-being. If we treat people like people, if we speak to them as people and know their name, and not just a number or an abstract homeless person on the side of the road, then I think we're sharing and giving back dignity, which is, again, part of the road to recovery for a lot of people. People in homelessness, you know, they really want the same thing that everybody wants. And that is to be safe, to have people care for them, to have opportunities to live whatever idea of the good life they have. We as a community can do things to help them find those same things that we're all looking for, and we're all better for it.

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