Candidates for Houston mayor leaned on their political and professional experiences when discussing solutions for homelessness during a Thursday evening forum, broadly agreeing the issue needs to be tackled with compassion and additional funding.
Those with recent experience working in city government promised to continue to build upon nationally recognized success the city has had with decreasing its homeless population, while state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said their legislative experience would allow them to collaborate with local, state and federal governments to bring additional funding and manpower to tackle the issue.
The eight candidates who attended the Healthcare for the Homeless forum at the nonprofit’s flagship clinic on Caroline Street near downtown all agreed more money and organizations need to be involved to guarantee success.
Jackson Lee repeatedly pointed to what she called an “epidemic” of evictions she said is working against Houston’s efforts to house people. Jackson Lee said her experience in Congress will allow her to work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to secure rental assistance and resources for low-income housing.
“We all know that most of the dollars you use for helping the homeless are federal dollars, and so you need to know the intricacies of making sure that you have a key way of bringing as many dollars as possible,” the congresswoman said. “I don’t plan to leave one dime on the table.”
Jackson Lee also pledged to have a cabinet member of her administration dedicated to addressing homelessness.
Whitmire noted his time working as a food stamp caseworker as a college student at the University of Houston, saying that experience showed him government on its own is not enough to tackle the issue. Whitmire promised to “double down” on Houston’s recent success by bringing together the hospital district and other private businesses to get involved with addressing homelessness and providing access to healthcare.
Whitmire pointed to San Antonio’s Haven for Hope campus that provides shelter, resources and healthcare to the Alamo City’s homeless population and said he plans to raise private-sector funding for a similar project in Houston.
“We’ve heard the different levels of government, but that’s not enough,” Whitmire said. “We’ve got to raise money for our Haven for Hope.”
That included a pledge to bring the owners of the Astros, Rockets and Texans into a conference room where he said they would be given 90 days to bring him a plan for funding or providing healthcare for homeless Houstonians.
District I City Councilman Robert Gallegos pointed to his decade on the council, saying he will continue Mayor Sylvester Turner’s work to address homelessness that has made Houston the “model.”
“We are leading the nation in regards to solving our homeless issue because we work together,” Gallegos said. “As the next mayor, I will continue to make sure that we continue to work together to fight homelessness and find housing for those who still don’t have it.”
Bond investor and former Metro Chairman Gilbert Garcia also credited the city’s recent work to address homelessness, saying he planned to continue building on it. Garcia noted the assistance that federal COVID-19 relief funding has given Houston and said it needs to be replaced through partnerships with the private sector to allow for continued progress.
“My platform is quite simple because, in reality, Houston is the model. Houston is doing great,” Garcia said.
Public-private partnerships are key to attorney Lee Kaplan’s plans, as well.
Kaplan said he would “inspire” the private sector to get involved by recognizing and working with homelessness advocates while removing roadblocks to charitable work, such as the city’s ordinance against feeding groups of people in certain areas of the city.
“The ordinance to essentially ticket people and forbid them from feeding the homeless was ill-thought-out,” Kaplan said. “The essence of leadership is thinking hard about what we need to do about a problem.”
Jackson Lee, police officer Robin Williams and community journalist Derrick Broze also criticized recent tickets issued by the Houston Police Department to volunteers feeding groups of homeless people in front of downtown’s Central Library.
Williams said her experience in law enforcement has shown her the need for police officers to be trained on how to handle someone experiencing a mental health crisis and the need for mental health professionals to accompany police officers to those calls.
Broze cited his own experience, recalling a felony conviction 20 years ago that briefly left him sleeping on the streets after his release from incarceration. Broze emphasized the need for criminal justice reform and reentry programs to keep homelessness from being criminalized and making it harder for people to get jobs and housing.
“We can’t always be reactive and Band-Aiding the solution,” Broze said. “At some point, we should have a conversation about why people get to the point of being on the streets.”
Entrepreneur Naoufal Houjami said addressing homelessness requires bipartisan participation and said he’s the best candidate to work with Democrats, Republicans and private businesses to find and fund solutions.
Editor’s note: Story has been updated to delete incorrect reference to Sen. John Whitmire’s place of birth.