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What can California learn from Texas about addressing homelessness?


In the last decade, the number of people who are homeless in California has soared, rising more than 40%. Meanwhile, in Texas, they're seeing the opposite trend, with homelessness dropping by nearly a third. California leaders have been making trips to Texas to see what they can learn from the Lone Star State's approach. And Marisa Kendall, who reports on homelessness in California for CalMatters, recently traveled to Texas herself to report on what they're doing differently. Marisa, so these trends are really, really different on opposite ends. What's happening?

MARISA KENDALL: Yeah. So a big factor is the huge discrepancy between the housing markets in California and Texas. According to Zillow, the median rent for a one-bedroom in California is $2,200. In Texas, that's only $1,200. Texas also builds more. The state permitted twice as many houses as California last year even though California has 9 million more people. A lot of that has to do with factors that are really big and really hard to change, like California zoning laws, higher building costs, environmental regulations. But there are some smaller things that certain Texas cities are doing that California potentially could copy.

MARTÍNEZ: Ooh, such as what?

KENDALL: So I visited three cities, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, which are the three cities getting the most interest from California leaders. In Houston, they are really focusing on permanent housing instead of putting any money into temporary shelter. In Austin, they have a giant 51-acre tiny home village that offers permanent housing to several hundred formerly homeless people. And it has all of these really surprising amenities like a fishing pond and a ceramics studio. San Antonio takes a really different approach. They have a 1,600-bed emergency shelter that serves nearly every homeless person in the city and offers things like medical care directly on site.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so those are some options on solutions. California, though, can't be looking to model everything Texas is doing.

KENDALL: That's correct. So Texas does take a much more punitive approach than California is comfortable with. Public camping is illegal statewide in Texas. And activists say, rather than helping to solve the problem, what that does is in cities like Austin, it pushes unhoused people out of sight into wooded areas, where they're cut off from the services they need.

In California, on the other hand, there's a court ruling that mostly prohibits cities from clearing encampments unless they have a shelter bed to offer everyone. Another issue is, in Houston, where they focus so much on permanent housing, they neglect temporary shelter. So I spoke with a woman named Rachel Gonzales, who has been waiting months for a housing placement. And in the meantime, she's sleeping on the sidewalk without even a tent because there's just not enough shelter beds. And the police won't let her set up a permanent camp.

RACHEL GONZALES: You got to think day by day. You can't think about tomorrow, because if you think about tomorrow, think about a week from now, you'll actually go crazy.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, that sounds rough. Marisa, do people in California think that some of what Texas is doing could actually help?

KENDALL: Yeah, so some of the things that Texas is doing actually already have influenced California policy. There's already two tiny home villages in California that are modeled off of what Austin is doing. And I spoke with two additional groups who are interested in doing the same thing. They just don't have the funding yet. On their own, none of these things are likely to actually solve homelessness in California. But some leaders do think they could help make a dent.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Marisa Kendall with CalMatters. Marisa, thanks.

KENDALL: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "AFTER THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.