Yesterday, Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, visited Houston with Congressman Dan Crenshaw (R-TX-02) to tour a local shelter and discuss remedies for homelessness with community leaders. Afterward, the two talked with The Texan about the purpose of their visit and the role of government in addressing poverty and homelessness.
In a quiet enclave a few miles south of Texas’ largest city, Secretary Carson and Rep. Crenshaw visited the Women & Family Development Center operated by Star of Hope Mission.
Specifically geared to meeting the needs of women and children, the facility not only provides basic food and shelter but offers a wide array of programs designed to address the root causes of homelessness.
Services include access to social services, therapy, and substance abuse recovery programs, as well as workforce development and continuing education. As a faith-based organization, Star of Hope also seeks to address spiritual needs through counseling, Bible studies, and chapel services.
On the night prior to Carson and Crenshaw’s visit, the center had 450 women and children in residence. Star of Hope operates a separate facility in the city for single men, and still another for teenagers, including those transitioning out of foster care.
Secretary Carson said he came to Houston due to the community’s success in addressing the problem of homelessness through a combination of healthy partnerships with private charities like Star of Hope Mission along with local policies that help move afflicted individuals into the appropriate programs.
An annual canvass indicates area homelessness has been in decline since 2011, despite a spike following Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
A key component of Houston’s success may be enforcement of public encampment ordinances.
During the tour, Crenshaw said he learned that while other cities such as Los Angeles have programs like Star of Hope’s, the lack of enforcement disincentivizes participation.
Secretary Carson agreed.
“The problem is that some places have misinterpreted what compassion is,” Carson told The Texan. “They think compassion means just leaving people alone to do anything they want…We shouldn’t have policies that enable inappropriate behavior.”
“It’s counterintuitive, but you have to force people off the streets and into help,” Crenshaw added. “If that help is there, then there’s a pathway to a better outcome.”
As support for the city’s encampment ordinance, the Houston Police Department also operates a Homeless Outreach Team including officers and case managers to help individuals access appropriate services.
Carson also emphasized the importance of analyzing outcomes and crafting evidence-based policies. “You can do that without making anyone into the villain. I think that’s how we’re going to make progress.”
Carson said the current homeless rate equates to about 17 out of every 10,000 people in the U.S., but our goal should be two or less.
When asked about the role of government in addressing homelessness and poverty, both Carson and Crenshaw agreed that government does have a role, but with limits.
Crenshaw asserted that government can provide food and shelter, “a very basic safety net,” but that “once you go beyond that…there’s diminishing returns on how effective government can be.”
Emphasizing the effectiveness of the local public-private partnership, Crenshaw said he was blown away to learn that Star of Hope is 95 percent privately funded.
“Which is probably why it looks so great,” he quipped. “If this were a government facility it would look very, very different, and it would probably even cost more.”
He added that private operations could be more flexible in addressing the multiple causes of poverty and homelessness.
Secretary Carson also defended the partnership with faith-based groups, which he says are appropriate under the Constitution. He noted that Supreme Court rulings do not prohibit government from working with faith-based organizations.
“The Court said government should not control the faith-based organizations and faith-based organizations should not control the government. I totally agree with that.”
Referring to Star of Hope Mission, Carson remarked that the group follows Biblical teaching.
Quoting scripture from the Book of James, Carson said, “Pure religion that is undefiled before God the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep themselves unspotted from the world. In other words, don’t do things like everybody else but recognize your responsibility to people who are downtrodden and there’s no reason the government can’t support that.”
When asked what he thought his federal department did well or not so well, Carson said that while there had been plenty not done well, he has been working to reorient federal efforts to promote self-sufficiency.
“Is that easy? Absolutely not.”
He acknowledged there had been a kind of “tug-of-war” with Congress where some members want to impose a “housing first” approach to all programs, while Carson wants to maintain some local flexibility and direct investments to programs with evidence of success.
Betty Nunnally, the senior vice president of programs at Star of Hope, conducted the tour of the Women and Family Development Center, during which Secretary Carson and Rep. Crenshaw were able to see the facility’s dining hall, health center, playgrounds, and a “store” providing clothing for women and children, including professional clothing and accessories for job interviews.
Star of Hope’s president and CEO, Hank Rush, also provided details about the facility, the adjacent subsidized housing apartments and grocery store for transitioning families, and plans to bring a University of Texas Health clinic to the campus.
Rush emphasized his organization’s mission to end homelessness “one life and one family at a time,” through tailored, faith-based programs.
“Miracles are happening here,” said Rush.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.