The number of people who are homeless increased 54% in Montgomery County since 2017, despite a trend toward fewer homeless people living in shelters or on the streets across the Greater Houston area.

A 2019 survey by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston found 212 people living in shelters and 86 unsheltered in Montgomery County, compared to 203 people in shelters and 74 unsheltered countywide in 2018.

The coalition evaluates the homeless population of Montgomery, Harris and Fort Bend counties by collecting data on people living in shelters, transitional housing and unsheltered in a single night.

“I’m surprised by the number of emails we get every single day … [reading] ‘I’m homeless, I have children, I need a place to stay,’” said Marilyn Kasmiersky, executive director of Family Promise of Montgomery County, a nonprofit helping homeless and low-income families. “We get phone calls and emails every day from people reaching out wanting a place, wanting help.”

Although the number of people experiencing homelessness is rising, city officials and nonprofit organizers disagree on causes and solutions.

Rising numbers

The increasing homeless count might not mean the actual number of homeless people is rising, but could be due to the coalition better understanding the local data, said Ana Rausch, Coalition for the Homeless Houston’s senior research project manager.

Nancy Heintz, Coalition for the Homeless project manager for Montgomery County, said the survey is not intended to come up with a comprehensive number, but to provide a snapshot of trends. The coalition reports the number of homeless people is down 52% since 2011 across the Greater Houston area, but Montgomery County was not included in the survey until 2017.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, one major gap in the point-in-time survey style is with homeless youth below age 18, who often avoid shelters and communities. The coalition found no unaccompanied youths or families with minor children on the night of the survey.

Jaime Parker, the shelter director for Yes to Youth Montgomery County Youth Services, said the coalition’s definition of homelessness might also affect the survey’s result. She said families and youths who are couch surfing or living with friends or extended families might not have a home, but might also not be counted as homeless.

“A lot of times they’re only counting people who are living on the street,” Parker said. “I feel like that count really underrepresents how many homeless there may be who don’t have stable housing.”

Parker said Yes to Youth works with school districts to count students considered homeless, and found an increase in couch surfing—especially among families with children.

Some factors behind homelessness for families at Family Promise include substance abuse, domestic violence or job loss, according to Kasmiersky, who said the lack of affordable housing directly increases the number of people struggling with homelessness.

According to the Affordable Housing Online database, Montgomery has two low-income rental properties—up from zero last year. Conroe has 13 low-income properties, up from 11 last year.

“I know that Montgomery County does not have adequate affordable housing, and the average new home is about $200,000,” Kasmiersky said. “That’s not a good starter home price for people who are starting over, and we don’t want to put families ... in a dangerous community.”

Rausch said the best solution to end homelessness is permanent, supportive housing. She said the coalition housed more than 17,000 people since 2012—however, people experiencing homelessness in shelters and on the streets are still waiting for a home.

City responses

Conroe officials have ongoing programs addressing homelessness, including the Critical Incident Response Team. Conroe Police Department Lt. James Waller said the police team up with Tri-County Behavioral Healthcare to form CIRT. A police officer with specialized mental health crisis training and a Tri-County clinician respond together to mental health calls, including homeless individuals.

“As you can imagine, there are challenges with follow-up visits due to the transient nature of homeless people, but our teams try to stay abreast of their locations,” Waller said in an email. “The CIRT program helps people get needed mental health services and promotes a positive experience with law enforcement.”

However, Conroe City Council passed an ordinance June 13 to expand prohibitions against sleeping, urinating and defecating in public as well as “aggressive panhandling.” On the flip side, the city is considering a resolution to gift 5 acres of land to Compassion United church for a low-income housing development July 11, after press time.

Waller said he witnessed the need for the ordinance first hand when an aggressive panhandler followed him and his wife while they were shopping.

“There’s definitely an issue there,” Waller said. “That ordinance is meant to provide the public with a safe and secure environment.”

Conroe City Council Member Raymond McDonald said the ordinance was passed to protect business storefronts downtown.

“The downtown merchants were complaining, as they still do, of defecation and urination on their doorsteps and on the backs of their buildings and on their rooftops,” McDonald said.

McDonald said people living in the downtown area like his own family does are well aware of the growing problem: waking up with people sleeping on their doorsteps, finding people bathing with their garden hose or people defecating in their yard.

“My wife … called me and said, ‘Listen, I can’t go to sleep because they’re all around the house,’” McDonald said.

Solutions and support

McDonald said he believes the government and nonprofits must work together to tackle the issue. He said the city is planning to open bids on a parcel of land along Foster Drive specifically for organizations who want to help those experiencing homelessness in downtown Conroe. He said he is also in preliminary talks with Mayor Toby Powell to form a task force that will help transition people into life off the street.

“Think of us as a community, and if we’re all as a community to go after this together, that would be fine, but that would mean [in] April Sound [neighborhood], maybe you should build something out there,” McDonald said. “Maybe The Woodlands, who are well-suited financially to help, instead of sending your money to the ministries here, open something there.”

Yes to Youth broke ground on its expansion June 20, intended to increase its housing space to 30 beds. Wilson said the shelter still needs $800,000 to reach its goal of $4.2 million.

“We also need to hire additional staff to create a safe and inclusive home for local homeless, abused, neglected and sex-trafficked youth,” Wilson said. “Our current state contract and grants will not provide additional funds until we have increased the number of kids we house, so we need help bridging this gap.”

Additionally, McDonald said Conroe typically supports local nonprofits by issuing variances or waiving permit fees. He said he believes solutions will come from collaboration between all the specialized organizations.

“It would be easier for you and for me just to say, ‘Let them stay in the woods, give them money every now and then, and don’t worry about what’s going on with them,’” McDonald said. “I think it’s more compassionate to say, ‘You can’t sleep in the woods. We’ll help you get what you need, but this isn’t the answer.’”