Homelessness in the Greater Houston area saw an uptick in 2018, and officials with a local nonprofit said that increase can be seen in Cy-Fair as well.
The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County updates its homeless count each year over the course of a three-day period. The process includes visiting emergency shelters, transitional housing and safe havens as well as under bridges, along bayous and in abandoned buildings, according to an executive summary released as part of the 2018 count.
The group counted 4,143 homeless individuals earlier this year across Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties, up from 3,412 in 2017, according to a survey report released this spring. In Harris County the number of unsheltered homeless individuals rose from 1,078 in 2017 to 1,528 in 2018.
Specific counts are not conducted in the Cy-Fair area. However, Jean Dreyer, executive director of homeless initiatives for Cy-Fair Helping Hands, said she has observed an increase on Cy-Fair streets as well.
“It is obvious to us that there’s more and more,” Dreyer said. “Almost any clump of woods of any size is going to have someone living in it. There’s lots of homeless people that most of us never see.”
Dreyer said Hurricane Harvey has led to what she believes is an increase in the number of homeless people in Cy-Fair-area hotels and motels. However, she said she thinks the main reason for the increase on the streets has to do with changes to how the city of Houston handles homelessness, including laws that set strict regulations on where food can be given to homeless people.
“[The city is] trying to put them in a certain area, so the more independent ones come out here [to Cypress] so they can camp where they want to camp,” Dreyer said.
Small teams of volunteers conduct homeless outreach for Cy-Fair Helping Hands in a number of ways, including hitting the streets and interacting with the homeless directly, Dreyer said. The group tries to meet their physical needs by providing food and clothing but also works to identify individuals looking to transition out of homelessness, she said.
“Most of the ones on the streets in the Cypress Fairbanks area, we know, but we do come across new people and work to get to know them and their situation so we can help,” Dreyer said.
Dreyer said she has also noticed an increase over the past few years in homeless encampments in Cy-Fair in areas that are more visible to the public.
“That’s something that we’ve never seen out here,” she said. “Typically, the people in Cy-Fair, up until recently, were pretty much independent, meaning they did not camp together.”
Out of respect for the privacy of homeless individuals, Dreyer declined to point to specific areas in Cy-Fair where she and her volunteers have seen encampments.
Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said his officers have worked to break up homeless camps at the request of property owners. Precinct 4 stretches from Hwy. 290 in Cy-Fair eastward to the Atascocita and Lake Houston area.
“We normally go in with the property owner and basically tell the folks they need to move on,” Herman said. “If the property owner really doesn’t care, there’s not much we can do. We will let [Harris County Public Health] know because a lot of these camps are public health concerns.”
Herman said officers try to find places for the homeless to stay when they take down a camp, often helping them connect with Northwest Assistance Ministries or the homeless shelter in downtown Houston. Cy-Fair Helping Hands has also turned to law enforcement to help in the past, including to the Harris County Sheriff Office’s Homeless Outreach Team, which Dreyer said helps transport individuals to shelters.
Dreyer said individuals looking to help the homeless should contact Cy-Fair Helping Hands to learn more about volunteer opportunities and ways to donate. She said when it comes to helping people transition out of homelessness, timing is key.
“It’s much easier if we can prevent them from being homeless, or if we can catch them right as soon as they’re homeless and start the process,” she said. “The longer they’ve been on the streets, the harder it is.”