While Houston homelessness is in decline, experts worry about at-risk population

SEARCH outreach specialist Otha Norton, left, assists Carlton Ray and records data in a multi-agency information system. (Courtesy Lauren Anderson)
SEARCH outreach specialist Otha Norton, left, assists Carlton Ray and records data in a multi-agency information system. (Courtesy Lauren Anderson)

SEARCH outreach specialist Otha Norton, left, assists Carlton Ray and records data in a multi-agency information system. (Courtesy Lauren Anderson)

When Brittany Perez was living out of her car, at times the best place to sleep was anywhere she could find a gate.

“You can’t go to a park because they close at night so sometimes I would go to an apartment complex and stay in my car there because at least I knew I was safe,” she said.

An annual three-day tally of the Houston area’s homeless population, known as the point-in-time count, shows an over 50% decrease since 2011. City and nonprofit leaders, however, worry that the number of people at risk of falling into homelessness—like Perez was beginning at age 14—could begin to outpace those who find permanent housing.

By the end of the year, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is committed to seeing a 10% reduction in the city’s homeless population. To boost chances of success, Turner is soliciting $50 million in donations for The Way Home, the coordinating body of nonprofit and government entities in the Houston area dedicated to ending homelessness.

A number of stakeholders, however, say rising housing prices, stagnant wages and potentially inaccurate data gathering may increase the city's at-risk population. In 2019, about 30,000 people sought out homeless services, which also supports those who are struggling financially but not living on the streets or in shelters.

“The homelessness coalition tracks over the course of a year how many people are accessing help from the homeless service system, which has dramatically increased over these last five, six years,” said Thao Costis, president and CEO of SEARCH, the lead homelessness case management service in Houston. “That is the canary in the coal mine that we need to be paying attention to.”

A sense of scale

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development uses the figures reported from annual point-in-time counts from across the country to help determine which U.S. cities take priority for federal assistance.

However, some call to question the accuracy of the prevailing method.

Researchers from the University of Chicago sounded alarm about HUD’s reliance on this method without supplementation from other data such as hospital visits. In Cook County, where Chicago is located, researchers found while the point-in-time count showed the population shrinking, the number of patients reported as homeless visiting emergency rooms each year not only contradicted that trend, but also suggested the population could be twice as large as estimated.

“Logically, if you think about this population, they’re most likely to interact with state institutions—law enforcement, the education system and hospitals,” University of Chicago researcher Dana Madigan said. “We focus on the shelters, even though we know a lot of them don’t interact with the shelters.”

Courtney Sellers, executive director of Montrose Grace Place, a service provider for homeless LGBTQ youth, said she echoes those concerns because the youth population is particularly hesitant to self-report.

“If I hadn’t stepped up and watched my siblings ... we would’ve ended up in foster care,” said Perez, who now studies social work and volunteers with Montrose Grace Place.

Sellers said she sees an increasing need for Montrose Grace Place’s services, including free clothing, dinners and activities.

Despite these concerns, Turner’s special assistant for homelessness initiatives, Marc Eichenbaum, said trends need to be placed in context. He said the highest concentration of homeless residents is in the urban core and has become more visible as development has intensified. He noted the revitalization of Buffalo Bayou as one example of that displacement.

“There used to be 125 individuals every day down there. ... Where are those individuals now? They’re street side. Now they’re visible and they used to be out of sight out of mind for people,” he said.

While the point-in-time count is not a perfect method, Ana Rausch, Houston Coalition for the Homeless vice president of program operations, said it is the most commonly accepted method available and needs support if the city hopes to continue to receive funding from HUD.

“We believe that permanent housing with wraparound services is really the key to ending homelessness, and that’s what we do,” Rausch said. “We’ve housed over 18,000 people since 2012.”

Strategies for success

Compared to similarly-sized Dallas and Austin—a smaller city with a more highly publicized homeless population—Houston has the lowest population per capita, according to 2018 point-in-time count numbers.

Houston has leveraged an influx of support from the federal government that was directed to the city in 2011 when it was determined a priority area by HUD. With added federal services, rather than adding more shelter beds, city and nonprofit officials consolidated efforts to form The Way Home and collectively turned their efforts toward permanent housing.

“Because Harris County is so big, we cannot expect to have one location as a shelter or a place where everybody can go,” Costis said.

She said she has seen promise in the region’s shift in approach to collaborate between all types of service providers from churches to government agencies to nonprofits.

“Before, we weren’t able to end their homeless experience as much as we were able to just kind of end their hunger and their need for a place to be that day,” Costis said.

By communicating between service providers, Eichenbaum said those who receive housing are also matched with services specific to their needs.

“What we’re trying to do is have the lowest possible recidivism rate,” he said.

Looking ahead

Houston has long enjoyed the advantage of relatively low land prices, but that may not remain the case for long, Costis said.

“We do have to recognize that with more people living here and with wages struggling, that there’s a potential for more of them to drop further into homelessness,” she said.

If Turner’s $50 million fundraising goal is met, Eichenbaum said most of the dollars will be allocated toward support services to target the most vulnerable homeless residents in the city who are the most difficult to assist.

SEARCH struggles to find places for homeless residents who have disabilities that prevent them from working full time. The support system for those with disabilities to find housing and in-home care is not well built-out in Houston, Costis said.

“We don’t have that kind of level of care, and we’re trying to figure that out,” she said.

Resources for residents before they become homeless will become just as important in the coming years, Eichenbaum said.

A portion of that population is the 39% of Harris County residents that a 2019 Rice Kinder Institute for Urban Research study found have less than $400 in savings.

“Close to 40% of our neighbors are one medical emergency, one broken car, one financial issue away from being homeless,” Eichenbaum said.

Read the full interview with Brittany Perez here.

Helping locally

These area service providers cater to different at-risk populations in Houston. Find out how to lend a hand.

Covenant House

1111 Lovett Blvd., Houston



Opportunities: Volunteers can contribute to youth engagement events, tutoring, fitness and wellness activities, and cooking classes. The house also accepts clothing and personal item donations.

Salvation Army-Young Adult

Resource Center (ages 18-24)

1621 McGowen St., Bldg. A, Houston



Salvation Army-Family Residence

1603 McGowen St., Houston


Opportunities: preparing and delivering meals, game nights and youth mentoring

Montrose Grace Place

2515 Waugh Drive, Houston

P.O. Box 540632 (for donations)



Opportunities: Volunteers can help with group activities and preparing meals. MGP also accepts donations of personal hygiene items and clothing.

Houston Area Women’s Shelter

1010 Waugh Drive, Houston



Opportunities: Volunteers can help with the crisis hotline, child care, administrative support, group events and special events.
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


houston firefighters rally
Appeals court rules in favor Houston firefighters in collective bargaining case

The 14th Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the fire union in a case that originated when the city and the union failed to reach an agreement on a labor contract in 2017.

The Texas Department of State Health Services projects a significant shortage of nurses by 2032. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Q&A: Why Texas faces a growing nursing shortage and what can be done to address it

In 2018, the state health department estimated about 11% of the demand for nurses was not able to be met, and that number is expected to rise to 16.3% by 2032.

Rumi's Place will open on Post Oak Boulevard in fall 2022, specializing in Persian food with a contemporary twist. (Courtesy Zadok family)
Persian restaurant Rumi's Place announced for Post Oak mixed-use development in Uptown

The eatery will occupy the last available restaurant space at the newly opened Post Oak Place, alongside Uchiko.

I-69 Southwest Freeway at I-610 West Loop will be closed May 7 at 9 p.m. until May 10 at 5 a.m. (Courtesy Texas Department of Transportation)
TxDOT: I-69 Southwest Freeway at I-610 West Loop closed through weekend

From May 7 at 9 p.m. until May 10 at 5 a.m., the lanes will be closed.

Legacy Community Health is bringing COVID-19 vaccines to historically underserved communities across Beaumont and Houston. (Courtesy Pexels)
Legacy Community Health vaccine rollout targets underserved communities in Houston, Beaumont

The health network is partnering with other entities, including Beaumont Independent School District.

Houston, Harris County annual addresses no longer hosted by Greater Houston Partnership over Texas voter bill dispute

Local leaders criticized the area chamber of commerce for not taking a definitive stance on two voting access bills currently being deliberated in the Texas Legislature.

The new location is Chipotle's first in Magnolia. (Courtesy Chipotle Mexican Grill)
Chipotle opens in Magnolia; get a sneak peek of new Houston aquarium and more metro news

Read the latest business and community news from the Houston area.

The Original ChopShop is targeting an early September opening in River Oaks, one of the first two locations of the chain coming to Houston. (Courtesy Facebook)
ROUNDUP: 5 summer openings planned in Heights, River Oaks and Montrose areas

A crafthouse, a massage therapy spa and a corner store that doubles as a Mediterranean cafe are among the new businesses that hope to open this summer.

The business specializes in customized in-home consultations during which families will receive a fire safety plan specific to their house's floor plan and an age-appropriate, individualized plan for each family member. (Courtesy Fire Smart, LLC)
Fire Smart, LLC celebrates one year of providing fire safety education across Greater Houston area

The business specializes in customized in-home consultations during which families will receive a fire safety plan specific to their house's floor plan and an age-appropriate, individualized plan for each family member.

Designs show the concept for the administration area of a new 32,000-square-foot campus being planned by Xavier Educational Academy. (Courtesy Xavier Educational Academy)
Xavier Educational Academy announces plans to combine campuses at 1 location near Arboretum

The private school currently operates at three campuses in West University, The Woodlands and Memorial. The new 32,000-square-foot campus will quadruple the available space.

kiosk downtown
Updated: In close vote, digital kiosk proposal gets approval from Houston City Council

The potential contract between Ohio-based company IKE Smart City and the city of Houston would allow the media company to sell advertising space on dozens of 8-foot-tall digital kiosks while paying the city a portion of its commissions.