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.


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