DATA: Houston-area homeless population stays flat in 2020 but could increase in 2021

Otha Norton is an outreach specialist for Search Homeless Services and records data in a multiagency information system. (Courtesy Lauren Anderson)
Otha Norton is an outreach specialist for Search Homeless Services and records data in a multiagency information system. (Courtesy Lauren Anderson)

Otha Norton is an outreach specialist for Search Homeless Services and records data in a multiagency information system. (Courtesy Lauren Anderson)

The Houston area saw its homeless population stay mostly flat in 2020 with a slight increase in Harris County, but experts warn the effects of the coronavirus-related economic downturn will not be reflected in the data until the same data is collected next year.

“We definitely expect to see an increase because there are a lot of people who have hit financial troubles. I know the city and the county both have been providing the assistance, and there have been tranches of funding that have come about that were used up within hours,” said Ana Rausch, the vice president of program operations at the Coalition for the Homeless. “That alone tells us that there is a lot of need and there are still more people contacting the homeless coalition for rental assistance.”

The results of the 2020 annual point-in-time count published June 23 and organized by the Coalition for the Homeless Houston recorded 3,567 homeless residents in Harris County, of which 1,515 were living on the streets rather than in shelters. This year, that number climbed slightly to 3,753 with 1,551 living on the streets. Harris County makes up the bulk of the Houston-area homeless population, which also includes totals from Montgomery and Fort Bend counties. Overall, the three-county area recorded about a 40-person increase to a total of 3,974.

In 2020, for the second year in a row, about 20% of the current homeless population in the area was experiencing homelessness for the first time, according to the PIT data.

A demographic breakdown of the Houston area’s homeless population presents additional causes for concern, Rausch and Nichols said. As in previous years, Black residents are disproportionately affected by homelessness, making up 56% of the area homeless population but only 19% of the total population in 2020, the count found.

“We’re in a moment in our country’s history where we are clearly reckoning with racial disparities. Getting people experiencing homelessness are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19,” said Michael C. Nichols, the president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless. “For them and for our community, housing is health care.”

Among those experiencing homelessness during the 2020 count, 30% were chronically homeless, 32% had self-reported mental illness and/or substance use disorders, 10% experienced domestic violence, 7% were veterans, 6% were homeless because of a natural disaster and 7% first became homeless outside the three-county area.

While experts and even those who facilitate the count acknowledge it can be a flawed method of data collection, it is the main way the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development evaluates how much funding to provide metropolitan areas.

As the Houston area’s main coordinating body of homeless services, the Coalition for the Homeless combines government and nonprofit resources under one effort and has seen early success by following a housing-first model. The model shifts focus away from building up shelter bed capacity and toward finding permanent housing and supportive services for homeless residents. The method gained notice from the federal government and has helped the coalition steadily secure performance-based funding over the past decade. Since 2011, the coalition has placed over 19,000 people in permanent housing.

“If [a city] is always funding shelters, maybe it's time to look at rapid rehousing, which is when you house the person and provide supportive services while they’re housed rather than try to provide services in the shelter environment before they can receive housing,” Rausch said of the strategy.

That success, however, is in a tenuous position, members of the coalition warned. In 2019 alone, nearly 30,000 people sought services from the coalition. While all of those people are not necessarily homeless or living on the streets in that moment, they are seeking rental assistance and experiencing food insecurity, some indicators of a level of poverty that can lead to homelessness.

“We will not be able to make further progress as a homeless response system without considerable influx of resources,” Nichols said.
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.


Several local markets offer ways to support small businesses and artisans this holiday season. (Courtesy Pexels)
Check out these Small Business Saturday and holiday markets in Houston

Here are a few ways to support local businesses as the holiday shopping season kicks off.

Heading into Thanksgiving, Texas Medical Center continues to report uptick in hospitalizations

The total number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized at Texas Medical Center facilities has increased by more than 50% over two weeks.

The Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce Foundation's food drive this year will support the Montrose Center, filling boxes of food for LGBTQ seniors. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Greater Houston LGBT Chamber hosts holiday food drive

The food drive will accept donations in person Dec. 4 as well as online.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced a COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan for the state Nov. 23 for a vaccine he said could be available as soon as December. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announces COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan

The vaccine could start being distributed "as early as next month," according to a Nov. 23 news release.

"Remember, we don't want to invite COVID-19 to the dinner table," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a Nov. 23 press conference urging caution amid rising COVID-19 positivity rates. (Screenshot via ABC13)
Mayor Sylvester Turner urges caution heading into Thanksgiving holiday

Houston officials also said 333 health providers had been identified as future vaccine delivery sites.

Good Dog Houston
Good Dog serves its last hot dog at Montrose location

Guests who can show proof of Montrose residency can get a discount at the Heights location through the end of 2020.

protestor in crowd with who police the police sign
New report: Houston police oversight board lagging behind major Texas cities

The report suggested having no oversight board has a better effect on public trust than having a dysfunctional board.

Nell Stewart
East Montrose neighborhood plans parade for 100-year-old resident Nell Stewart

"Well, we treasure her, so wanted to do something," said resident Julie Young.

Laura Colangelo
Q&A: Laura Colangelo discusses challenges facing private schools during pandemic

Colangelo said private schools have adapted to remote learning and other obstacles in 2020 despite less revenue and a 9% decline in enrollment statewide.

Shake Shack opened its new standalone location at The Woodlands Mall in November. (Courtesy Christine Han)
Shake Shack opens in The Woodlands Mall and more Houston-area updates

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

The Skeeters will be the first-ever independent baseball league team to become an MLB team's Triple-A affiliate. (Courtesy Sugar Land Skeeters)
Sugar Land Skeeters selected as Triple-A affiliate for Houston Astros

In joining the Houston Astros organization, the Sugar Land Skeeters will be the first-ever independent baseball league team to become an MLB team's Triple-A affiliate.