One in seven unsheltered individuals in the Greater Houston area attribute their homelessness to job loss or eviction as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to the results of the 2021 Homeless Count & Survey, which were released March 24. Of those who identified COVID-19 as a root cause of their homelessness, 45% said this was their first time experiencing homelessness.

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, Coalition for the Homeless and The Way Home conducted its annual point-in-time homeless count Jan. 19-29 to identify sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness across Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. According to a Jan. 13 news release, the annual count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the local Continuum of Care funding process, which brought more than $41 million to Greater Houston-area homeless assistance programs in fiscal year 2019-20.

The funds also play a critical role in providing permanent housing, outreach and support services to people experiencing homeless throughout the Greater Houston area, the release stated.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, several procedural changes were made for this year's count process to ensure social distancing and enhance safety from a public health standpoint.

"The results of the 2021 count are not directly comparable to those of years' past because of the changes in methodology we used because of COVID-19; but there's still a great deal we can learn [from the data]," said Mike Nichols, president and CEO for Coalition for the Homeless, in a March 24 webinar.

Reading the results

According to the 2021 Homeless County & Survey results, a total of 3,055 individuals were counted across Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties as experiencing homelessness the night of Jan. 19. Though not directly comparable, this is down from the 3,974 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals counted across the tricounty area in 2020.

Of those 3,055 homeless individuals, 1,545 or 51% were sheltered, meaning they are living in a publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living arrangements, and 1,510 or 49% were unsheltered, meaning they are living in a place not meant for human habitation.

As in years' past, Harris County accounted for the majority of homeless individuals with 2,893 sheltered and unsheltered individuals, while Montgomery County accounted for 102 sheltered and unsheltered individuals, and Fort Bend County accounted for 60 sheltered and unsheltered individuals.

Of the total 3,055 sheltered and unsheltered homeless individuals included in the count, 18% were experiencing chronic homelessness, meaning they have a disability and have either been continually homeless for a year or more or had four or more occasions of homelessness in the last three years. Additionally, 38% self-reported having a serious mental illness; 28% self-reported having a substance use disorder; 15% said they had experienced domestic violence; and 6% were veterans.

"The majority of these are self-reported, so some [data points] like mental illness or drugs could be higher due to the stigma of reporting, so some individuals may choose not to report that," said Ana Rausch, vice president of programs for Coalition for the Homeless, in a March 24 webinar. "I can say we have seen a decrease of over 30% in the veteran homeless population over the years, which is fantastic and speaks to the continued steady state on ending veteran homelessness."

Of the 1,510 unsheltered homeless individuals accounted for in the 2021 count, 20% said they were experiencing homelessness for the first time; 14% said they were experiencing homelessness due to a natural disaster; and 15% said they were experiencing homelessness due to COVID-19—primarily citing job loss and/or eviction.

"Of the 15% that answered that they were impacted by COVID-19, 45% of those indicated that they were homeless for the first time," Rausch said. "So almost half of the individuals that stated they were homeless due to COVID-19 were homeless for the first time."

Of the 3,055 total homeless individuals, 39.6% identified as white, while 56.4% identified as Black or African American; 1.1% identified as Asian; 1.1% identified as American Indian, Alaskan native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander; and 1.4% identified as multiple races. Additionally, 13.5% identified as being of Hispanic ethnicity.

"People identifying as Black or African American are disproportionately represented, making up 56.4% of the total population experiencing homelessness but only 19.9% of the Harris County population," Rausch said. "So we're still seeing that disparity in race and ethnicity for individuals experiencing homelessness."

According to the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, the first part of which was released by HUD on March 18, the disproportionate representation of Black or African American homeless individuals is a trend counties are experiencing nationwide. According to the report, of the 580,466 individuals who were homeless on a single night in January 2020 nationwide, 39% identified as Black or African American; by comparison, Black and African American individuals make up 12% of the entire U.S. population.

According to the 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, more than half of all people experiencing homelessness nationwide did so in one of five states: California, New York, Florida, Texas and Washington. Overall, the homeless population for Texas sat at roughly 27,000 in 2020—a slight increase from 2019.

Analyzing the data

While the Greater Houston area experienced about a 23% decrease in homelessness year over year, Rausch and Nichols said there are several contributing factors that need to be taken into consideration when analyzing the count results.

According to Rausch, one of the biggest influences on this year's homeless count is the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In addition to some homeless individuals being reluctant to stay in a shelter for fear of contracting COVID-19, Rausch said bed availability has also been cut significantly over the past year to allow for social distancing in shelters. Prepandemic, Rausch said the Greater Houston area had an average of 1,900 sheltered individuals on a nightly basis; that figure has dropped to an average of 1,200 amid the pandemic.

"So the lower sheltered numbers aren't necessarily a positive development; if people are in need of services, we want them to have access to them," Nichols said. "Across the board, COVID-19 has led to an increase in the demand for local social support services, while making them more difficult to access."

Additionally, the recent launch of the Community COVID Housing Program also affected this year's count. As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the program is a $65 million initiative by Harris County, the city of Houston and Coalition for the Homeless to provide permanent housing to 5,000 otherwise-homeless individuals over the next two years. The plan was announced last summer and launched in October.

According to Rausch, as of Jan. 19—the night of record for this year's count—nearly 800 individuals had been permanently housed through CCHP; as of March 24, that number had doubled to 1,600.

"The CCHP is the most comprehensive and evidence-based investment in addressing homelessness in our region's history," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement. "The early results of the program are a promising sign that we are moving in the right direction, but that doesn't mean we will rest on our laurels. I recognize that addressing a challenge as complex as homelessness will require sustained effort, and we look forward to continuing our work with all involved."

Overall, Rausch said Coalition for the Homeless and The Way Home have housed more than 21,000 people across the three counties since 2012. These efforts combined with CCHP and the ongoing eviction moratorium have likely contributed to the Greater Houston area's overall decrease in homelessness year over year.

"It appears that we have avoided a surge in homelessness—for now," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. "This is of no coincidence, but due to the wise and targeted investment of new sources of funding; our usage of permanent housing as an infectious disease control response; and the ingenuity and hard work of our homeless response system. Addressing homelessness is a top priority for the city, and we are proud to allocate substantial resources to this innovative program. But the pandemic is not over, and we are not out of the woods yet. Now is not the time to let our guard down. Continued investment in homelessness prevention and response will be necessary to keep a homelessness crisis at bay."