While it is still too early to report exact numbers, thousands of unsheltered individuals in Harris County may have been saved from freezing temperatures this week thanks in part to two recent initiatives spearheaded by the Coalition for the Homeless and The Way Home.

The Coalition for the Homeless is a nonprofit that advocates for homeless individuals in the Greater Houston area and leads The Way Home, a network of more than 100 agencies that serve people experiencing homelessness in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

Since the winter storm first appeared on the radar, Coalition Communications Director Catherine Villarreal said the organization has been coordinating with the Harris County and city of Houston offices of emergency management to ensure a plan was in place to address the needs of unsheltered individuals experiencing homelessness. As a result of this coordination, more than a dozen warming centers opened throughout Harris County and the city of Houston for all individuals in need of refuge from the plummeting temperatures.

"The George R. Brown Convention Center was opened by the city of Houston as a warming center. We had, I think, over the course of the last several days almost 1,000 people present there," Villarreal said in a Feb. 17 interview. "It's important to note that not everybody there was literally homeless. ... There were other people who came there, perhaps because they lost power at their own homes and were seeking warmth, but I think that speaks to the fact that there was a need for the shelter, not just for people experiencing homelessness but for the broader community."

To get these individuals to warming centers, Villarreal said the Coalition and its partnering agencies through The Way Home worked with the Harris County Sheriff's Office and the Houston Police Department to dispatch homeless outreach teams to offer transportation in areas where unsheltered individuals are known to congregate. Villarreal said the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, or METRO, and Yellow Cab were also instrumental in this effort.

"I think that's part of how we were able to, fortunately, get a good number of folks off the streets," she said.

As previously reported by Community Impact Newspaper, the Coalition and The Way Home had just completed its annual 2021 Homeless Count and Survey from Jan. 19-29. Although the results of the count will not be released until this spring, Villarreal said because of the count, the outreach teams knew exactly where these hot spots were, which expedited the process and potentially saved more lives.

"We'd actually just done the count for 2021 a couple weeks ago ... [so] we had a pretty good idea of where there are people congregated experiencing unsheltered homelessness and were able to use those maps and that knowledge to send homeless outreach teams out," Villarreal said. "There's so many reasons we do the count, ... but I think that was really helpful information going into this [disaster] because we knew where people were that were going to need our help."

In addition to the annual count, Villarreal said the recent launch of the Community-wide COVID-19 Housing Program also gave the homeless assistance organizations a leg up in addressing the needs of homeless individuals throughout the winter storm. Known as CCHP, the $65 million initiative is a joint venture of Harris County, the city of Houston and the Coalition with the goal of providing permanent housing to 5,000 otherwise homeless individuals over the next two years. The plan was announced last summer and launched in October.

"Since then we have provided housing for more than 1,000 people and that was a mix of people who were sheltered and unsheltered but the majority of them were unsheltered—so that actually represents almost 1,000 people that would have been unsheltered [during this disaster] that are now in housing because of the CCHP program," Villarreal said. "When we were pitching this idea of permanent housing as a response to COVID, we were saying that the fewer people that we have living unsheltered, the more resilient we are in the next disaster; little did we know how soon that would be, and I think that has definitely proven to be true with this winter weather crisis."

While this week's focus for the Coalition and The Way Home has been sheltering those in need from the cold, Villarreal said the long-term goal is providing permanent housing—a goal on which the organizations are making headway through programs, such as the CCHP.

"Certainly, in this emergency situation, the goal was to get people out of the cold and keep them safe in these cold nights, but our long-term goals are to get people into permanent housing, and that's what we're all working together to do," Villarreal said. "The best thing that we can do is—rather than responding to emergencies—is make ourselves more resilient as a community by putting people in permanent housing so that there aren't people living on the streets when something like this happens."

With another night of freezing temperatures ahead for the Greater Houston area, Villarreal said she was confident in the coordinated efforts of the Coalition and The Way Home, as well as city and county entities, to provide shelter for those in need this week.

"We do not have all the numbers in yet. ... I think the fact that so many people experiencing homelessness were able to find shelter at [warming centers, such as] the George R. Brown Convention Center, is just wonderful and speaks to the collective effort of the city and the county and The Way Home agencies," Villarreal said. "I think it's probably a little bit premature to declare any sort of victory, as we're still in this, and we will learn more in the coming days, but I know we've certainly done everything we were able, and we feel confident about that."