More than 25,000 Texans are experiencing homelessness. Their struggles to live without homes have received increased attention amid several recent debates over how best to address homelessness — and help people experiencing it.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Austin Mayor Steve Adler have feuded over that city’s response to homelessness, and city officials are dealing with how to address homeless populations in their own regions. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump tapped the founding president of a shelter in San Antonio to lead the entity that coordinates with federal and local agencies to address homelessness on a national level.
Local homeless experts from around Texas cite a variety of reasons for why thousands of people continue to find themselves homeless every year, including mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, and a lack of housing affordability.
Nan Roman is the president and CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a nonpartisan organization that analyzes data to find solutions for homelessness. She said the state lacks nearly 9,000 beds for homeless individuals.
“In Texas, you have a big deficit on the number of beds for individuals,” Roman said. “Unsheltered homelessness really is a crisis. … People who are unsheltered have very poor health outcomes and much, much worse health than sheltered people.”
The Texas Legislature has dedicated $25 million to address homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. But many cities have also adopted their own strategies, including camping bans, large shelters and citywide databases to track people experiencing homelessness.
Who is homeless in Texas?
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2018 Point in Time Count, a nationwide census of homelessness conducted on one night in January, Texas’ overall homelessness rate is nearly half the national average. Nine per 10,000 people in Texas are homeless, compared with 17 per 10,000 people nationwide, according to HUD.
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The same data also shows a slight increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Texas in the past three years. According to HUD’s 2019 Point in Time Count, there are an estimated 25,848 homeless people in the state, compared with 23,122 in 2016.
According to an analysis of the HUD data by The Texas Tribune, more men than women in Texas and nationwide experience homelessness. Black Texans disproportionately experience homelessness, compared with Hispanic and white residents.
What causes homelessness?
Advocates say the main cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing in Texas, which is especially pronounced in Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, the urban areas driving Texas' population growth. But low-income families are also struggling in smaller cities.
“That’s an issue across the state and across the nation,” said Brenda Mascorro, executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, which coordinates efforts in Bexar County. “The deficiency right now is that we just don’t have enough affordable housing for individuals that are becoming homeless.”
But experts also say homelessness is often the byproduct of failures of societal institutions, such as the criminal justice system and health care providers.
“We need to look at how other systems may be increasing homelessness,” said Carl Falconer, president and CEO of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance. “If you arrest people for quality-of-life crimes, there’s a good likelihood that they are going to become homeless or stay homeless for longer.”
An unexpected health emergency can create financial problems and lead to homelessness, but living without shelter can exacerbate existing medical conditions and addictions.
“Access to mental health services, substance treatment services and quality, affordable healthcare for people experiencing homelessness is really difficult," said Matthew Mollica, executive director of Austin's Ending Community Homelessness Coalition.
What’s happening in Austin?
In Austin, the City Council rolled back ordinances in June prohibiting camping, sitting and lying in public spaces. Since then, Abbott and Adler have publicly clashed about public resources dedicated to addressing homelessness. In two letters sent to Adler in October, Abbott expressed his concerns about unsanitary conditions on Austin’s streets and urged city officials to reinstate the camping ban by Nov. 1, or the state would intervene.
“Reinstating the camping ban is not a total solution, but it is an essential part of demonstrating consequential improvement in the Austin homelessness crisis and the danger it poses to public health and safety,” Abbott said in the second letter.
On Oct. 17, the council approved an ordinance that reinstated a camping ban on city sidewalks, near homeless shelters and in high wildfire risk areas. Less than two weeks later, Abbott announced that the Texas Department of Transportation would be forcing people experiencing homelessness in Austin out of encampments under state overpasses so the city could clean the areas. In many instances, homeless residents returned after state crews were done. Abbott also had a 5-acre plot of state-owned land turned into a homeless encampment.
What do people who are homeless think?
Many homeless Austin residents said Abbott’s approaches were doing less to help them and more to push them out of public view.
Harvest, who lives in a tent under a State Highway 71 overpass, said people still treat her differently and act afraid of her even though many Texans could be one paycheck away from being homeless themselves.
Harvest asked that the Tribune not use her full name because she fears being targeted by other homeless residents. She said that people wrongly assume all people experiencing homelessness are thieves or addicted to drugs. She said what most homeless Texans actually have in common is that they’ve experienced some type of trauma that’s been difficult to process.
“We weren't able to make sense of it, and we felt like we had to pull ourselves out of the mainstream,” Harvest said.
Gilbert Jones lives in a tent under an overpass with his pregnant wife and said he is regularly surrounded by needles and pipes on the ground. He said he’s looking to find work and permanent housing for his family but is having difficulty navigating the bureaucracy of organizations and institutions trying to help homeless residents.
“Every time we send a letter or go to our appointments, [they say] ‘Oh, wait till next month. Wait till this. Wait till that.’ But you’re not telling us nothing,” Jones said.
What’s happening in other urban areas?
While the San Antonio and Austin regions have seen increases in the homeless population since 2011, HUD numbers show the Houston area has seen a 54% decrease in its homeless population during the same time period. The Houston metropolitan area is the region with the most people in the state, but the larger homeless population is in the Dallas region, and the highest share of unsheltered homeless residents in the state is in the Austin area.
The Houston area saw nearly three times as many new people ask for homeless-related services last year compared with Austin, according to data provided to the Tribune by regional homelessness organizations. In the past eight years, Houston has found housing for thousands of veterans, implemented a digital database known as the Homeless Management Information System and worked to nearly double the funds it receives from HUD.
Dallas, however, has seen a general increase in homelessness since 2009 — and a 725% increase in unsheltered homelessness during the same time period. City officials and homeless experts in Dallas say increasing housing prices and a lack of housing in general aren’t helping.
“One of the biggest factors is the housing conditions and the housing market here in Dallas,” said Monica Hardman, director of Dallas City Hall's Office of Homeless Solutions. “[It] is extremely hard to find housing that is affordable, especially if you are not making a living wage.”
What’s going on at the federal level?
Trump has repeatedly criticized California's handling of homelessness and threatened to intervene if cities don't take an aggressive approach toward encampments. Trump recently chose Robert Marbut Jr., the founding president of San Antonio’s homeless shelter Haven for Hope, to lead the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
However, homeless advocates have called aspects of Marbut Jr.’s approach to addressing homelessness in San Antonio “paternalistic” and “patronizing.” He previously criticized programs that feed people on the streets for “enabling” them and not addressing the root cause of homelessness.
Mascorro said 75% to 80% of the homeless population in San Antonio enters the homeless system through Haven for Hope.
However, participants in Haven for Hope are not allowed on the campus if they are intoxicated or high, an approach that differs from the current trend in homelessness services, known as the “housing first” model. That model instead aims to first find housing and then focus on solving other problems, such as alcoholism or drug use, through support services.
“While it might be more expensive because you are providing housing, it ends up saving money,” said Gary Painter, director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern California. “It is at least [as] cost effective as the other model and also certainly much more effective.
Meanwhile, HUD Secretary Ben Carson recently visited Houston in what CityLab called, "yet another signal that the administration is keen to take a hands-on approach to people who sleep on the street."
If I want to help people experiencing homelessness, what can I do?
To help people experiencing homelessness in Texas, advocates from around the state say people should look for organizations in their neighborhoods focused on addressing the issue. They also say Texans should home in on trying to fix one problem and have conversations within their communities about testing different solutions closer to their homes.
“We need people that are willing to say, ‘Yeah, I'm willing to give this a shot in my backyard,” said Blake Fetterman, executive director for the Salvation Army’s Carr P. Collins Center in Dallas. “Whether that's the development of affordable housing in their community, whether that's the development of a shelter in their community, but we need more people saying yes.”
Juan Pablo Garnham contributed to this story.
Disclosure: Steve Adler is a former Texas Tribune board chairman and has been a financial supporter of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.