DATA: Houston-area homeless population stays flat in 2020

The 2020 Point-in-Time Homeless Count & Survey found a total of 3,974 individuals experiencing homelessness—2,318 (58.3%) people living sheltered and 1,656 (41.7%) people living unsheltered—in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties, Texas. These results reflect a 53% decrease in overall homelessness since 2011. The night of record for the 2020 Homeless Count was January 27, with the unsheltered portion conducted over a three-day period from January 28-30.

The Coalition for the Homeless coordinates the annual Count on behalf of the local homeless response system, The Way Home. The Count informs the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of the effectiveness of collaboration and homeless programs in Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties. The annual Count cannot provide an exact number of people experiencing homelessness for several reasons, including the daily fluctuating number and the large size (3,700+ square miles) of the area being canvassed by volunteers. However, it is considered a critical metric and is highly effective at illustrating trends over time. The Count results are combined with additional data points, like the information stored in the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), to gauge progress of the local homeless response system.

“The fact that the unsheltered count has remained relatively unchanged the past three years points to that fact that our programs work, and, as a system, we have been able to fully maximize the housing resources available to maintain a steady state, which, in 2019, meant we secured permanent housing for more than 2,000 people,” said Michael C. Nichols, president/CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless. “However, 1,600 people sleeping on the street is not acceptable, and we won’t be able to make further progress as a homeless response system without a considerable influx of resources.”

The 2020 Count results show the effectiveness of The Way Home programs and that the key to solving homelessness is permanent housing combined with supportive services. More than 5,800 individuals, veterans and families have been placed in permanent housing since Harvey. However, progress has plateaued as the number of unsheltered individuals has remained relatively steady during the same period: 1,614 (2018), 1,614 (2019) and 1,656 (2020). To address the potential inflow from the COVID-19 pandemic, and ultimately return to the progress that was being achieved prior to Harvey, the local homeless response system will require additional financial resources.

“Our permanent housing programs are more important now than ever for several reasons,” said Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations at the Coalition for the Homeless. “First, getting people experiencing homelessness into permanent housing protects them from COVID-19 and limits community spread. For them, housing is healthcare. Second, we won’t know the extent of COVID-19’s impact on our region until next year’s Count, but we are expecting an increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness as the economic effects of the pandemic are felt over the coming months, and we want to be prepared to meet their needs. Finally, as we brace for an active hurricane season in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, if we can reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness, our community will be more resilient when the next disaster hits.”

Additional key findings from the 2020 Homeless Count include:

  • 30% of the adult population experiencing homelessness on the night of the Count met the definition of chronically homeless, meaning they have been homeless for more than a year and have a mental and/or physical disability
  • 32% of the adult population experiencing homelessness self-reported suffering from a serious mental illness
  • 26% of the adult population experiencing homelessness self-reported substance use disorder
  • 267 Veterans experiencing homelessness were counted in the 2020 Count, compared to 376 counted in 2019
  • People identifying as Black or African American are disproportionately represented, making up 2% of the total population experiencing homelessness, but only 19.9% of the Harris County population
  • Nearly 56,000 individuals touched HMIS in 2019. Of those, approximately 23,000 accessed a program specifically for those experiencing homelessness.

As in past years, the 2020 Count & Survey data was analyzed by the Coalition for the Homeless in consultation with Dr. Cathy Troisi, associate professor, University of Texas School of Public Health. The full Homeless Count & Survey Independent Analysis is available online here and a two-page fact sheet is available here.