Fifteen percent of unhoused people surveyed in greater Houston said the pandemic was to blame for their homelessness, due in large part to lost jobs and evictions caused by the financial impacts of COVID-19, according to an annual count of the region’s homeless population.

Of those, 45% said this was the first time they were experiencing homelessness, the survey reported.

The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County counted 3,055 unhoused people in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties during its annual point-in-time count in January. Just more than half of them, 1,545, were living in shelters on Jan. 19. The unsheltered were counted over a 10-day period.

With the exception of 2018 – after Hurricane Harvey struck the region – and last year, Houston’s homeless population has been in a steady decline in the past several years.

Ana Rausch, the Coalition for the Homeless’ vice president of program operations, said the number of those in shelters – as opposed to on the street – would have been higher were it not for the pandemic.

“Bed availability was limited due to social distancing protocols and the potential reluctance of those experiencing homelessness to stay in a shelter due to the fear of contracting the virus,” she said.

She said the overall count would likely be higher if not for a federal eviction moratorium and the Coalition’s Community COVID housing program.

Until recently, Houston was the largest city in America with no eviction protections for tenants in a city that is majority renters. The result is that more people have been evicted in Houston than almost anywhere else in the country during the pandemic. 

Even the federal moratorium issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has failed to stop evictions in Harris County: Houston-area judges have moved forward with thousands of eviction cases since the moratorium began, with one judge publicly saying he believed the order was unconstituional.

Rausch cautioned against comparing this year’s homeless count to previous years, because the pandemic forced them to change methodology.

For example, unlike other years, no volunteers were used and the count was conducted over 10 days instead of three.

Rausch highlighted the Coalition having placed more than 21,000 people in permanent housing since 2012. Last year, that number went down due to challenges from the pandemic, she said.

“We do expect these numbers to go up again in 2021 and 2022, due to the significant investment in permanent housing made by the city and the county,” Rausch said.