Houston-area homelessness: Inside the 2021 count, survey and how the coronavirus changed everything

Homeless encampment under U.S. 59 in Midtown Houston.

HOUSTON – The annual Houston-area homeless count and survey, conducted by the Coalition for the Homeless, found 3,055 people were experiencing homelessness on the night of the study in late January.

The nonprofit reported in a news release that on Jan. 19, 1,545 people were staying in shelter and 1,510 people were found to be living unsheltered in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

The Coalition for the Homeless noted that this year’s published numbers are not directly comparable to those of other years due to methodology changes and circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

The nonprofit added, however, that while a direct comparison cannot be made, it may be noted that the coronavirus had an impact on its count in a variety of ways:

  • ”The number of sheltered individuals might have been higher if not for factors such as: limited bed availability due to social distancing protocols, and the potential reluctance of those experiencing homelessness to stay in a shelter due to fear of contracting the virus.”
  • “On the night of the count, one in seven people experiencing unsheltered homelessness cited the coronavirus as the reason for their homelessness, many of them specifically citing job loss or reduction in work hours and/or eviction as the triggering event.”
  • “The ongoing eviction moratorium, even if only a temporary measure, has likely prevented more people in the region from falling into homelessness.”
  • “Data also suggest that the unsheltered number may have been higher if not for the Community COVID Housing Program (CCHP), a $65 million housing-focused pandemic response that (aims to) serve approximately 5,000 people experiencing homelessness by fall 2022.”

The Coalition coordinates the annual count on behalf of The Way Home, a collaborative effort to combat homelessness in Houston, Pasadena, Harris County, Fort Bend County, and Montgomery County. The count informs the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of the effectiveness of collaboration and homeless programs in those counties.

Coalition authorities note that the annual count cannot provide an exact number of people experiencing homelessness for several reasons, including the daily fluctuating number and the more than 3,700 square miles of the area being canvassed. However, it is considered a critical metric at illustrating trends over time. The count results are combined with additional data points, like the information stored in the Homeless Management Information System, to gauge progress of the local homeless response system.

After the pandemic, the Coalition said it intends to return to methodologies used in years past in order to be able to draw more direct comparisons and view trends in homelessness over time.

About the Author:

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.