Opportunity doesn't always work out

Houston's homeless population jumps 25 percent in one year and services struggle to keep up

Houston's homeless population jumps 25 percent in one year and services struggle to keep up

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Photo courtesy of brodude.ru

The stock market might be back up and the unemployment rate might be falling ever so slightly, but the economic recovery seems pretty far removed from the hardest hit Houstonians.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, the homeless population in Harris and Fort Bend counties increased a full 25 percent in 2010. As first reported by the Houston Chronicle, the canvas of 400 coalition volunteers on Jan. 31 found 8,538 men, women and children, an increase of more than 1,700 over the previous count.

This increase meant a dramatic rise in the amount of homeless sleeping on the streets. In 2010, 30 percent of the homeless (2,103 people) were on the streets or other non-habitation areas. This year more than half of Houston's homeless population — 4,418, or 51.7 percent — were unsheltered during the count.

Coalition for the Homeless CEO Connie Boyd tells CultureMap that the numbers were expected considering the economic climate.

"I don't think it surprised us," Boyd says. "We had a great methodology that helped get accurate numbers, and nationwide we can see the trend going up, among families with children, the chronically homeless and the economy. We saw an increase in 2009 as well. Texas is a relatively good place to be which makes us a magnet for those struggling with job opportunities. Sometimes those dreams don't work out."

Boyd said one major difference between Houston and other large cities with sizeable homeless populations is that Houston has very little funding for homeless relief coming in from the state, city and county. But one factor that will come into play is the more than $3 million in federal Housing and Urban Development grants that were awarded to several Houston shelters in April.

"The funding will start in September and will hit several key areas," says Boyd, who says the biggest problem for Houstonians facing homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. "It will not resolve all of the issues, but the focus on permanent supportive housing, it will help some of the grey areas. But until we all come together for strategies on where to put resources, the problem is going to be cyclical.

"The biggest thing we can do is get a sense of urgency in the community, and work together to look at the system."

Another program that has stepped in to house more homeless women is the Salvation Army. Sally's House on the east side of downtown has long been a transitional home for women recovering from drug and alcohol problems, and now it is stepping forward to offer beds to women living on the streets as part of a pilot program. According to KUHF, Sally's House has only 60 total beds for now, but will be increasing its capacity as a new wing is built this year.

According to Boyd, new capacity alone can't be a solution to growing Houston homelessness, it's finding ways to bring different organizations, each with their own strengths, together.

"We have a lot of great silos of excellence, but to get people to collaborate, to get people to think what they need to do for the whole is a challenge," she says.

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