The February winter storms over Texas underlined a persistent problem in our state and the nation at large — the thousands of Americans living without permanent homes or even shelter. According to the most recent estimates (PDF) by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), nearly 568,000 people in the U.S. were homeless in January 2019.
People become homeless for a variety of reasons. Unemployment and poverty are major contributors, as are untreated mental illness and substance abuse, but so is a lack of affordable housing — an increasingly difficult problem that affects many Texans, creating instability and uncertainty in their lives.
Most persons experiencing homelessness eventually transition to more stable environments. But some find it difficult to do so, and find themselves “chronically” homeless, living on the street or in emergency shelters. While the chronically homeless population is a minority of all those experiencing homelessness in any given year, it makes up the bulk of the visibly homeless Texans see every day.
There’s a strong correlation between homelessness and housing affordability. Texas’ generally successful economy and red-hot real estate markets have driven up prices and rents, creating an urgent need for affordable housing.
According to data compiled by the Texas A&M Real Estate Research Center, average home prices have continued to increase over the last decade while housing inventory has declined (Exhibit 1). Lower housing availability makes buying a home more difficult for lower- and median-income Texas families in particular, whose limited budgets make it harder to compete.
Source: Texas A&M Real Estate Research Center.
Note: All data as of March 1 of given year.
And, of course, many Texans earn less than the median income in their areas, including many teachers, police officers, childcare providers, veterans and the elderly. According to the Texas Affiliation of Affordable Housing Providers (PDF), 49 percent of Texans are cost-burdened, meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their household income on housing costs and utilities.
Accurate data are essential to addressing homelessness, but collecting data on individuals experiencing it isn’t an easy task, since homeless persons can be difficult to find and track.
Every January since 2007, communities around the nation have come together to count the number of individuals experiencing homelessness on a single night. These data, called Point-in-Time (PIT) counts, are used in HUD’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report (PDF) to Congress each year. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has caused unprecedented difficulties in data collection on homelessness, leading many communities to seek waivers delaying their 2020 PIT counts. This article relies on statistics for 2019, the most current available.
According to the 2019 PIT counts, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in the U.S. has fallen by 8.7 percent since 2007 — but increased by 2.7 percent from 2018 to 2019. In Texas, the number of homeless individuals fell by 35 percent from 2007 to 2019 — the second largest change in homelessness among states — but rose by 2.1 percent from 2018 to 2019. An estimated 25,848 homeless individuals lived in Texas in January 2019.
In January 2019, chronically homeless individuals in the U.S. accounted for nearly a quarter of the total homeless population, at an estimated 96,141 individuals. Texas accounted for 3,338 of these persons.
Unsheltered homelessness is defined as those whose primary location at night is a public place or a place not considered a sleeping location, such as streets, cars or parks. In the 2019 PIT count, an estimated 211,293 or 37.2 percent of Americans experiencing homelessness were unsheltered, a 2.7 percent increase since the previous year. Texas had 10,948 unsheltered homeless individuals, or about 42.4 percent of the state’s overall homeless population.
Homelessness in the U.S. varies sharply by race, ethnicity and other characteristics.
African Americans made up just 13.4 percent of the U.S. total population in 2019, but according to the PIT estimates for 2019 they accounted for nearly 40 percent of the homeless population (Exhibit 2). Similar patterns were found in Texas, where African Americans comprised just 12.9 percent of the total 2019 population but 37.2 percent of the homeless.
|Characteristic||Number (U.S.)||Number (TX)||Percentage (U.S.)||Percentage (TX)|
|18 to 24||45,629||1,523||8.00%||4.50%|
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Unsurprisingly, poverty rates are a particularly strong indicator for vulnerability to homelessness. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated 2019 poverty rates for the Black and the Hispanic communities at 18.8 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively; the rate for non-Hispanic whites was 7.3 percent. Housing discrimination, lack of access to quality medical care and racial disparities in incarceration rates all have been cited as contributing factors to increased rates of homelessness among these populations.
In 2019, HUD estimates that 8.1 percent or 37,085 adults living in the U.S. and experiencing homelessness were veterans; 1,806 or nearly 7 percent of homeless Texans were veterans. Interestingly, homelessness among veterans plunged between 2007 and 2019, by 49.5 percent nationally and 67.3 percent in Texas, due in part to federal initiatives to house homeless veterans rapidly.
The pandemic created additional challenges for the homeless and organizations that provide them with aid. Public health protocols employed to combat the spread of COVID-19 have restricted some resources on which the homeless ordinarily depend. Many public facilities that provide safe spaces for homeless individuals, such as libraries, have seen closings. Homeless shelters, which struggled to accommodate the unsheltered population even before the pandemic, have been forced to restrict capacity or close completely. Services provided by social workers, medical professionals and volunteers have been curbed due to limitations placed on in-person meetings.
Another challenge stems from health risks rooted in homelessness. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness are at a high risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to their lack of access to hygiene and sanitation facilities. They also may be at high risk due to advanced age and underlying medical conditions; recent research predicts that homeless individuals who contract COVID-19 are significantly more likely than the general population to be hospitalized, require critical care or even die.
And as COVID-19 vaccination accelerates, questions remain as to how to reach members of the homeless community.
In recent years, Texas homelessness has become a visible and highly debated issue, particularly in our major cities. Some cities have succeeded in reducing homelessness among specific populations. San Antonio and Abilene, for instance, have all but eliminated homelessness among veterans by making concerted efforts to target that group.
San Antonio’s Haven for Hope houses more than 1,700 formerly homeless persons on its 22-acre campus. It relies on public and private donations to provide education, counseling and support for the city’s homeless citizens.
Houston also has made major strides in addressing homelessness, due to a concerted effort by nonprofit organizations, businesses, city officials, the Houston Police Department and HUD. The Houston area has seen a 57 percent decrease in homeless persons since 2011 and a 6 percent decrease between 2018 and 2019. FN
In late January, the federal government extended its deadline for a moratorium on evictions from Jan. 31, 2021, to March 31, 2021. On Feb. 25, 2021, a Texas federal judge ruled that the federal moratorium is unconstitutional; the court, however, didn’t issue an injunction, signaling that it expected the government to withdraw it.
According to a September 2020 report (PDF) prepared for the National Council of State Housing Agencies, up to 8.4 million U.S. renter households or 20 million individuals could have entered eviction proceedings in 2021 if the moratorium hadn’t been extended. In Texas, nearly 1.5 million renter households are at risk of eviction (Exhibit 3).
The moratorium extension, in any case, may only have postponed the inevitable evictions to come. Some renters are underemployed or unemployed and unable to make good on months of back rent.
“The federal eviction moratorium is not a panacea for the problems brought on by the pandemic,” says Dr. Luis Bernardo Torres, research economist with the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University. “It does not forgive or reduce the rent payments. It merely delays the threat of eviction, and meanwhile renters are still accumulating debt. Even if an unemployed renter at risk of eviction finds a job, I don’t think one month’s earnings will pay a backlog of owed rent.”
On Feb. 9, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the launch of the Texas Rent Relief Program — the first statewide rent and utility assistance program for qualifying households. Administered by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA), the program was created to distribute more than $1 billion allocated to Texas through the December federal stimulus bill.
To qualify, households must be at or below 80 percent of their area’s median income and meet other criteria. TDHCA will prioritize applications for households at or below 50 percent of the area median income and those where one or more members have been unemployed for at least 90 days. Landlords are encouraged to apply on behalf of tenants, who must co-sign the application.
Torres says now is the time for at-risk renters and their landlords to begin discussing next steps once the moratorium is lifted. “This is an important part of the relationship between the tenants and the landlord,” he says. “It’s critical for them to reach an agreement. Maybe the renter always paid on time before the pandemic and has started a new job. Perhaps the landlord could eliminate late fees or raise the monthly rent a bit to apply it to the rent owed.”
Texans can visit TexasRentRelief.com to learn more about qualifications and required documents and begin their application process online. Applications may also be submitted by calling 833-9TX-RENT (833-989-7368) Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
|Estimated Range of U.S. Renter Households Unable to Pay Rent and at Risk of Eviction||9,790,000 - 14,290,000|
|Estimated U.S. Eviction Filings by January 2021||8,430,000|
|Estimated Range of Rent Shortfall by January 2021||$26,505,000,000 - $35,895,000,000|
|Estimated Range of Texas Renter Households Unable to Pay Rent and at Risk of Eviction||1,120,000 - 1,460,000|
|Estimated Texas Eviction Filings by January 2021||860,000|
|Estimated Range of Rent Shortfall by January 2021||$2,819,000,000 - $3,401,000,000|
Source: National Council of State Housing Agencies
Special note: The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, signed into law on March 11, 2021, will direct billions of dollars to Texas’ state and local governments as well as individual Texans. The Texas Comptroller’s office has prepared Funding Elements of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (PDF), a detailed assessment of where the money will go and the purposes and programs it will support.