Thanksgiving check-in on the homeless in Texas — maybe intractable social problems can be solved after all

It seems that Thanksgiving is one of the few times many people worry about the homeless. Let’s join the crowd and take a look at the numbers of homeless in Texas.

The data comes from a HUD report  The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. First, s word of caution about the numbers. They are not very reliable. As HUD puts it, “Communities are continuously improving their data collection methods, and thus year-to-year comparisons may not perfectly reflect annual changes in homelessness within the community. ”  The data is collected by local agencies on a single night in January each year and reported to HUD. Finding and counting homeless people is not easy and the results and coverages are inconsistent. That said however, the report is useful in seeing the trend.

The report offers encouraging news about homelessness in the nation and in Texas.  The number of homeless people appears to be declining. Texas saw a 13 percent decrease since 2012 and a nearly 26 percent decrease since 2007. That is 10,173 fewer people homeless in Texas over the past six years! Nationally from 2010 to 2013 there has been a decline in the number of individuals experiencing chronic homelessness of 16 percent, or 17,219 people. This comes following a major effort to provide housing for the homeless during both the Bush and Obama Administrations.

So, the next time you hear others say that government action cannot solve social problems, you can point to this apparent success.

On the night the survey was conducted in January 2013, there were 610,042 people experiencing homelessness in the United States, including 394,698 people who were homeless in sheltered locations and 215,344 people who were living in unsheltered locations.

There are 29,615 homeless people reported in Texas (5% of the US total). This includes 20,758 homeless people living as individuals and 8,857 living in families. 5,535 of the Texas homeless are described as “chronically homeless” meaning they have either been continuously homeless for 1 year or more or has experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last 3 years. Veterans make up 3,878 of the Texas homeless. unaccompanied children or youth (<25 years old) comprise 2,072.

The Texas Tribune has a handy webpage that provides access to the numbers from the report for different Texas cities over a number of years. I pulled the following data for 2007 and 2013 from there.

TABLE A: 2007 and 2013 Data
City                 2007 Homeless  2013 Homeless   Change
Amarillo                     431            516       +16%
Austin                     5,281          2,090       -60%
Beaumont/Port Arthur         710          1,046       +32%
Bryan/College Station        289            175       -39%
Dallas & County            3,408          3,163        -7%
El Paso                    1,241          1,217        -2%
Fort Worth/Tarrant County  2,876          2,390       -17%
Houston/Harris County     10,363          6,359       -39%
San Antonio/Bexar County   2,247          2,980       +25%
Waco/McLennan County         431            295       -32%
Wichita Falls                263            302       +13%
The rest of Texas         10,636          9,082       -15%

There are a number of measures for how well a community is doing in ending  homelessness. The main one is whether there fewer people homeless. As we have noted, for the state as a whole that is the case. As Table A (above) shows the results are radically different across major metro areas. The numbers of homeless have plumeted 60% in Austin and 39% in Houston and Bryan/College Station while increasing 32% in Beaumont/Port Arthur and 25% in San Antonio.

TABLE B: 2013 Data
City                      Homeless  Sheltered  Unsheltered  Chronic
Amarillo                     516       468        48  (9%)    122
Austin                     2,090     1,325       765 (36%)    458
Beaumont/Port Arthur       1,046       376       670 (64%)    159
Bryan/College Station        175       136        39 (22%)     28
Dallas & County            3,163     2,912       251  (8%)    502
El Paso                    1,217     1,036       181 (15%)    131
Fort Worth/Tarrant County  2,390     2,109       281 (12%)    226
Houston/Harris County      6,359     3,381     2,978 (47%)  1,309
San Antonio/Bexar County   2,980     1,737     1,243 (42%)    621 
Waco/McLennan County         295       230        65 (22%)     39 
Wichita Falls                302       253        49 (16%)     86 
The rest of Texas          9,082     3,562     5,520 (61%)  1,863

A second measure is the percentage of the homeless population living in the community who are sheltered. I calculated in Table B (above) the percentage of homeless persons sheltered. It is clear that Dallas and Amarillo are doing the best job and Houston, San Antonio and Beaumont/Port Arthur are doing the worst.

The place that really is falling short is the area of Texas outside the large metropolitan areas where 61% of the homeless are not sheltered. HUD points this out in this year’s report. Texas ranks third worst among all states in sheltering homeless in non-metro areas.

I don’t claim to be a homeless expert but here is how I interpret this data.

  1. Austin has somehow managed to dramatically reduce its homeless population, with Bryan/College Station and Houston also doing well in this regard.
  2. Dallas intervention strategies for the homeless, led by the Mayor through the outstanding facility called The Bridge are working and other cities should pay attention to what Dallas is doing.
  3. Houston and San Antonio need to take another look at their strategies because they clearly are falling short.
  4. The State needs to help get the homeless in the non-metro areas housed because current strategies are not working.
  5. Overall, there is real progress being made nationally and in Texas (assuming these numbers can be believed). It shows that what are conceived as intractable social problems can be addressed it the country has the will to take them on.
  6. Chronic affordable housing problems in the nation and in Texas dwarf the numbers of the homeless. While Texas has 29,615 homeless people it has 597,941 extremely low-income households (probably more than 1.5 million persons who rent their homes and are paying more than half of their meager income for rent. Texas has an additional 297,712 extremely low-income, owner occupied households (approximately 900,000 people) with a substandard housing condition or overcrowding problem. These impoverished Texans living with severe housing problems are 81 times the number of persons currently homeless in Texas. While the number of homeless is declining, the number of Texas with housing problems is growing rapidly. Addressing their needs as we continue to make progress on the homeless problem is vital to Texas.