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Scope of the Problem
According to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are more than 610,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in this country. In Texas, according to this same report, there were 29,615 persons homeless in 2013, meaning that approximately 12 out of every 10,000 persons in Texas are homeless (down from 15 out of every 10,000 persons in 2011). And in the Houston area, the most recent statistics indicate that more than 6,300 people are without a home on any given night.

While there are official definitions of homelessness, probably everyone has some idea of what it could mean to be without a home.

But not everyone is aware of the costs.

For the individual or family without a home, the impact can be devastating. Imagine for a moment what it would mean in your own life to be without a place to sleep, to shower, to keep your clothing and possessions, to build your life.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, families experiencing homelessness are generally similar to other, housed families living in poverty. In fact, many poor families – homeless or not – share similar characteristics: they are usually headed by a single woman with limited education, are usually young, and experience high rates of domestic violence and mental illness.

Some families living in poverty fall into homelessness as a result of some unforeseen financial challenge – such as a death in the family, a lost job, or an unexpected bill – which creates a situation where the family cannot maintain housing.

In addition to the direct impact on individuals and families who are without a home, enormous costs accrue to our society in general from the problem of homelessness. These costs are incurred in the areas of medical treatment, hospitalization, police intervention, incarceration, the provision of emergency shelters, and other areas. In fact, nearly $103 million is spent annually on chronically homeless individuals in our community.

Contributing Factors
While circumstances vary, the main reason people experience homelessness is because they cannot find housing they can afford. A lack of affordable housing in the United States contributes to the inability to acquire or maintain housing, particularly in urban areas where homelessness is more prevalent (Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness).

A variety of additional factors can contribute to the problem: chief among these are poverty, a decline in levels of public assistance, lack of affordable health care, mental illness, and addictive disorders.

In our area, economic conditions are currently playing a large role: 35% of homeless individuals cite job loss as a trigger to their homelessness.

On the Path toward Solutions
As you might expect, a problem of this magnitude and cost has attracted a great deal of attention across the country – from federal, state, and local government agencies and initiatives; to the efforts of individual citizens who advocate for homeless individuals, or donate to and volunteer for charitable organizations.

In fact, the problem is so complex, and related services are provided by so many organizations (both public and private) that improved coordination of these efforts is a major concern. Improved coordination of services can help reduce duplicative efforts, ensure appropriate accessibility, and achieve optimal cost-effectiveness.

In 1987, Congress passed the first federal law specifically addressing homelessness. The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, later renamed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, provides federal financial support for a variety of programs to meet the many needs of individuals and families who are homeless. Although HUD did not initially impose any requirements for systemic planning at the local level, in 1994 the agency recognized the need for improved coordination and began requiring that communities come together to submit a single, comprehensive application for HUD funding. HUD’s intent in creating this structured application process was to stimulate community-wide planning and coordination of programs for individuals and families who are homeless, and gave rise to the Continuum of Care (CoC) concept.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “A Continuum of Care is a regional or local planning body that coordinates housing and services funding for homeless families and individuals.”

The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, established in 1982, is a private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide leadership in the development, advocacy, and coordination of community strategies to prevent and end homelessness. Although the Coalition does not provide any direct services to clients, it serves as the backbone organization to many other groups that do. The Coalition serves those who serve the homeless through research, project management, system capacity building, and advocacy.

Today, the major project of the Coalition is serving as lead agency for the Houston/Harris County CoC. This work creates an improved homeless service system that more effectively provides services, support, and housing to all sub-populations within the Houston area’s homeless community, with a primary focus on moving individuals and families out of homelessness.

The ultimate goal of the Houston/Harris County CoC is a homeless services system that achieves reduction in new instance of, length of, and returns to homelessness, and meets the varying needs of homeless sub-populations such as unaccompanied youth, veterans, and families with children.

We encourage all citizens to become better informed on the issues surrounding homelessness, and to take action by advocating, donating or volunteering.