Scope of the Problem
According to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are nearly 650,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in this country.
In Texas, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were 36,911 persons homeless in 2011, which means that approximately 15 out of every 10,000 persons in this state are homeless. (This number remained basically unchanged from the 2009 count.)
And in the Houston area, the most recent statistics indicate that more than 8,700 people are without a home here on a 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 have 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, creating 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.
While circumstances vary, the main reason people experience homelessness is because they cannot find housing they can afford. It is the scarcity of affordable housing in the United States, particularly in more urban areas where homelessness is more prevalent, that is behind the inability to acquire or maintain housing. (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 the 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 persons, donate to charitable organizations, or volunteer their time to help.
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—to reduce duplicative efforts, to ensure appropriate accessibility, and to achieve optimal cost-effectiveness—is a major concern.
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, recognizing the need for improved coordination, 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 (CoC) 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, which was established in 1982, is a private, nonprofit organization whose mission is to lead in the development and implementation of community strategies to prevent and end homelessness.
Today, the organization is the lead agency coordinating Houston’s response to homelessness and, as such, serves as the primary support organization for the community’s Continuum of Care. 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 CoC of a homeless service system that achieves reduction in new instances 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.