HOUSTON—If you take a ride with Charity Dominguez, you’ll meet the face of homelessness in Houston.
Driving around the city in a green van emblazoned with the logo of Search Homeless Services, she makes regular rounds on sidewalks and campsites frequented by people living on the streets. One of the sites where she almost always finds homeless men and women sits on the banks of Buffalo Bayou at Allen’s Landing, the birthplace of Houston.
“There are a lot of myths about the homeless: They’re all crazy, they all drink, or they’re all minorities,” she says. “It’s not true.”
Now a new survey presents a more definitive picture of the truth about homelessness in Houston, confirming the observations of social workers who specialize in dealing with people living on the city’s streets. A team of volunteers that included Mayor Annise Parker fanned out around the city last week to conduct a survey as part of an initiative to take thousands of chronically homeless Houstonians off the streets.
The results depict a population facing serious obstacles to restoring a normal life. About half of the surveyed homeless people (46 percent) had mental health problems. About half (48 percent) had chronic health problems. Fully half (50 percent) identified hospitals as their primary source of health care, with 964 emergency room visits in just the last three months.
Beyond health care costs, 81 percent reported they’d gone to jail, often for failing to pay fines on minor tickets.
“The chronically homeless population tends to be older,” Parker said. “They’re in seriously declining health. And they cost, right now we think, more than $100-million a year, just on this handful of people. So we know we can do better.”
City leaders, county housing officials and social service agencies plan to take 2,500 chronically homeless Houstonians off the streets in the next three years. Outreach workers say they’re already using the database compiled during last week’s survey to move five especially fragile homeless people into housing by the end of the week. They hope to house 300 chronically homeless veterans within the next three months.
Nobody’s sure how many homeless people live in Houston, but the most commonly cited figure is around 8,500. This effort focuses primarily on the estimated 2,500 chronically homeless, who’ve been on the streets more than a year.
The survey was the first step toward an ambitious goal of eliminating homelessness in Houston. After identifying who’s homeless and who needs help first, social workers and government officials plan to place them in permanent housing and—just as important—provide them with services they need to change their lives.
“I don’t know what the statistics are there,” said Ty Davis, an unemployed make-up artist who sleeps in the Harris County court complex. “I just know what I need and what I’m looking for. But I can say that I think it would help me. Definitely. I know it would help me.”
The survey also indicates 18 percent of Houston’s homeless are veterans, a figure that surprised and disappointed some social workers who’ve lately concentrated on helping the unusually large number of veterans living on the streets.
But they weren’t at all surprised by the large number of homeless people with mental health troubles.
“I think that homelessness creates a lot of mental health problems—definitely depression, a little bit of anxiety—but not everybody that’s out here is like that,” Dominguez said.
Violence played a large role in the lives of many of those surveyed. One in five survey respondents said they had been victims of domestic abuse, while 32 percent said they had been victims of a violent attack since they’d become homeless.