For a long time, Evelyn Reinholt shared a home with her boyfriend in the Hill Country town of Comfort, 45 miles northwest of San Antonio. She worked at a drug treatment center in the town. But the job required her to be on her feet, and last year she developed a physical disability—she still doesn’t know quite what it is—that causes her to fall down if she stands or walks for more than a few seconds. She was stuck at home, living with a man who she says was struggling with opioid addiction, and she began to feel unsafe. “We were good for about ten years,” she says, but by late last year, “I had to get away.”
Reinholt called her sister in San Antonio, who took her in. Then, after a few months, she says, her sister asked her to move out and took her to the city’s Haven for Hope shelter. “I was mad at my sister at first for dropping me off there,” says Reinholt, who is 55. But looking back, she says, it’s “the best thing she could’ve done for me.” Early in the pandemic, to help avoid a COVID outbreak, the 1,700-person-capacity shelter expanded to add a converted hotel nearby. Reinholt got her own room there, where she stayed a few months before she was connected with a case manager from the interfaith group SAMMinistries. The case manager found her an apartment in a big complex on the city’s North Side and helped her secure an emergency housing voucher to cover her rent.
The hotel room where she spent three months, the emergency housing voucher that covers her rent, and her “rapid re-housing” case management from SAMMinistries all have something in common: they were paid for by programs supported by federal COVID relief. In the massive pandemic relief bills passed in March of 2020 and 2021, Congress allocated billions for rental assistance and new housing. Texas received hundreds of millions, which local governments have used to pay for rental vouchers, construction, and renovation of homes for those who’ve been living on the streets, along with staff to support residents with counseling and treatment they need. The outlook for housing advocates was bleaker just a couple of years ago, when national trends showed homelessness on the rise and no major funding increases in sight.
The pandemic has provided a moment of growth for housing nonprofits. Mutual aid and grassroots groups have activated to help unhoused Texans, particularly undocumented folks who can’t access government relief. Meanwhile, for the large nonprofits working in this space, the last two years have created an opening to do things they never thought possible.
“The unfortunate part is it had to come at the heels of COVID,” says Joli Robinson, CEO and president of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which leads the homeless advocacy network in Dallas and suburban Collin County. Before COVID-19, “our system had not been in a space that we received this amount of investment.”
Since the pandemic relief began, local officials and nonprofits across the state have had far more money than they’ve ever had to work with. Austin is in the midst of a half-billion-dollar project to create and find housing for 3,000 unsheltered people. Dallas is spending $72 million to rehouse 2,700 locals by fall 2023. Houston plans to find homes for more than 14,000 residents experiencing homelessness by 2024, at a cost of around $200 million. Even outside the state’s main urban areas, localities are using the federal funding to begin new initiatives. In Amarillo, a city program plans to rehouse more than 200 by 2024.
The money has turned the pandemic era into what the National Alliance to End Homelessness calls a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to build more housing, create better systems to provide lasting support, or even “solve homelessness” in some cities. But that money will run out in a few years—the latest big relief package covers spending through 2024. “And then, communities will be faced with the challenge of how to support that infrastructure,” says João Paulo Connolly, the director of housing and community development at the Austin Justice Coalition, a racial justice group that advocates for police reforms and community wellness. “What happens when we don’t have this money anymore? How do we not fall back to that place of scarcity and underfunding?”
In the past few months, cities across the state have announced results from their latest annual “point-in-time” counts of unhoused Texans. These surveys, required by the federal government since the early 2000s, are conducted by volunteers who canvass shelters and city streets, briefly interviewing those they encounter. They are imprecise—some counts are conducted in a single night—and in some cities, advocates estimate that the real unhoused population is double what the count shows. Nonetheless, the counts are relied on by many advocates—and the federal government—to follow broad trends over time.
No Texas city has seen a greater decline in its surveys than has Houston. This year’s count, which included Harris, Fort Bend, and Montgomery counties, found 3,233 unhoused Texans, representing a nearly 20 percent decrease since the start of the pandemic. That continues a dramatic, long-term downward trend since the survey recorded around 8,500 unhoused Houstonians in 2011.
Following that count, Houston nonprofit leaders and officials organized a fresh strategy to prevent homelessness, which included more coordination between nonprofits and local agencies and shutting down encampments while offering residents housing instead. The city established new permanent housing for those who need long-term support and short-term housing for folks who might otherwise go to shelters or live on the streets.
Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations at the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, says pandemic relief money helped advocates take that approach and grow it: while before they’d been rehousing 2,000 Houstonians a year, last year they could rehouse 3,800. The president and CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, Mike Nichols, wrote last fall that Houston could be the first major city to “effectively end homelessness,” meaning that anyone experiencing it could be housed within thirty days.
In other Texas cities where the annual homeless counts had been steadier, or even increased, over the last decade, advocates say the impact from federal pandemic relief is reflected in their latest surveys. The Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance announced the results of its count for Dallas and Collin counties in mid-May, showing a slight decrease since just before the pandemic began, from 4,471 in early 2020 to 4,410 this year. Robinson noted a pair of troubling statistics that she said were also reflected in other cities’ latest counts. There are large racial disparities in homelessness: 54 percent of unhoused Dallasites in the latest count are Black, consistent with long-term trends across the country that reflect systemic racial inequities. And twice as many Dallas residents are now experiencing “chronic homelessness,” meaning generally that they’ve been living long-term with a disability and without a permanent home. Robinson said her group is working to understand why that’s the case and whether it primarily reflects an aging population or the accumulated stress of two years in a pandemic with rising housing costs.
Robinson suggested the counts might look very different in the near future. “We have been presented with a historic opportunity to end the modern homelessness crisis,” she said. She noted that since 2019, Dallas has increased its number of “rapid rehousing” units—short-term housing that comes without requirements to work or stay sober—from 300 to 1,100, on the way to the city’s goal of housing thousands more by next fall. Federal pandemic relief funds will be key to making that happen.
Ambitious efforts like these, though, are racing against factors that will drive more Texans into homelessness: rising rent, costly medical and mental health treatment, and the expiration of pandemic-era programs that had provided some cover. These risks are particularly severe in a state that has provided so little in terms of a safety net, and in terms of worker protections and subsidized health care, during the pandemic. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University, which has tracked the number of evictions across the country since March 2020, ranks Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth among its top six cities with the most proceedings. Travis County, home to Austin, maintained a local eviction moratorium until the end of last year, far later than other cities in the state, but afterward had one of the highest eviction totals in the country.
Austin skipped its point-in-time counts this year and the last, but it keeps a running estimate that advocates say is more reliable. “Our number of unsheltered people in our community has been pretty steady for a while now,” says Matt Mollica, the executive director of Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), which leads a local network of homeless advocacy groups. But he worries the high eviction rate, along with the rising cost of rent, is going to change that. “We know that we’re in for a fight to keep people from falling into homelessness,” he says.
Austin voters re-criminalized urban camping last year—following a nasty political fight that predated the pandemic—after which the city began a program similar to Houston’s, clearing encampments and providing temporary housing to residents instead. But while Houston has so far had enough affordable housing units to rent to folks with housing vouchers, that hasn’t been possible in Austin.
Austin’s $515 million initiative, announced last fall, includes funding for construction of new affordable housing units, along with services to support those who’ll be living in them. It’s a combination of federal and local funding, plus another $100 million that Mayor Steve Adler has said he hopes to raise from the private sector. “But getting the money is almost the easy part at this point,” says Connolly of the Austin Justice Coalition, which is a partner in the city’s plan. Even with the funding to build new housing, Connolly says, advocates will need to win over neighborhood groups to secure the necessary zoning changes—something else that isn’t such a challenge in Houston, which is not regulated by zoning.
Connolly says the huge influx of federal support won’t necessarily change things for good, but it’s made long-lasting change possible. “If that significant bucket of money is like your jet fuel,” Connolly says, “it allows you to accomplish things that you wouldn’t think possible even a year ago. The hope is that we can hold some of that collective energy and use our momentum for the next challenges.”
Texas’s other major metro area, San Antonio, released the results of its latest count last week. The South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless announced volunteers had tallied just under three thousand unhoused individuals earlier this year, which the group said was a 2 percent increase from 2020, the last count, but steady relative to the city’s population growth. In a similar situation to that of Dallas, San Antonio’s report noted a 77 percent increase in chronic homelessness.
Katie Vela, the alliance’s executive director, says that in 2021, the city’s network of homeless advocates organized a “housing surge” over five months, during which 660 San Antonio residents were housed. But she says the city still needs about a thousand more units of permanent supportive housing for those who need long-term care for medical, mental health, and substance abuse issues. “We’ve had unprecedented resources to help people move off the street,” Vela says. “[But] since all of the funding was only two years, it’s hard to scale up and increase your capacity, not knowing how you’re going to fund it after that—which is where we’re at now.”
Sitting in her new apartment in San Antonio today, Evelyn Reinholt is also planning for the future. For now, her most pressing needs are taken care of: She has a one-year lease that’s covered by housing vouchers, she gets grocery deliveries from Amazon paid with SNAP benefits, and her case manager is helping her apply for disability benefits and look for work. She can get around her apartment with a walker her sister gave her.
Reinholt does wonder how long it’ll take to begin receiving disability benefits, and she can’t be sure where she’ll go from here. “I’ve never been in this position before, so I really don’t know,” she says. But even facing so much uncertainty, living in a new city where she doesn’t have friends, she says she’s grateful to wake up feeling safe in the home she has now. “I would tell anybody in my position, ‘Don’t give up,’ ” she says. “It’s worth trying.”