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Homeless in suburbia

Good article in yesterday’s Chron about the issue of homelessness in Houston’s suburbs, where the problem is often invisible.

Although homelessness in the suburbs has not yet reached a critical level, service providers say they are nearly stretched to the limits, because the suburbs have fewer resources compared to urban areas. More affordable housing, public transportation and other support services are needed to help the homeless become self-sufficient again, but local and federal funding for programs is tight and competitive, they said.

In Montgomery and Fort Bend counties, providers are seeing an increase in homeless families. Some people can’t pay their rent or mortgages because they lost their jobs and have had a difficult time finding one with decent wages. Others have lost their homes because of divorce or domestic violence.


People often assume that homelessness does not exist in the suburbs and rural areas because they do not see it, said Ken Martin, executive director of the Texas Homeless Network, which provides information services to service providers. The reality is hundreds of homeless people like Hernandez survive in the woods, in their cars or on the couches of family and friends, Martin said. Some suburban homeless drift into urban areas, where more services and jobs are available, but the vast majority stay in their community, he said.

It’s difficult to get an accurate homeless count because of migration and the hidden homeless. Whatever number service providers come up with during annual sight counts can easily be doubled to include those they do not see, Martin said.


Efforts are under way to raise community awareness and to attract funding for additional services. The Montgomery County Homeless Coalition, an organization made up of social service agencies, is leading the charge for the county.

”In a lot of ways, Montgomery County is still a rural community,” said Kristin Lue King, a coalition board member and director of community impact for the Montgomery County United Way. “Services haven’t caught up with the growth and the community doesn’t recognize the need.”

The group is launching a computer database to keep track of homeless people and the services they receive from local agencies. The information will give the group a better snapshot of the population and help identify service gaps.

The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County has had such a system in place for four years, said Anthony Love, the coalition’s president and chief executive officer. Fort Bend and Brazoria counties also are struggling to help the homeless. Fort Bend has between 460 to 1,300 homeless people at any one time but no emergency shelter to serve them. Fort Bend Family Promise, a nonprofit group, provides the only shelter in the community for families.
“We refer single people to Houston,” said executive director Lyn Storm. ”There’s nothing for them here.”

Several of these points were raised in a Houston Press cover story from February, which profiled some homeless teenagers in Fort Bend. The attitude of elected officials there still ticks me off:

Three-term Katy mayor Doyle Callender compares his city to the sleepy TV town of Mayberry, a place where residents know their neighbors and look out for them. “We take care of our own,” Callender says. “There is no homelessness in Katy — none whatsoever.”

Two-term Sugar Land mayor David Wallace says his city, the county’s largest, does not need a homeless shelter. The same goes for public transit, he says. “Why create something that nobody would use?” he asks.

Social workers in Fort Bend tell a different story, of extended families crammed into trailers with no running water. And school social workers say they are overwhelmed by rising numbers of teenagers from even the most upscale communities camping out on sidewalks, park benches and school campuses.

So often the kids get sent on to Houston, where there’s generally a waiting list and no room.

You can deny it all you want, fellas. But wishing it away won’t make it so.

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