A new report shows the number of people who are homeless in Tarrant and Parker Counties has not changed much over the past year. The Tarrant County Homeless Coalition released its annual homeless count on Thursday. It found 1,924 people living on the streets or in shelters, 14 fewer than last year.
“The number may not be statistically significant, but I assure you, escaping homelessness was significant for those 14 people," said Otis Thornton, who leads the coalition.
The count found fewer homeless veterans, and fewer women, who say domestic violence is the reason they became homeless. At the same time, there were more families on the streets, and one in five homeless people is under the age of 18.
Thornton told service providers and homeless people gathered at a community meeting at the Salvation Army’s Mabee Center that he wanted to to improve coordination between agencies so that people have an easier time navigating services and hear "yes" more often. He challenged aid organizations and their funders to focus their efforts on ending homelessness.
“Something has to change, or we’re going to find ourselves in the same situation year after year,” Thornton said.
The homeless count is basically a snapshot created by hundreds of volunteers fanning out across the two-county region on a single night to survey people staying in shelters or sleeping outside.
While the count found more than 1,900 people in its one-night snapshot, the coalition’s report estimated that more than 7,400 people in Tarrant and Parker Counties experienced homelessness at some point over the past year.
Some don’t make it into the annual census because they’re difficult to find.
Carol Klocek, who runs the Fort Worth-based Center for Transforming Lives, said many women and families aren’t in the shelters because there are too few family units, and they avoid the camps and vacant buildings where a lot of homeless people congregate and get counted.
“Moms with young children want to stay away from those places as much as they can because they’re not safe," Klocek said. “Who wants their 3-year-old exposed to those kinds of harsh realities?”
Others are missed because they cycle in and out of homelessness over time. Klocek said many women earning low wages and providing for small children teeter back and forth on the edge of being homeless.
“One of the mothers we worked with had her hours cut right after one of her kids had the flu,” Klocek said. “Suddenly she didn’t have enough to pay rent so they lived in her car for a time until she could work enough and save enough to get back into her apartment.”
Low wages are especially problematic in a region that faces a severe shortage of affordable housing. Across Dallas-Fort Worth, there are only 19 affordable rental units for every 100 poor renters. Klocek said it would take a job making $19 an hour for a single mom to afford a market-rate two-bedroom apartment in Fort Worth.
In his presentation, Otis Thornton put it another way: A worker making minimum wage would have to work 76 hours a week to afford an apartment of their own at market rate in Tarrant County, he said.
Either way you put it, he said the math just doesn’t work out for a lot of people.
“Year after year, the data shows us nearly the same thing: That if they had stable employment, and they made enough to afford somewhere safe and decent to live, they would not be homeless,” Thornton said.
Thornton said adding affordable housing to reduce homelessness would save money in the long run. Homelessness, he said, is expensive.
“It costs about $10,000 per year when someone is stably housed,” he said. “In contrast, it costs about $30,000-$40,000 when somebody is homeless. It’s the cost of shelter, but it’s also the cost burden on our health care, criminal justice, and other systems that hit everybody’s pocketbook.”
Thornton estimates it would take around $650 million to fix the housing shortage in Tarrant County. Still, he said money alone won’t solve the problem. He said that until the greater community sees it as a priority to help their neighbors find safe, permanent homes, homelessness will be a continuing reality in Tarrant County.