Houston's Homeless Census

Although the 2010 census is officially over — a special population count takes place tonight in Houston and across the country. It's called the Point in Time homeless count and it's a federal effort to track the number of people who are homeless or in shelters. As Laurie Johnson reports — the homeless Count is especially critical this year.

This afternoon, at 4 p.m., literally hundreds of people will gather at staging areas throughout Harris County to head out for the homeless count.

The count is similar to the census, in that it tracks the growth or decline in the population. But the count also tracks how the homeless population changes — showing trends like an increase in single-parent homeless families.

Connie Boyd is CEO of Coalition for the Homeless, the organization in charge of conducting the count. She says it's an important community tool.

"We should know how many people in our community are homeless. We should know if our programs or services are making any progress or difference. And then we should know, especially when you look at the population that is the fastest growing in the United States which is family with children, we should know are we in the same situation as anyone else?"

Last year the count showed 40,000 people received some kind of service from a homeless organization and 10,000 were actually on the streets or in shelters in Harris County.

This year, the number could be much higher.

"We've seen a growth in the number of new clients that come to us by as much as 60 percent."

That's Thao Costis, President of SEARCH Homeless Services. She calls the count a measurement of need.

"The challenge we have right now is, of course, the economy has contributed to a growing number of people that experience homelessness in a given year. And so this number that we're going to get this year will be a more clear snapshot."

And that snapshot is essential for at least one reason: funding. Federal and state grants are often allocated based on the size of a region's homeless population. In this year of slashing budgets and trimming programs — service organizations are hoping to at least maintain the level of funding they already receive.

Connie Boyd says that's why it's important to count everyone — not just those who are in shelters.

"It's the ones who are not sheltered that is a little more difficult. So we have specialized groups that are together that go along the bayou, that are already out there — some are with the police force, you know that are very used and comfortable in working with this community and this population — going out there and taking accurate counts. There are other volunteers that we have that are really just observers, so they're in their car with specific instructions on where to look and where to go."

Close to 400 people will participate in the homeless count tonight from 4 to 10 p.m. While they're counting, they'll also hand out blankets, bottled water and other supplies to the men and women they find on the streets of Houston.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...