As Hurricane Harvey continues to pummel Texas with deadly winds and heavy rains, leaving an estimated 30,000 in the Houston area displaced, it’s not only wreaking terrible devastation — it’s also bringing the reality of homelessness to the fore for millions of Americans, and for the world community that is watching.
At the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (Law Center), where we work daily to help homeless Americans across the country, we are grateful to emergency responders who are working tirelessly to rescue families and individuals, and to the local shelters and service centers opening their doors to provide critical support.
But we are also particularly concerned — and afraid — for people in the area who were already homeless. Every day, in Texas and across the country, people are homeless not due to natural disasters but man-made disasters: the extreme shortage of affordable housing; the growing gap between wages and living costs, especially housing; and the lack of child care, health care, and substance abuse treatment options.
In Houston, the Law Center is currently involved in litigation to challenge laws that criminalize people experiencing homelessness for camping in public, sleeping in public, and panhandling. Many of the people we are representing were living under freeways — low points in the city where the risk of flooding was greatest. They are now in even graver danger than before.
Before the hurricane, over 6,000 people in the Houston area lived on the streets or other public places; shelters were full — having been full for years — and people without housing had nowhere else to go. More are likely to join them as a result of Harvey. Houston ― and the many other cities around the country that are criminalizing homelessness ― must stop wasting resources on arresting and jailing people simply because they lack a home, and instead focus on solutions like housing and social services.
Major hurricanes have devastating and long-lasting effects, particularly for families who are low-income or who are experiencing homelessness. Immediately following natural disasters, families are dispersed to a variety of living situations. Children and youth may be housed in shelters, hotels, motels, or with family members and friends — where even if they are fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads, they will still be without a home of their own.
As such, they are protected by federal law that guarantees access to school for homeless children — they can’t be denied enrollment or forced to leave the school they were in before they became homeless simply because they lack a permanent address. These protections are especially important now, when so many families are newly homeless. Texas schools — as well as other states hosting displaced families — must ensure educational access, continuity, and stability for displaced students. Given the crushing need, additional federal funds must be made available to help states and communities protect these children.
Ensuring housing, both emergency and permanent, is critical and requires a long-term commitment. Too often, as the shock of the crisis wears off, the sense of urgency diminishes, emergency efforts recede, and many families and individuals may be unable to secure permanent housing — and remain homeless.
Now is a time for federal, state and local government — together with private individuals — to come together to focus on both immediate and long-term needs. Regardless of whether their plight stems from natural or man-made disaster, homeless Houstonians — and all homeless people — must receive the emergency support and permanent housing they need.
Ultimately, the federal government must provide the leadership, resources, and commitment to human rights to ensure that all are protected — now and for the long term. It’s up to all of us to make sure it does.