How will Texas’ ban on camping change homelessness in Tyler?

On September 1, 2021, a Texas state law banned camping on public property. The law makes camping in an unapproved public place a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500. Cities may not opt out of the ban or discourage enforcement of it.

The law attempts to move those experiencing homelessness toward programs and services that will lead to stable housing. 

However, many of the hundreds of East Texans experiencing  homelessness will not be able to find stable housing. The end result of the new law may be a local jail filled with individuals whose crime was not having a home. 

As the ban approached, community volunteers, law enforcement and service providers took action, working with unsheltered individuals to find solutions. 

Last week, several providers reported a few people who reconnected with family or entered programs they previously eschewed. Some accessed a local shelter.

But despite shelters, homelessness abounds. Lack of identification, a substance use disorder, a mental illness or a prior history with the institution keep many from accessing shelter services. The reasons are clear and reasonable: All residents must be protected.

For those who can find it, supportive housing addresses two needs: A place for people to lay down their head and comprehensive supportive services. 

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, multiple studies reveal that supportive housing not only resolves homelessness and increases housing stability, but improves health and lowers public costs. Publicly-funded crisis services are reduced, including shelters, hospitals, psychiatric centers, jails and prisons. 

Unfortunately, supportive housing in Tyler is very limited and has years’ long wait lists. PATH, People Attempting to Help has 52 units, while Andrews Center provided support to 45 individuals last year. 

Homelessness is getting worse Tyler

On January 23, 2020, the East Texas Human Needs Network (ETHHN) administered the Point in Time Homeless Survey. On that date, 325 individuals experiencing homelessness were identified. However, ETHNN predicts that on any given night, close to 500 individuals are experiencing homelessness in Tyler. 

Homelessness is increasing in Tyler. Since 2007, the city has seen a 33% increase in total numbers and a devastating 135% increase in children. 

Unsheltered Population in Tyler, January 23, 2020

Of those experiencing homelessness January 23, 2020, 17% were unsheltered. 

18% of Tyler’s unsheltered are chronically homeless, meaning they have experienced homelessness for at least a year — or repeatedly — while struggling with a disabling condition. 

Disabling conditions include serious mental illness, substance use disorder or a physical disability. When these conditions abound, it begs the question: Which came first, mental illness or a substance use disorder?

Mental illness leads to addiction, which leads to homelessness, which — tragically, can lead to an early death on the streets. 

Statewide, Texas struggles to care for individuals with mental illnesses. According to Mental Health America’s 2021 State of Mental Illness in America, Texas ranks last in mental health care access and affordability.

What’s at stake when people don’t have homes? The National Coalition for the Homeless reports that a lack of housing is unhealthy, traumatizing and significantly shortens an individual’s life expectancy. 

People who experience homelessness have an average life expectancy of around 50 years old, almost 20 years lower than housed populations.

Stepping Stones

Who is working to combat the predicted crises exacerbated by the new ban? 

As the Local Housing Coalition under the Texas Homeless Network Balance of State Continuum of Care, ETHNN’s Housing Council is establishing coordinated entry.

Coordinated entry is a powerful piece of a community’s housing crisis response system. It ensures that people at risk of or experiencing homelessness can readily access and navigate housing assistance, no matter where in the community they first seek help.

Coordinated entry is designed so that households are prioritized for and matched with appropriate intervention as quickly as possible, based on their vulnerability and severity of needs. Overall, coordinated entry aims to standardize  access, assessment, prioritization and referral processes across all agency providers. This provides assistance to a community more quickly and successfully.

The primary coordinated entry point will be The Andrews Center, working with The Salvation Army of Tyler, Hi-way 80 Rescue Mission/Gateway to Hope, CampV and PATH for resources and referrals.

To prepare for the law banning camping on public spaces, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs established guidelines encouraging municipalities to designate camping areas for homeless individuals. ETHNN is waiting on a response from the City of Tyler to determine if they will designate a camping area. 

Additionally, the City of Tyler’s Neighborhood Services department has been awarded a HOME Supplemental Allocation of $1.3 million through the American Rescue Plan. 

Eligible activities include the production or preservation of affordable housing, supportive services, homeless prevention services and housing counseling, as well as the purchase and development of private individual rooms, such non-congregate shelter which allows its residents to have private individual rooms, such as hotels.

ETHNN is waiting on notice from the City of Tyler to determine how those funds will be spent. The Tyler Loop will update this story when the City of Tyler responds.

Will the city of Tyler choose to partner with local nonprofits and serve their homeless citizens?

Or will they leave nonprofits to struggle alone? 

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