Hurricane Harvey Victims: More Than 20,000 Children in Houston Are Homeless, Report Shows

The destruction levied by Hurricane Harvey still reverberates across Houston.

According to local reports, tens of thousands of Houston residents lack stable housing three months after the storm made landfall, living in trailers, tents, shelters, and in what the Houston Chronicle calls “barely habitable homes.” Over 22,000 of those without a home are children, while some 47,000 Harvey victims stay in hotel rooms paid for by the federal government at a tune of $2.8 million a day.

Officials say that the blame falls on government agencies at all levels for not doling out aid fast enough.

“We are behind where we need to be, city, state and federal,” Tom McCasland, director of Houston’s housing and community development department, told the Chronicle earlier this week. “It’s time to get these programs out in the community, get hammers swinging, get people moving back into their homes.”

RTX3FEU7 From left, Kameron Smith, 4, Darius Smith, 9, and Deandre Green, 10, play with toys that they found in the piles of destroyed property at Crofton Place Apartments in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas, U.S. September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry

By many accounts, Hurricane Harvey was one of the most destructive natural disasters in American history.

It is estimated that Harvey caused $180 billion in damage, affecting some 13 million people across Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Only Hurricane Katrina surpasses these figures.

The storm quickly decimated the Houston metropolitan area: One-third of the city was underwater just 24 hours after the storm made landfall on September 1, forcing tens of thousands of Houston’s 6.6 million residents to evacuate their homes and seek refuge immediately.

In the end, Harvey damaged more than 311,000 housing units in Houston, “roughly a third of the housing stock,” according to the Chronicle.

Soon after the storm dissipated, the federal government approved a $15.25 billion storm aid package. Almost half of that money--$7.4 billion—went to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund. Those monies are meant to assist families and individuals resettle after the storm, offering financial assistance for those affected by the storm, as well as temporary housing options such as its hotels, motels, and trailers.

Nearly 900,000 people applied for FEMA financial assistance since September. So far, the agency has approved more than 353,000 of those applications, handing out $1.4 billion in grants, an average of $4,000 in assistance per family, according to the Chronicle.

But almost all of hurricane victims approved for FEMA’s long-term housing assistance programs have not been resettled.

As put by the Chronicle: “Although more than 9,500 Texas families had qualified for some form of additional temporary housing assistance as of Tuesday, just one had been able to move back into a home repaired through FEMA's program, and 223 were living in a trailer or mobile home.”

Experts say that the bureaucracy behind disaster relief housing assistance in the United States carries much of the blame.

“We know from all these years after Katrina and Sandy that housing is very, very difficult and slow to recover,” Mary Comerio, an architecture professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in disaster recovery, told the Chronicle. “In all cases, it will be way slower than you want it to be, and it will be years, not months.”

Comerio also puts the blame on how the U.S. deals with these kinds of emergencies in general, as “housing is seen as a private sector issue” and doesn’t receive “a great deal of support [or] funding for” by the federal government.

Also at fault is the lack of sufficient funding to sustain FEMA’s temporary assistance programs.

Soon after President Donald Trump signed this year’s disaster relief bill, experts warned that the funds wouldn’t be enough to cover the damage caused throughout the hurricane season, particularly in Puerto Rico. President Barack Obama’s former head of FEMA even went on to say that “it would be lucky if” funding lasted longer than 30 days.

Bureaucracy on the local level is also holding up much of the assistance funding, as Houston officials still haven’t approved an agreement with Texas’ General Land Office to oversee “the rollout of FEMA’s interim housing programs.” This means that “flood victims here likely will not start benefitting from federal funded apartments, trailers, or repairs for several more weeks at the earliest,” according to the Chronicle.

09_16_Hurricane Harvey Flooding Hurricane Harvey caused horrific flooding. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the meantime, thousands of schools throughout the Houston area do their best to accommodate the needs of the more than 22,000 elementary and high school students who find themselves in precarious housing situations.

“I think the main thing, I worry about them losing hope that, ‘Will we be able to rebuild?’,” Emily Cruz, a guidance counselor in Pasadena, Texas, a working-class suburb of Houston, told KHOU 11 on Wednesday. “Can we get back on our feet? Will things ever be the same?”

Multiple studies show that housing insecurity has drastic effects on a child’s educational and emotional wellbeing.

For Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk, an education non-profit based in Houston, that means that even if the city manages to house those in need, things might never be the same.

“This is something that could indeed affect this whole generation,” Sanborn told KHOU 11. “This Harvey generation of kids are going to be kids that struggle just a little bit more.”

For Ronyiha Coleman, a middle schooler and one of the 22,000 students facing homeless after Hurricane Harvey, a solution can’t come quickly enough.

“What would make me smile is having a home,” Coleman told KHOU 11. “I’m not fine because I’m living in a hotel and I don’t have nowhere to go.