In the woods around Canyon Lake there are homeless encampments.
Some are in the “feeder” areas for Mountain Valley Middle Elementary and Mountain Valley Middle schools. In that same area, unhoused residents are reportedly moving into abandoned mobile homes.
There also is evidence that people are living on the banks of the Guadalupe River near the intersection of SH-46 and U.S. Route 281. Another encampment has been spotted near the Comal/Blanco county line. Several homeless encampments are located near Canyon Lake’s North Shore United Methodist Church.
The number of homeless residents is rising in Comal County, warns Kellie Stallings, executive director of NB Housing Partners, which serves the entire county, not just those living in New Braunfels.
“Homelessness is in our backyard.”
On Jan. 26, the members of the Comal County Homeless Coalition — as part of a national initiative by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) — braved cold temperatures to survey as many individuals as possible. Their goal was to determine trends in the circumstances of those who are experiencing homelessness.
Two-person volunteer teams reached out to people experiencing homelessness in selected areas of the county.
This year, the ‘Point in Time’ survey identified 98 homeless people compared to 89 in the 2022 count. In the 2020 count, 46 homeless individuals were identified. Of those participating in the count, 5% were veterans, 25% reported a serious mental illness, 9% reported a substance abuse disorder, and 9% were domestic violence survivors.
Most of those surveyed were between the ages of 25 to 54, but the most considerable increase of those surveyed was for individuals ages 18 to 24 with a significant increase also seen in youth younger than age 18. Six children under age 18 and five young adults ages 18 to 24 were experiencing homelessness in January. Of those, two were five to 12 years old.
HUD defines a homeless person as anyone living in a place not meant for human habitation, in an emergency shelter, in transitional housing, or exiting an institution where they temporarily resided.
A separate survey conducted in conjunction with New Braunfels and Comal ISD identified 82 students as experiencing homelessness or housing instability.
Many children do not technically meet HUD’s definition of homelessness, Stallings said. They may be couch surfing or moving from home to home of friends and relatives rather than living on the streets.
The districts’ survey found that the reasons children experience homelessness are similar to national trends.
For example, 75% of those children reported a history of family violence, 42% reported a history of child abuse, and 35% reported a history of sexual assault.
Statistically, one child in a class of 30 students will experience homelessness this year, Stallings said.
“Overall, in our county, the data clearly shows that homelessness is growing,” she said.
Of those self-identifying as experiencing homelessness in Comal County, 45 were unsheltered, meaning they were sleeping on the street or sidewalk, in an outdoor encampment, under a bridge or overpass, or in a vehicle.
“There was a 113% increase in the number surveyed between 2020 and 2023 and a 10% increase from 2022 to 2023,” Stallings said. “This shows that we are improving on our outreach and ensuring we survey all who are residing in a shelter. At the same time, it also indicates that homelessness is growing in our community.”
The count showed that 59% of those surveyed were experiencing homelessness for the first time and that 52% had experienced homelessness more than once. More concerning, 40.5% of those individuals experienced homelessness four or more times.
Overall, she said there is particular concern about the growth in those who have experienced homelessness more than once or for longer than six months. These factors negatively impact a person’s ability to obtain and maintain housing and also negatively impact their health and life trajectory.
Homelessness impacts the overall health and safety of the community.
“Homelessness creates or exacerbates health problems, substance addictions, and mental illness,” Stallings said. “It increases exposure to physical violence, police involvement, and the need for emergency care services, straining community resources.”
In areas like New Braunfels and Canyon Lake, which are experiencing explosive growth, homelessness increases as the cost of living and the cost of housing make it impossible to find affordable housing options.
Finding an affordable roof is out of the question for many homeless individuals. Rent in the Canyon Lake/New Braunfels area averages between $1,500 to $1,900 a month. Anyone applying for an apartment is required to prove they make an amount equal to three times the rent and also submit to credit and criminal background checks.
“It gets hard to even get back on your feet because doors start closing,” Stallings said. “We don’t want that for our community. The nonprofit community, along with our partners in the faith-based community, are really working together to see how we can open some of those doors again so that we don’t have these barriers that then lead to homelessness.”
So how can those fortunate enough to have a roof over their heads help those without?
In Canyon Lake, Stallings said a great way to start is by supporting the Community Resource and Recreation Center of Canyon Lake (CRRC), which can assist those struggling with groceries and rent. The organization also is well-connected with other resources in the community and can connect homeless individuals with a broad range of other social services.
NB Housing Partners also works with Acacia Medical Mission and Hill Country Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Centers to initiate street outreach and develop relationships with residents who are living in encampments and also need access to community resources and housing opportunities.
The Homeless Coalition also needs help identifying people in the community who need assistance, and that means keeping an eye out for things that might seem a little ‘off.”
Stallings said the Comal County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) can conduct health and safety checks if something seems amiss, such as lights in abandoned mobile homes.
Parents who overhear their children talking about another child living out of a truck or getting kicked out of the house should alert authorities.
Communities in Schools (CIS) is embedded in several middle and elementary schools in Comal ISD and school student-support specialists or social workers can intervene as needed to connect children and families to available community supports.
To learn more, visit www.thn.org/texas-balance-state-continuum-care/data/pit-count-and-hic.