Earth Day 2021: Climate Change and the Impact on Homelessness

Earth Day 2021: Climate Change and the Impact on Homelessness

By: Cindy Ramirez

Everything is bigger in Texas… and that unfortunately also applies to the climate change in our state. According to a 2017 study published in Science, Texans will experience some of the worst effects of climate change, from a dwindle in harvests to a soar in energy usage– all of which will have a high economic cost. As if to emphasize the study’s point, a couple of weeks after its publication, Hurricane Harvey flooded large parts of South Texas, making it the costliest weather disaster in Texas history. (It also makes it the second costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.)

The intensity of Hurricane Harvey was not a shock to many, including the EPA. A year prior to the hurricane, the department released a climate change report that included the following warning: “Rainstorms are becoming more intense, and floods are becoming more severe.” As the EPA explains in the report, the climate in Texas is changing because Earth’s temperature is rising– all of which contributes to the humidity, rainfall, and frequency of heavy rainstorms in many of Texas’ regions.

A graphic that shows the rise in hurricane strength from 1970 to 2010.

With Hurricane Harvey flooding more than 150,000 homes in the Houston area and Tropical Storm Imelda flooding at least 8,000 homes in Jefferson, Harris, Liberty, and Montgomery counties, it’s important that we take these climate change warnings seriously. With each hurricane and tropical storm that occurs, more and more Texans become at-risk of homelessness, especially when their homes haven’t fully recovered from a previous weather disaster.

In some cases, it only takes ONE intense rainstorm for someone to become displaced and experience literal homelessness. This is especially true for Texans with homes that are old and in a deteriorating condition. Take the unequal distribution of damage that Houston bore from Hurricane Harvey as an example: old homes, built before the federal and local anti-flooding regulations set in the 1980s, were the most damaged… whereas newer homes faced little damage given the requirement that they be built at least 12 inches above the expected flood levels.

Overall, these effects of climate change have thrown many Texans into a never-ending cycle of housing instability. While some people manage to bounce back from every flood, others are not so lucky. Poor people do not have the financial resources to constantly fix up their homes after every natural disaster, and so the caving floors and ceilings (and moldy walls) only become worse with time– providing little to no protection and shelter against another round of extreme weather. While some people may end up abandoning their homes before they collapse, others see no other choice but to risk their health and safety in order to stay housed and/or keep hold of their family’s legacy.

Two people walking out of a dim how without elecriticity that has been visibly recently flooded with water on the floor.

Regardless of what they choose to do, both groups of people– those unhoused and those in old deteriorating houses– are still at risk of other climate change effects. Since the beginning of the 20th century, Texas has experienced an increase in the average temperature every year. This is extremely bad news for people experiencing homelessness. Without easy access to shelter, medical care, and other basic human necessities (like water and nutritious foods), people experiencing literal homelessness are at high risk for heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat strokes.

Although high temperatures affect unsheltered folks the most, housed people may also be affected depending on the state of their home. Homes require insulation, sealing, and– especially for old homes without HVAC systems– proper electrical wiring to handle multiple A/C units. So when homes haven’t been maintained, because of a lack of resources and/or repeated natural disasters, even housed neighbors may be at risk of overheating. For this reason, I strongly believe housing justice means all people having stable, high-quality, safe, and affordable housing.

But can housing justice, which includes the ending of homelessness and housing instability, be achieved when climate change continues to be unaddressed? 

The vast majority of climate scientists agree that the increase in carbon dioxide emissions, and other greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide and ozone, cause climate change. So, the vast majority also agree that we need to rapidly and dramatically reduce the emissions of these greenhouse gases in order to stall the rise of global (Texas) warming AND the deterioration of our air quality. It’s important to remember that greenhouse gases also feed a destructive feedback loop; as they pollute the air, they contribute to climate change– and this climate change further exacerbates the pollution in the air. Failure to reduce greenhouse gases increases the number of deaths related to air pollution… and not everyone will be affected the same. Unsheltered people would bear the burden of air pollution the most, as they constantly inhale outdoor air. And, as I’ve stressed before, housed people living in poor quality housing would also not be safe from the health risks that are caused by air pollution.

Visualization of how climate change impacts our health through the air we breathe.

Climate change is pervasive and for that reason, Texas needs a comprehensive action plan to tackle climate change. Choosing to not act only invites the increase in the displacement of Texans, and the deterioration of our health and safety. This is why supporting housing justice absolutely means addressing the climate change crisis. Our advocacy for people at-risk of or experiencing homelessness must include an environmental justice lens.

Texas government agencies that impact our environment:
      • Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – Texas’ state environmental agency that is responsible for ensuring compliance with the federal environmental standards set by the U.S. EPA.
      • Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) – Texas’ state agency that regulates the oil and gas industry, natural gas utilities, pipeline safety, the natural gas and hazardous liquid pipeline industry, and surface coal and uranium mining in Texas.
Environmental justice groups in Texas:
      • Environment Texas – a statewide organization dedicated to protecting Texas’ air, water and open space by investigating problems, crafting solutions, and educating the public on how they can make their voices heard.
      • Sunrise Movement – a national youth-led organization, with local chapters in Texas, that advocates political action on climate change.
      • T.E.J.A.S. – a Houston-based organization that promotes environmental protection through education, policy development, community awareness, and organizing across the state.
      • The Climate Project – a national organization with local chapters in Texas that dedicates itself to climate change education and advocacy.
Earth Day 2021: Climate Change and the Impact on Homelessness
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