AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been triple-digit temperatures for weeks now around much of Texas. Homeless Texans are among the state's most vulnerable residents.
Richard Eric Lose, who goes by Eric, said he swims in Barton Creek in Austin to keep cool. He also carries an emergency supply of water in his backpack and buys ice at convenience stores. He knows how dangerous this heat can be.
“It can kill you, so yeah, that’s in the back of my mind. I think about that,” he said.
Lose grew up in Fort Worth and moved to Austin when he was 10. He joined the military at age 17, where he learned how to work on aircraft and became a combat medic. Most recently, he worked in construction. Lose has been homeless for six weeks.
“It was just an unfortunate series of events where I lost my vehicle, my home and my job all in the same week,” he said. “And it was really difficult to recover."
Lose is in survival mode. He sleeps in a hammock in Austin's Greenbelt, near the water. He climbs up trees so that no one steals his belongings or bothers him. He ties his bike to branches with a rope. He feels safer in high-traffic areas.
“Nobody knows I’m there, pretty much. Nobody ever looks up,” Lose said with a laugh.
Lose dropped recently dropped his phone in the water. Now he can't call family or find work. His father is in the hospital and doesn't know he's homeless yet.
On Wednesday, while he was getting food and drinks and trying to find resources at the Sunrise Community Church, Lose attempted to charge his phone to see if it would turn on. There were still water droplets in the camera lens.
According to the Texas Homeless Network, there were 64,580 homeless people across Texas in 2021. This data excludes San Antonio and Wichita Falls.
“The state has a responsibility to every Texan whether that Texan is housed or not. And the state of Texas does not take responsibility for its homeless residents,” said state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-District 14. “The state of Texas contributes nothing to affordable housing. It is quite famously the dead last among those who are insured. And also we have the highest difficulty in the United States accessing mental health care. So this is a particularly dicey circumstance for homeless individuals.”
Sen. Eckhardt said the state should invest in care for mental health and substance abuse disorders.
“That would require us to expand Medicaid,” she said. “Homeless individuals generally do qualify for Medicaid because you have to be exceedingly poor in order to qualify for Medicaid in the state of Texas. But the issue for our homeless population is access to Medicaid-eligible care. So if you are living in an encampment far away from services, it's very, very difficult to have what's known as a ‘medical home.’ So you have a higher likelihood of having untreated illnesses that get worse until you go to an emergency room.”
The senator added that Texas needs far more affordable housing. Eric Samuels, the president and CEO of the Texas Homeless Network, agrees. He said while the state has provided some support through the Homeless Housing and Services Program (HHSP), more help is needed. He suggested that funding for housing could come from the American Rescue Plan or the Texas Legislature's $27 billion surplus.
"I don't know why we haven't had the will to produce that type of housing. But I'm hopeful that in this next session, that becomes a very big topic, and we do get interest from our legislators to do just that," Samuels said.
But Matt Mackowiak, the co-founder of Save Austin Now, said it’s more of a local problem.
“This is a city problem that the city has created. And the city’s going to have to find a way to solve it,” Mackowiak said of Austin’s homeless crisis.
Still, he said the state has some interest in solving homelessness.
“To the extent that it affects state property, whether that be state building, state highways [or] state workers,” Mackowiak said. “They passed legislation that last session on a bipartisan basis that banned unsanctioned camping statewide. The challenge is the enforcement, and the enforcement provisions in the state law are not strong enough. So my hope is, number one, the state will get serious about enforcement. Number two, my hope is the state will take back control of these underpasses at the highways.”
Sen. Eckhardt doesn’t believe the state will do much of anything to help the state's homeless population when the next legislative session begins on Jan. 10.
“I’ve heard absolutely no interest at the state level in taking up the issue of homelessness,” said Sen. Eckhardt. “The state level leadership is more than happy to leave this to local-elected officials to solve. More to the point, to blame local elected officials for failing to solve it.”
Wherever the responsibility lies, homeless Texans hang in the balance.
When Lose gets back on his feet, he wants to travel around the U.S. and give back to those who need it most.
“I think anybody that has a sense of purpose will keep going and figure it out,” Lose said.