Placed in the Discard Pile

About to be booted from the Fourth Ward, poor people are being told they are too poor to qualify for public housing in Houston

In Houston, more and more people are living on that edge, and every year more of them fall off and become homeless. Every January the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County surveys the demand for homeless services by having shelters throughout the area record data on each person who comes through the door in a 24-hour period.

In 1996 the coalition recorded its lowest occupancy rate, 80 percent, since it began taking the annual survey in 1992. The most recent survey, however, conducted on January 29, 1999, found that 96 percent of the area's 2,572 emergency-shelter beds were occupied. That, despite what the agency called a "significant" increase in the number of available beds. Overall, despite continued economic growth and prosperity, more than 4,000 families called on the homeless coalition for help in 1998, a 95 percent increase over 1997. Nine out of ten calls sought emergency shelter.

And for the first time ever, says Pamela Williford, executive director of the coalition, more women than men checked into homeless shelters, and three quarters of them brought children.

Ernest Etuk: Credit checks are just "one of the areas" HACH considers when screening applicants.
George Hixson
Ernest Etuk: Credit checks are just "one of the areas" HACH considers when screening applicants.

"There's definitely a widening of the gap between those who have the means to survive and those who don't," Williford says. "And we haven't really seen the effects of welfare reform yet. It could get very interesting."

Even as it demands that housing authorities accept fewer poor people, the federal government is spending more money on the homeless. In 1994 Houston and Harris County agencies that offer services to the homeless received just under $8 million in McKinney Act homeless grants from HUD. Every year since then those agencies have divvied up, on average, $12 million.

In the last half-decade, the number of assistance programs, such as day shelters and food banks, has more than doubled. Transitional living centers increased from four facilities to 41. Housing for specific populations, such as single men, families affected by HIV and the elderly, has also increased.

Earl Hatcher runs the single-room occupancy and supportive services programs for the nonprofit Housing Corporation of Greater Houston, which operates two SROs downtown, the New Hope and 1414 Congress, and is renovating the old King George Hotel as another. Hatcher points out that while federal money for new public housing was cut off in the early 1980s, there has been a veritable boom in the construction of facilities for the homeless.

"The Salvation Army, SEARCH, the Open Door Mission -- all of these places have undergone big expansions and have much better facilities," Hatcher says. "A lot of people, especially women with kids, aren't in a shelter because they're absolutely homeless, but because it's better than a run-down, drug-infested apartment. It might be to the advantage of some people to declare themselves homeless, go to a homeless shelter and get a referral."

That's what Sue Barbosa did. Ten years ago Barbosa and her one-year-old son fled an abusive relationship for the streets. She checked in at "just about every shelter in Houston," she recalls, "then we lived with a friend for a couple months, and then for two months with his mother."

She eventually got into a job-training program at SEARCH, the city's largest homeless shelter. Today she's an office manager for a real estate company. She rents an apartment, "in a pretty decent neighborhood," for $750 a month -- roughly one-third of her $2,500 monthly salary. Not bad, but it's still a burden: There are food and utility bills, as well as a car payment. And, of course, child care. Barbosa has four kids now, aged six to 11, but can afford child care for only three of them.

"It's costing me $450 a month right now, but it goes up in the summer," she says. "My oldest has to be at home by himself for two hours after school."

A cheaper place to live would help, but Barbosa knows she's lucky to have what she's got. "Where I'm at now is expensive," she says, "and it took a long time to find. We're not living in poverty, but I'm probably not going to be able to afford anything better because of child care."

Even when the government was building it with some regularity, public housing was never an entitlement. It has always been more like a lottery, with the supply so woefully short of the demand that landing a unit was a combination of luck, circumstance and persistence.

Now it will also take money. Not a lot, but enough that employment has become a must, preferably something that pays more than minimum wage. That all but dooms any chance that those already on HACH's public housing waiting list will qualify.

Their only hope would be the Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village, where the agency plans to establish a "mixed-income" tenant base, with 111 of the 500 units set aside for the poorest families. But because HACH has set up what's known as a "site-based" waiting list there, those on the regular public housing waiting list aren't even eligible, nor will they be considered for one of 400 units HACH has planned for the Fourth Ward.

All of this is more or less spelled out in the housing authority's fiscal year 2000 plan, which the agency is preparing to submit to HUD for implementation in January. For several months now, legal-aid attorneys from the Gulf Coast Legal Foundation have been reviewing the plan, and they're troubled by it.

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