By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Every day and every night, Cheryl Ann Young's vast ceiling fills with the sounds of faint thunder.
Over her head is the constant 60-mph rumble of semis and sedans atop the concrete roadway of a U.S. 59 overpass, shortly before it becomes the Southwest Freeway. Young's only trees are sequoia-thick bridge support pillars. In a front yard "borrowed" from state right-of-way, this isolated figure watches more traffic flowing north along Main Street toward the trendy new nightclubs of a revitalized downtown.
Everywhere is the urban hallmark of big-city life -- pulsating movement: autos, places to go, places to leave, people headed for shopping and holiday events.
But the action around her only accentuates the obvious for Young. She's going nowhere. Young is homeless. And she's handicapped.
Last August the woman left Ben Taub hospital in a wheelchair and managed to make it to this gritty island under the freeway. The soaring concrete canopy is her only shelter. It partially shields her from rain, but Young isn't even sure why she selected this place to call home.
"I've been asking myself that question," she says with a grimace as a passing car chases dust into her eyes. "I just rolled myself up here one day and been here ever since."
Young, whose parents are dead, hinges her last hope for family help on an aunt living just outside Houston. She says the relative and the members of her household know Young's plight but haven't offered to take her in.
"They hear me crying. I know they do. But still nobody has come out here to get me. I can't get them to understand the situation I'm in," Young says. "I guess when you got what you need, what anybody else needs don't matter."
But bitterness is not a companion of this 12-year veteran of homelessness. She seems oddly at peace with her life under the overpass. The constant traffic and the frequent screeching of the Metro buses don't bother her, she says.
She doesn't carry a sign asking for food or money, although the wheelchair itself, loaded down with saddlebaglike bundles of belongings, makes a stronger statement to those who notice her. Young doesn't beg. She just wants to make it through every day -- and be able to take a bath once in a while.
"I guess I just miss being able to do for myself," she says.
She sits with her black hooded jacket and navy blue sleeping bag, which she asks a visitor to work up around her legs to ward off the chill of the night. Her only company is the trash surrounding her, the occasional passerby and the strains of country music drifting from the headphones of her Walkman tape player.
While she can be articulate, Young can also ramble and backtrack into recollections that are hazy at best about her earlier years and medical problems. Even getting her last name can be a challenge.
"Isn't Cheryl enough?" she asks bluntly when pressed for her full name. Her age is out of the question.
As a teen, she went to night school at Yates High School to get her diploma in about 1966, so she is in her early fifties.
Never married, she relocated later to a rural life in north Texas with her mother. After her mom died, Young returned to Houston to try to find work, ending up in a laborer's job at a hospital. She says she injured her back but the hospital ignored her doctor's recommendation to transfer her to lighter duty. She says heavy hospital machinery fell over on her, causing serious injuries -- "I was even spitting up blood."
She moved on to odd jobs. A friend signed her on at a sewing company, where she cut patterns and helped make uniforms for $27.50 a day. Wages were as bad -- when she could get paid -- for another job as a cook for a halfway house. And she says her health steadily deteriorated until she found herself without work or lodging.
But Young still had the use of her legs and feet back then. She says she settled into a fairly comfortable existence in an empty building. The owner knew she stayed there but didn't mind, she's quick to point out.
Health problems worsened. She says she thought she had aggravated a muscle in her back. She got medication, but then she "lost control of everything."
"All of a sudden, I started feeling a lot of pain in my legs even though I could still walk," she says, eyeing her wheelchair. "Finally I had to go to the hospital, and they stuck me in one of these. I'm still not used to it."
Young says one of her treating doctors speculated that her condition had come from a bad reaction to drugs.
"I don't know," she says of her disability. "It's a weird feeling. I gotta get used to the idea."
Young insists a hospital caseworker sought shelter for her at several places, including the Star of Hope, but she was turned away. She says they told her the places were not equipped to handle wheelchairs.