Dead End

Downtown redevelopment and economic doldrums are taking Houstonís homeless into even harder times

The Reverend Alex Morrison preaches about rebuilding on God's word, but the men in the northwest corner of the park have more on their minds. It's a heated game of spades, with a man in a white skullcap talking enough trash to overflow a landfill.

"I'm runnin' this here!" he shouts, slapping down his card on a blanket draped over a stone planter. He grinds his teeth loudly like a jackhammer, his eyes wide and unblinking.

Under the ruckus of White Skullcap's teeth, Morrison's words pop and crackle through a cheap microphone and small amplifier.

"God's saying to you, 'Here I am. I'm ready to help you,' " the chubby-cheeked Morrison bellows in a gravelly voice. He has no takers today, save for an unenthusiastic handful of men squatting on nearby benches. They were there before the gospel hour, and they'll be there when Morrison and his disciples pack his white bread truck and haul the equipment back to his Independence Heights storefront. Morrison, 57, has preached to the homeless here every Sunday for the last seven years. He holds Communion and has even performed baptisms. On rainy days, he moves the outdoor church under the Pierce Elevated, where parking meters replace pews and prayers must penetrate the overhead traffic to reach heaven.

This spades game has been going on for some time, too. And White Skullcap is always the loudest. But Lionel Townsend, standing off to the side, exudes enough cool to balance his friend's pyrotechnics.

Townsend's laid-back demeanor is what attracted him to the South in the first place. Minneapolis was too cold, and he doesn't mean just the weather.

He comes to Root Square because that's where the action is on Sunday. He sees the usual crowd and picks up a sandwich or two from the church volunteers who come from as far away as Clear Lake.

At about 11 a.m., a car parks on Bell Street and a minister pops the trunk. It's the shot heard round the park. White Skullcap drops his cards and joins the scramble to the curb to get a bag filled with sandwiches, water and soap.

When asked about the mad dash, an old spades player with yellow eyes and daggers for fingernails mutters, "A king will leave his throne for a free turkey."

Townsend doesn't run. He knows there are plenty of sandwiches, and that when those are gone there will be another car in a few minutes. He doesn't like to crowd anyone anyway. It's his No. 1 rule of the street: When he sees another homeless person on the street, he likens the two of them to two wide barges crossing the Mississippi in a dense fog.

"I'm giving you a wide berth," he says.

But there is no wide berth downtown anymore. Revitalization is uprooting historically large encampments and spreading street people around. Nowhere is this clearer than in Root Square Park, a 1.4-acre oasis for many of Houston's homeless. On Sundays, they come from shelters and boarding houses throughout the city, knowing they can hang their clothes on the park's live oaks and park their shopping carts in peace. They can come here for testing from the county's mobile medical units and to swap stories and smokes.

For years, no one has used this park but them. But in about four weeks, the city will close the park for $2.3 million in renovations that will add basketball courts, a fountain and a gazebo. Some of the funding comes from an organization associated with the Houston Rockets, who expect to have their multimillion-dollar arena open in November across the street. In the interim, Morrison, the spades crew and all the others will have to find somewhere else to go. The problem is, no one seems to know where that will be.

But Townsend isn't worried. He's got money for a place to sleep tonight, and he'll still have the money when the park is redone. It's the others who'll have to worry. The mentally ill, the disabled, the drunks. Someone else will have to do their worrying for them.


The last time anybody counted, it was 1996 and there were 10,000 homeless men, women and children in Harris County. Today, some of their advocates say the number could be as high as 15,000, with only 4,500 beds available. For those who serve the homeless population in Houston, there's a certain aversion to speaking of human beings in terms of raw numbers and data sets, but the truth is that it's all a numbers game. How much federal money a city gets to combat homelessness depends on how many homeless people there are and how effectively their agencies deal with that number. The 1996 homeless study was the first in 13 years.

Since that last research, Houston has experienced the shock waves of Tropical Storm Allison, 9/11, the Enron debacle and other economic quagmires. Shelters are seeing record numbers of homeless people, including a swiftly rising segment of women and children. Meanwhile, the number of people creeping closer to homelessness has grown. Houston recorded about 330,000 people living below the poverty level in 1989 and about 370,000 people four years ago. They are often just a paycheck away from finding themselves in the shelters.

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