Dead End

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

Reed and Sessum work out of the Houston Police Special Operations Division at Fannin and Bell, enforcing the civility ordinance from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Reed's been on the job 20 years, Sessum for about half that. When City Council approved the civility ordinance, both men volunteered to enforce it.

They spent the first few months informing everyone about the ordinance before they started issuing citations, but even now they don't like to arrest anybody. It's the revolving-door syndrome. Arrest a street person, throw him in jail, and three days later he's out sleeping on the sidewalk again. (Officers have issued 288 citations for civility ordinance violations between June 2002 and March 2003, according to Sherry Salzman of the Houston municipal courts.)

"Their goal is not to arrest everybody," says their boss, Captain George Beunik. "We encourage compliance…more importantly, we try to get [the homeless] the help that they need."

Some urban campsites get cluttered quickly.
Daniel Kramer
Some urban campsites get cluttered quickly.
Cowart: Midtown has inherited downtown's problems.
Daniel Kramer
Cowart: Midtown has inherited downtown's problems.

His officers work closely with the Downtown Management District, which receives a lot of calls from disgruntled business owners and residents who feel the homeless are taking over their world.

Reed and Sessum have an abundance of patience and respect for the men and women they roust from slumber under overpasses, on park benches and on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, often mere yards from piles of their own feces. But while Reed and Sessum will shake their hands, they're also aware of health risks. The officers inspect the soles of their shoes for human waste before they get in the car. And if either had forgotten their hand sanitizer today, they'd be dousing their digits right about now.

Reed says his brother, who is married with children, lives on the street for long stretches -- not out of necessity, but out of choice. Reed is tight-lipped about it, saying only that his brother feels like he's with family when he's out there. So Reed never knows if one of the men he wakes with the blaring squad car horn will be his own flesh and blood.

Sessum, a Marine Corps vet who spent four months in Saudi in the first Gulf War, is the talker of the two. He speaks endlessly of his quest to find a solution to the homelessness problem. He doesn't like the idea of the iron fist; he believes these people can be productive members of society.

They'll ask those they encounter if they're getting help from service agencies, or tell them how to get to one for assistance. Sometimes they'll just get a nickname, but often they know real first names and a little history. And they understand that some of them, like Kenneth O'Brien, who's been on the street for six months, don't like shelters.

"Too many diseases," says O'Brien, whom Reed and Sessum wake up in a Goodyear parking lot on Fannin. O'Brien gets up and grabs a tank top from his duffel bag. A can of Vienna sausage sits by his blanket, beside a copy of the New Testament. O'Brien has stacks of them.

Under the overpass at Gray and Jackson, the officers are soon listening intently to Will, the man they dubbed the Mayor of the Overpass. He knows more than anyone about this collection of regulars who gather under the overpass because they can eat for free at the nearby Daybreak Community Health Center.

Will stays here between bouts of employment, preferring the blanket and dusty ground to the bottom bunk of a shelter bed.

The last time he stayed at Star of Hope, 46-year-old Will says, a bunkmate urinated on him. Will also recalls, with a hint of sincere horror, the size of the lice festering in another man's hair. And even though he'll eat the food given to him, he sneers at such social service organizations. In Will's mind, the shelters see him and his homeless brethren as dollar signs.

"They don't give a damn about the homeless," he says. "It's all about money."

The officers ask Will for ideas on how to get the homeless off the street for good.

Let them rehab the vacant buildings downtown and live there, Will says. There are masons on the streets, carpenters, people with technical skills.

Of course, until Will attains a political office higher than that of mayor of an overpass, that will never happen. Back in the squad car, Reed and Sessum list the reasons why Will's idea is a pipe dream. That doesn't mean they don't like it, though, the idea of Dong and Overcoat and Farina out there on the scaffolding, hammering a heartbeat into a decrepit old building, moving into a new apartment and a new life.

But instead, Reed and Sessum will be out here again tomorrow, telling Dong and Overcoat and Farina to wake up and move along.

"It's a matter of a patience thing," Sessum says. "Who's gonna outlast who?"

Patience is hard to come by for some in downtown and Midtown.

When Noel Cowart moved to 2016 Main nine years ago, he didn't see too many street people or their problems. Nestled in his condo that borders both Midtown and downtown, Cowart says he and his wife weren't accosted by pushy panhandlers and they didn't have to step over anyone sleeping off a hangover on the sidewalk.

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