Dead End

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

But as downtown's rebirth gobbled up vacant buildings and land, many homeless squatters headed south toward Midtown. The Pierce Elevated, right by his building, became one of the popular gathering points. Cowart, a member of the Midtown Coalition -- based out of 2016 Main -- began speaking out about the issues, garnering a reputation among homeless advocates as a real Scrooge.

After a few years living in the heart of the problem, Cowart figured one thing out: "Whenever you speak out against the street people, you come under immediate criticism from people who don't necessarily know what the heck they're talking about."

Cowart says he sees the difference between those who seek help from shelters and job placement agencies and those who choose a life on the street.

Hatcher: The current system is not working.
Daniel Kramer
Hatcher: The current system is not working.
Wilson's family will say only that she is beyond help.
Monica Fuentes
Wilson's family will say only that she is beyond help.

"People who choose not to help themselves make that choice and I will certainly accept that choice -- but I don't like 'em," he says. "And those that are trying to help themselves, [I'll] bend over backwards to help 'em."

The Midtown Coalition has a good relationship with the two police jurisdictions that patrol Midtown, Cowart says. Regular patrols have broken up large camps like the one under the Pierce Elevated.

"Street people don't seem to like police very much, so they find places where the police aren't patrolling," he says. "And that's basically it. That's really all we can do…We have no fireworks. We haven't formed a vigilante committee."

But some in Midtown think the police and the city could do more.

Dan Bryan, manager of a strip mall at Main and Webster, says his tenants regularly complain about transients huddling in his parking lot and disturbing shoppers. Because the part of the civility ordinance prohibiting sleeping on sidewalks during the day applies only to the central business district, many street people have flocked to Midtown. Bryan and Fran Bregenzer, manager of 2016 Main, are petitioning City Council to amend the ordinance to include Midtown.

But perhaps the most outspoken critic of the police isn't in Midtown.

Kirk Farris owns part of the Harris County-managed James Bute Park, a 13-acre parcel off McKee Street on the northern edge of downtown. Like Root Square, James Bute Park is a haven for the homeless every Sunday. The homeless also use it so much during the week that the men from the Star of Hope shelter a few blocks away have worn a path from the shelter to the park. But that's not as bad as what he says is a 65-foot pile of trash the homeless have built with everything from old beer bottles to bicycle parts.

"I can't succeed with these fuckers in my park," Farris says. Families won't use the park as long as the homeless have claimed it. And lax police enforcement is part of the problem, he says.

When told that the cops in the Special Operations Division consider arresting the homeless as a last resort, Farris scoffs.

"They're paid to do that," he says.

Farris speaks bluntly, but he's not without a heart. He doesn't hate the homeless, he just hates a system he says is not working. The way Farris sees it, by allowing public feeding in parks and not enforcing vagrancy laws, the city isn't giving street people the boundaries they need. As long as no one's hassling them, there's no incentive to change. Be compassionate, but be firm. And you can sneer at the homeless as much as you want, Farris says, but you've got to remember one thing about the problem: "It's our fault, too."

Until a few days ago, Lionel Townsend had a lucrative career as a pimp. He says he and a friend ran hookers out of a hotel room, but then the friend went crazy and Townsend split. The night before he came to Root Square, he set up shop at the Krash Kabin, a $7-a-night labor pool dormitory just north of downtown, at Elysian and Collingsworth.

Now, the ex-marine picks up work from different labor halls. Townsend's last gig -- unloading 50 slabs of Sheetrock in four hours -- netted him a whopping $9.02.

The Krash Kabin is one of a handful of bunkhouses that offer an alternative to the street and the shelters. It's owned by Pacesetter Personnel Service, the labor hall across the street. The company owns similar halls and bunkhouses throughout Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Some advocates for the homeless believe bunkhouses exploit the homeless; others argue that they are a preferable alternative to sleeping on the street.

During the day, men barbecue on the Krash Kabin patio or sleep on benches in the Pacesetter hall, waiting for a "ticket," a job. Some hang out around the convenience store at the end of the block, reading the paper and chugging cold beer.

Townsend has no problem with the Krash Kabin, but critics complain about its business operations. Pacesetter offers employees on a contractual basis, so employers must buy out the contract if they want to hire a worker on a permanent basis. Those opposed to the system say Pacesetter will deliberately stand in the way of permanent jobs by driving up the buyout price. Krash Kabin owner Charles Joekel did not return calls for comment.

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