Dead End

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

The Texas Senate honored Joekel, a big contributor to political campaigns, with a resolution in honor of his 58th birthday in 1997. A week earlier, the Dallas Observer (the Press's sister paper) reported that occupants of his Dallas labor dorm were offered $3 or pork chop sandwiches to vote for a particular candidate in a city council election. The company provided voter registration cards and transportation to the nearest voting hall, and county records listed 183 voters at the Dallas Pacesetter address, according to the Observer.

While Pacesetter and other labor halls offer jobs to those who can get them, some at Root Square say they're being edged out by undocumented Hispanic immigrants willing to work for even lower wages. Some complain about vans full of illegal aliens who work at construction sites across from the park every Sunday, barely able to speak English yet able to land a job. Some contend that they'd be willing to work for the same wage but that when it comes to hiring construction crews, brown beats black.

The Reverend Morrison preaches every Sunday in Root Square.
Daniel Kramer
The Reverend Morrison preaches every Sunday in Root Square.
Long lines form at the square for food brought in by religious groups.
Daniel Kramer
Long lines form at the square for food brought in by religious groups.

"See this guy right here?" asks Earl Hatcher as he cruises by an overpass near 34th and Antoine. "[He's] been living on the street since 1986. He walks up and down the street. He is crazy as hell."

Hatcher knows him from his days as a parole officer. He calls the man, who hears voices and never changes his clothes, the "poster boy for the ineffectiveness of the system."

A big gray-bearded man, Hatcher co-founded the SEARCH organization on Fannin and started its mobile outreach program, the only one of its kind in Houston.

He is now executive director of the Houston SRO Housing Corporation, which owns hundreds of single-room occupancy units throughout the city, including the DeGeorge, a veterans housing initiative at Austin and La Branch.

He is also a publicist's nightmare. With a warm country accent, Hatcher delivers the kind of unchecked, barbed speech that his more diplomatic counterparts would never use in front of a reporter. In this respect, he is the polar opposite of his colleague Mandell at the Coalition for the Homeless, where Hatcher sits on the board of directors.

Mandell is just as dedicated to eradicating homelessness, but speaks in skillfully crafted sound bites meant to generate warm fuzzies, which is why city officials and advocates for the homeless name Mandell as their go-to man. Mandell will actually say things such as the coalition intends to "chart a course for the future of our city and our country."

Such words will never fall from Hatcher's lips. He's more apt to refer to homelessness as "a complex frickin' problem," and then suggest mandatory institutionalization for the homeless who are mentally ill and who cannot care for themselves.

"After 20 years or so of seeing it not work, I'd like to see more people forced into treatment," he says.

Besides the problem of the mentally ill, Hatcher boils the complex frickin' problem down to two factors: the abundance of crack and the void of affordable housing.

Houston does not have enough substance abuse programs to combat crack, the most nefarious narcotic in the homeless milieu, Hatcher says.

"There is a hell of a crack distribution system, and it's unlike that we've ever encountered as a drug," he says. "It's acceptable to be a social drinker. Old hippies think it's acceptable to smoke pot socially. Heroin addicts, if they have enough money, can be junkies. But" -- here, Hatcher slows his cadence to prove a point -- "you…can't…smoke…crack…If a person is not a drinker and they start drinking, it's going to take a year or so of concerted effort to become a debilitated alcoholic. You can make yourself fucked up totally in 30 days by smoking crack every day."

And Houston has a lack of affordable housing. Years ago, there was an abundance of boarding houses offering cheap, clean alternatives to the street. But in the mid-1980s -- the same time the federal government closed mental hospitals, putting more people on the street -- the rooms dried up. (About one million SRO units were demolished between 1970 and the mid-1980s, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.)

The alternatives were shelters or the street. Some found the latter more palatable than the proselytizing and condescending nature of "life skills classes" in the shelters. They stayed in their camps, and an apathetic nation accepted it.

"Somehow, during the '80s, across the country, we started…accepting as a fact, or as reality, that there are hundreds of thousands of homeless people camped out around this country and it's okay. It's sad, but it's okay," he says.

Hatcher blames that status quo attitude for perpetuating the problem. He has compassion for the people on the streets, which is precisely why he wants to make homelessness illegal. Enforce the hell out of the civility ordinance, he says. Penalize property owners who allow squatters. Sic the health department on the troubled nomads whose sense of dignity has deteriorated to the point where they're covered in their own shit. Just don't allow them to be on the street anymore. Don't sigh and say "too bad" and drive on.

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