Dead End

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

"I'm a left-wing liberal socialist, and that sounds very right-wing Nazi," Hatcher says. "But…I can't come up with something else that works."

Dotti Wilson will probably never learn of Hatcher's message unless it somehow winds up in her tattered copy of a Funk & Wagnalls Dictionary for Young People. Back at Root Square, she's splayed out on a friend's blanket, thumbing through the words that begin with C. Her other prized possessions include postcards and envelopes decorated with neatly handwritten columns of numbers from zero to 45. She's written the numbers but can't explain their meaning.

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.

Wilson, 45, is overweight and has long, stringy brown hair. She insists she's not homeless, she just came to the park today to relax. She says she lives in South Houston with a truck driver who she says hits her and kicks her out of his apartment for months at a time.

She also tells of designing album covers, writing the country song "Indian Outlaw," supplying money to banks and making baseball cards out of gold. She's descended from kings and queens of England and Pennsylvania, and her famous uncle Bill invented the outdoor billboard. Hence the name.

Wilson says she has two grown children in Bellaire, but she hasn't seen them in a long time because "they're the government."

It turns out she really lives with a truck driver, Robert. He says he met Wilson a few years ago on the street, thought she was "retarded" and offered her a place to stay.

Wilson's children are also authentic. They live with her ex-husband in Bellaire, in a tiny white house where Wilson will sometimes show up. Her ex, who declined to give his name or to be interviewed, would say only that Wilson is schizophrenic and beyond help.

"There's nothing you can do," the man said before disappearing into his house.

Wilson is sensitive to her ex-husband's accusations about mental illness. When told during a phone interview what her ex said, Wilson cut the conversation short by threatening, "I'll cut his dick off!" and slamming down the phone.

Now she's watching the Reverend Morrison pack up after another Sunday in Root Square. Not many in the park have turned their souls over to God today, but that won't prevent him from returning. He believes he can reach these men through the gospel, even if his wife doesn't. She sees his work as fruitless, but Morrison's Houston Christway Ministries is on a mission.

"I really think I got the best church in the city," he likes to say. "I get to see people as did Christ: at their point of need."

Morrison doesn't know what will happen to his church during the park's renovation. Ideally, he'd like to move into a vacant building downtown and provide his parishioners with washers, dryers and showers. "An aid station," he calls it.

Richard Cantu of the mayor's office says the city is behind Morrison's vision of a one-stop shop. It's nothing new -- Star of Hope, SEARCH and others have provided a multitude of services for years -- but it would help ease other agencies' crowding.

However, Cantu says there aren't any downtown buildings available. And the Root Square issues show just where the homeless rate among the city's priorities. While the basketball arena has been in the works for years and the park renovations planned for almost that long, nobody of authority appears to have given advance thought to the displacement of the homeless.

With only weeks remaining until the project's start, the city finally convened a series of planning sessions in early June. And the participants, which include the mayor's office, the Downtown Management District, advocates for the homeless and Rockets representatives, have yet to settle on any specifics about dislodging the poor from the park.

The committee has identified two possibilities for new homeless gathering points that would push the homeless further from downtown's core: Elizabeth Baldwin Park, on the edge of Midtown and the Third Ward, and Allen's Landing Park, on Buffalo Bayou at Main Street.

Morrison plans to return to Root Square when it reopens, however outlandish the notion that the city would endorse the homeless gathering amid a fancy gazebo and new park amenities on the doorstep of its dynamic arena.

"How much are the grounds going to change?" Cantu asks, as if the question hadn't already been answered. "Would it really be feasible? That has yet to be seen."

The redevelopment work is still about a month away, an eternity for these already disenfranchised souls in Root Square.

Satisfied with the good food and good weather, the men and women relax on the park's grassy perimeter. Wilson ignores the stale stench of urine kicked up by a slight breeze, and continues jotting down her perfectly formed numeric columns.

For the next few weeks, she'll still be able to come to the park to hear Morrison's sermons, eat free food and bum cigarettes.

After that, the park will close for renovations, and where she -- and everyone else -- will go, is anyone's guess.

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