By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
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.
As vague as the number of homeless people is, the word itself is even more nebulous. The majority of homeless folks are not on the street but in shelters or transitional housing. According to the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County, 55 percent of all area emergency shelter occupants are women and children -- and 55 percent of the shelter population is employed.
Yet the typical image associated with the word "homeless" is that of someone living -- often by choice -- on the street. While a minority, they pose the biggest problems, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Nationally, they account for only 10 percent of the homeless population but receive more than half the funding. Many are mentally ill, physically disabled, drug-addicted, ex-cons or some combination thereof. Their health care consists of ER visits and their sources of income vary from panhandling to disability checks to prostitution to selling plasma.
They're the target of Houston's new civility ordinance and the scourge of downtown business owners and residents. Some deliberately choose the lifestyle. They like the freedom. Others lose a job and wind up on the street long enough to lose hope, and once that's gone, the street's got them.
The homeless coalition is seeking $185,000 to have a new survey done next year. They're also scrambling for next year's supply of HUD grants.
The collection of 188 social service agencies that form the Houston coalition is vying for the same city, county and federal funds. They won $15.6 million in HUD funds last year, competing against 4,000 applicants nationwide. HUD awarded a record $950 million to homeless agencies in 2002 and plans to award another record total this year, according to spokesman Brian Sullivan.
The coalition is spending most of June and July reviewing 53 grant applications. The ones with the best chances of receiving funding align with HUD's new antidote for homelessness: a ten-year goal to eliminate the problem through permanent housing rather than emergency or transitional shelters. So HUD wants social service agencies to get them into permanent residences, most often SROs -- single-room occupancy units -- where they can be shuttled to treatment programs and job skills training. Heeding HUD's call, the coalition has implemented a computerized Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) that tracks individuals accessing charitable organizations, so the agencies can tell how long they've been on the streets and how best to help them.
David Mandell, the new coalition president, says Houston's agencies serve as a "national model" of collaboration, "but the key is, there's no room at the inn." Houston's dearth of affordable housing and emergency beds means that even the poor who want help can't always get it.
Those on the street find their own way to live, whether in a tent deep in the woods outside the Loop, or on a bus-stop bench downtown. Each offers distinct advantages: Some prefer the relative tranquillity beyond the Loop, where it's easier to hide. But some like the hustle of downtown, well within reach of shelters, with a pedestrian population beneficial for panhandling.
Years ago, downtown offered the kind of quiet that is now found only outside its borders. With an abundance of vacant buildings, it was a haven for the homeless. They gathered freely in large camps under overpasses and squatted in dilapidated warehouses and hotels. With a high homeless population and low land values, downtown drew shelters and other social service agencies, spawning a homeless corridor from Ruiz to La Branch in lower Midtown. Everyone else pretty much left the homeless alone.
But in the last seven years, the face of downtown has changed, with high-priced condos and swank bistros replacing a veritable shantytown. In that time, the coalition collected $122 million from HUD to help the homeless. While the once ubiquitous camps have disappeared, most of the homeless remain. Some moved into Midtown; others just found better places to hide.
Turning onto Main Street, police officer C.T. Reed rolls down the squad car window and yells, "Dong!"
Hearing his name, the bone-thin Asian man with the gray goatee picks up his blue cardboard box and springs to his feet. He's wearing green-checked wool pants, a dirty white T-shirt and white sneakers, his bushy gray hair defying gravity at a variety of angles. Like those of many men who spend too much time on the street, Dong's fingernails are like talons ringed with dirt. He looks so frail that a mosquito might knock him down, but he rounds the corner with surprising agility.
"He's easy to deal with," says Reed's partner, Ron Sessum.
Dong is a regular at the corner of Main and Rusk, along with Overcoat, a ghoulish specter in his eponymous black jacket, and Farina, an elderly Cuban native who hides his beer in a Greensheet rack. In the idiom of the squad car, Dong is known as Squattie, a name pertaining to the old man's peculiar habit of squatting extremely close to the sidewalk and shimmying his legs like a cricket.
Dong's insect impression is an affront to the city's civility ordinance, introduced last year, which forbids sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Perhaps Dong has found a creative loophole and is taunting the law by neither fully sitting nor lying, but Reed and Sessum doubt it. Yet Dong is relatively safe. All he needs to do is round the corner and resume his squatting until the officers roll through again.
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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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