Life on the Sunny Side

A lucky few homeless people experience life ten miles out from the Pierce Elevated

She wrapped herself in plastic and lay down carefully on the bed. It was the only thing she could figure out to do. They'd taken her to the room earlier, told her to stick around. And Brenda, someone who hears many voices and sounds, somehow heard theirs through all the static and decided that if they told her to be there, she'd just better be accepting.

Accepting of her good fortune, see, because after living out on the street under the Pierce Elevated for weeks, months, years, she was one of the lucky 172 people rounded up and farmed out to satellite motels at the request of the authorities on March 14.

She didn't have to go in the SEARCH van. They'd given her options. She could have stayed where she was and watched the workers begin fencing in the lot for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. She could have gone to residential treatment. The choice she made was to go with nine others, all men, to a particular motel where each one was to get a room. Independent living on someone else's dime.

Brenda was relocated from the Pierce Elevated to the 
Stallion Motel.
Daniel Kramer
Brenda was relocated from the Pierce Elevated to the Stallion Motel.
Brenda wrapped herself in plastic to keep the rain off 
her while she slept.
Daniel Kramer
Brenda wrapped herself in plastic to keep the rain off her while she slept.

Rumors had been circulating for weeks that they were going to be relocated, but nothing happened. Still, in the dispute between Metro and the residents of nearby 2016 Main over who has the rights to the parking there, the homeless were definitely the odd man out.

They'd even been shown names of places that might become their new homes. Activists had come to help them protest, and it looked like things had stalled.

Delayed but not discarded, the mobilization began as caseworkers assembled at the site around 5 a.m. that Monday. At the last minute, some of the motels opted out of the agreement.

And that's how Brenda and others ended up at the Stallion Motel at the corner of Tangerine and Mallory, in the Sunnyside part of south Houston. They were offloaded at a motel that hadn't been on anyone's list.

"We were supposed to go to Cullen Inn," said 46-year-old James, one of the homeless. "They got lost on the way over here."

A low-slung building with a faint pink glow, the Stallion is a motel whose better days are long past. Exposed wires run along its fuchsia trim. The punched-in doors to some rooms carry the heel marks of anger or desire; it's impossible to say. Room No. 3 is by far the best, even has a different color on its door, and the motel's new residents say that's where the prostitute ran her tricks in 15-minute intervals. Of course, that may be nothing more than a rumor, bringing some sense of life to a ghost town.

The Stallion had been scheduled for "remodeling," according to its fill-in manager, Steven Nand, an immigrant from the Fiji Islands. Instead, it graciously opened its doors to take in the ten homeless guests, three of whom booked it out of there the first day, the remaining seven say.

Rooms are small, and even the mirrors running along the walls fail in the attempt to double their apparent size. TVs don't work in all the rooms. There are no phones. Doled-out bus tokens are the group's lifeline to downtown.

Nearby are small churches, empty lots and ranch-style brick homes. This is a community struggling to come back, and neatly manicured lawns are intermingled with homes covered in burglar bars, wire fencing and concertina wire.

The group is here for 30 days, courtesy of $190,000 collected by the Coalition for the Homeless from the city of Houston and private donors. The Stallion Motel has been deemed better than life under an overpass.

So when the rain started up and got louder and louder, and when it began pouring into her room, because the room was missing most of a ceiling, Brenda stayed.

She wrapped herself in plastic and lay down on the bed and stared up at the rafters as the rain came down around her. And waited to see what would happen the next day and the next.

What happened was that Todd Williams, a Disciples of Christ minister at New Covenant Christian Church, got a call from a caseworker assigned to the homeless at the Stallion, saying he needed to see what she was seeing.

A somewhat unlikely coalition has formed between Williams, a white, openly gay minister, and the nonprofit Families Under Urban and Social Attack, with its predominately African-American staffing and clientele. At Christmas, for instance, Williams's church, whose congregation itself is 60 percent homeless, helped fill 100 stockings for FUUSA's clients.

He came out, met a soggy Brenda and went ballistic. As he says himself, he has a tendency not to be very politic when angered.

He sent e-mails to people who could get his message to the right people. In a scathing assessment, he questioned the motives of the city and Metro evicting people from under the bridge just so property could be leased for contract parking.

"The hotel, an infested building with a leaking roof, no heat, no hot water, no food or facilities to prepare a meal located in an obscure area of the city, provides little or no hope…"

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