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By Dianna Wray
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Michael Lyddon lies slumped over a school desk, his face smooshed into the crook of his right elbow. With his teacher's blessing, the 17-year-old junior at Austin High School in Fort Bend Independent School District spends his last period of the day napping.
When the bell rings he staggers outside, squints bleary-eyed into the winter sun and fumbles for his cell phone. "Steve-O!" he shouts. "Do you think I can come over?" With that settled, Michael trolls the school parking lot to hitch a ride from one of the many students whose parents gifted them shiny new cars for their sweet sixteens. "What can I say," he shrugs. "They're lucky. I wish I was them."
Michael is homeless. He constantly needs help but hates to ask for any. If he was in an urban setting like Houston, he actually would have a much better chance of getting support than in the affluent community in which he lives.
Recent studies detail a burgeoning homeless population in suburban Fort Bend County, where there are no emergency shelters, no soup kitchens and no specialized housing for homeless youths or the mentally ill. There is also no bus system to move people around.
But several elected officials insist there is no homeless problem, instead touting the county's national reputation as among the fastest growing and most livable.
Three-term Katy mayor Doyle Callender compares his city to the sleepy TV town of Mayberry, a place where residents know their neighbors and look out for them. "We take care of our own," Callender says. "There is no homelessness in Katy -- none whatsoever."
Two-term Sugar Land mayor David Wallace says his city, the county's largest, does not need a homeless shelter. The same goes for public transit, he says. "Why create something that nobody would use?" he asks.
Social workers in Fort Bend tell a different story, of extended families crammed into trailers with no running water. And school social workers say they are overwhelmed by rising numbers of teenagers from even the most upscale communities camping out on sidewalks, park benches and school campuses.
So often the kids get sent on to Houston, where there's generally a waiting list and no room.
In September 2006, Dr. Cache Steinberg released the first-ever comprehensive report on homelessness in Fort Bend County. A senior researcher at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work, Steinberg estimates as many as 9,300 county residents become homeless each year -- a number that far exceeds what even front-line social workers had anticipated.
A network of local churches and social-service agencies funded the $35,000 study in an attempt to identify the neediest segment of the population and to win over skeptics. "Our own church leaders don't recognize this as a problem," says Tracy Schindler, coordinator of the social concerns ministry at St. Laurence Catholic Church in Sugar Land.
According to Steinberg's report, every year hundreds of teenagers become homeless in Fort Bend County -- which comprises 875 square miles, 18 cities and nine unincorporated communities southwest of Houston. Many are classified as unaccompanied youths since they have no legal guardians. Some, such as Michael, are runaways fleeing from abusive family situations. Others are throwaways, booted from their homes for everything from getting pregnant to coming out as gay, failing a class or simply turning 18.
The suburban homeless are largely hidden. They're more apt to sleep in cars or double up with friends than push grocery carts downtown. And the few existing programs to help them are severely limited. For instance, shelters serving domestic violence or sexual assault victims deny aid to hundreds each year due to lack of space, and families needing Section 8 housing assistance are put on a two-year waiting list.
Fort Bend Family Promise, a two-year-old transitional shelter program based in Missouri City, provides housing for four families, or up to 14 people, for three to six months. The program depends on the participation of several area churches, which convert their Sunday school classrooms into makeshift bedrooms. But to be eligible, a family must own a car, parents must be employed and put their kids in day care, which is often cost-prohibitive, and all applicants must pass a criminal background check and cannot participate if they have mental health or substance abuse problems.
"The eligibility rules did not make sense and seemed an unnecessary burden," Steinberg concluded in her study, which until now has received no media attention. "As one woman stated, 'If I had a car and income, I wouldn't need help.'"
Steinberg's 60-page report devotes just a single paragraph to the issue of unaccompanied youths, though it was these few words that caused the biggest stir among local social workers. Steinberg says that two of the county's seven school districts served more than 1,800 homeless youths and their families during the 2005–2006 school year. Since many were hurricane victims, she adds that during more typical years the school districts have between 90 and 125 homeless youths, with just one or two caseworkers to assist them.
"We were shocked," says Sheena Timberlake of Texana Center, a Rosenberg-based nonprofit that provides services for the mentally ill. "We knew all about the adult homeless population but had no idea there were so many kids in this situation."