Homeless in Suburbia

Michael Lyddon slept on this bench at night because he had nowhere else to go. According to elected officials in Fort Bend, though, he doesn't exist

Careful not to overburden anyone, Michael makes it a rule never to stay with the same family more than once or twice a week. Friends and their families give him rides, meals and places to hang out, shower and sleep.

His pals mostly live in large pale-brick houses on quiet suburban streets in and around Sugar Land. Some keep their back doors open for him just in case.

After school, Michael hangs out in the street with friends in upscale Pecan Grove.
Daniel Kramer
After school, Michael hangs out in the street with friends in upscale Pecan Grove.

The state-mandated Fort Bend Community Plan for 20052006 calls the lack of public transportation "a major contributing factor in a multitude of problems faced by residents" and cites "a serious if not critical need for all types of emergency and transitional shelters, permanent housing, and services for sheltered homeless families with children."

But neither the community plan nor Steinberg's report on homelessness has prompted any action from public officials. Jeff Wiley, president of the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council, also denies the existence of the county's growing underclass. "If we do have a homeless problem, and I'm not saying we do, it's probably the stuff churches are handling," Wiley says.

It's exactly this sort of talk from local leaders that most inflames social-service workers. "Clearly they are not educated on the needs of the poor and the elderly," says Schindler of St. Laurence Church, who has invited mayors from across the county to a March 2 community meeting to discuss ways to address the county's homeless population. None has replied.

Fort Bend County, and Sugar Land in particular, may be too in love with their own images to recognize their numerous failings. Call it community narcissism. And it's easy to see why, given their exalted national reputations.

In 2005 and 2006, CNN and Money magazine ranked Sugar Land the third best place to live in America -- a title posted on billboards at the city's periphery. Sugar Land has also topped lists ranking the nation's best places to raise a family, best communities for young people and most affordable suburbs. A longtime white-Republican stronghold represented by former Congressman Tom DeLay, Sugar Land is now among the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation.

Fort Bend County, meanwhile, ranks in the top 1 percent in the nation for projected population and employment growth during the next 20 years, according to Woods & Poole Economics, a firm that tracks county economic and demographic projections. The county's population nearly doubled, to 225,000, from 1980 to 1990, will likely exceed 500,000 this year and is expected to reach one million by 2025.

During the last quarter century Fort Bend County's economy has shifted from agricultural to computer and service industries. Its cotton fields paved with enormous master-planned communities, the county today ranks among the highest per capita golf areas in the country. In 1994, The Washington Post ribbed this dramatic transformation to "man-made lakes and pampered pansy beds," concluding that "Texas has lost a little of its Texas-ness." Some cities, such as Needville, have resisted new growth in an attempt to preserve their more rugged, agricultural heritage. But land located as far as 50 miles southwest of downtown Houston is selling for a premium and fast appreciating in value, according to Wiley. "Development," he says, "is coming whether they like it or not."

The local economy's increasing dependency on service-sector jobs raises a red flag since they attract families who are often marginally housed, with low incomes and no savings -- one crisis away from losing their homes, according to Anthony Love, CEO and president of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County. "There's a huge potential for people to fall," Love says, "and there's no assistance there."

In 2005, the number of poor suburbanites outnumbered poor people in inner cities for the first time in American history, according to a study by Alan Berube, research director for The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. The Brookings report singled out Houston and its suburbs for experiencing one of the greatest increases in child poverty from 1999 to 2005. "This 'tipping' of poor populations to the suburbs represents a signal development that upends historical notions about who lives in cities and suburbs," Berube observed. "The poor -- and especially the working poor -- figure prominently among suburban populations today."

Dr. Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston, says Fort Bend County needs strong political leadership to confront the scarcely discussed issues of poverty and homelessness. "It will be a painful transition," Murray says. "Sugar Land and other cities are going to have to deal with a wider range of problems than where to put the Mercedes dealership."

It's three o'clock when Michael Lyddon arrives at Steve-O's house. He leans against the bed of a black pickup truck and shoots the bull with six other high-schoolers.

All wear oversized T-shirts, bulky sneakers and baggy jeans hung low over boxer shorts. Michael alone styles his hair with gel bummed from classmates who keep product in their lockers. Kids come and go but Michael mostly stays on the winding, well-paved street framed by manicured lawns. He passes the time by throwing a plastic bottle of tea sky-high and catching it. His principal bought it for him at school. "I don't have money," Michael says. "I don't need money."

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