Houston's Working Class Gets Bumped by the Crashing Economy: Hardcore Homeless

Recycling in and out of shelters and programs, they always seem to land back on the streets.

The man I am,

is not the man I want to be.

Steve Shreve and his crew check a Dumpster for their stuff, which is missing from their spot near the highway, but most of it is gone. They lost food, clothes and medication.
Mike Giglio
Steve Shreve and his crew check a Dumpster for their stuff, which is missing from their spot near the highway, but most of it is gone. They lost food, clothes and medication.
Some people, like Kaos, just can't or won't play by the rules of the shelter programs designed to get them off the street.
Daniel Kramer
Some people, like Kaos, just can't or won't play by the rules of the shelter programs designed to get them off the street.

And the man I was is not the man I am.

And the man I want to be is the man I'm going to be,

and it's not the man I am.

Steve Shreve

Steve Shreve and his crew hustle across an empty parking lot and jump into a Dumpster, and moving night seems dead even before it starts.

Five minutes earlier, they had breezed right past, their backs to the skyline as Heritage Plaza glimmered overhead in the crisp January night. They crossed the street, then a grass divide, and followed the curve of a highway ramp, forcing traffic to the right, until they reached the small cluster of stunted trees where they'd been living for weeks. Then they stopped short, because all their stuff was gone — cans of food, hand-me-down clothes and sleeping bags, disjointed mementos, bottles of meds.

They dig with their hands through the trash bags and branches, but climb out of the Dumpster with just a few of their blankets and an empty backpack. In her soft, childish voice, Mary begins to whine, while her boyfriend Corey broods by himself. Steve's girlfriend Cynthia coughs until her eyes tear, then spits on the ground. Chris just goes with the flow, taking his cues from Steve.

Steve curses the loss of his Bible notes and pictures of his mother, then tries to regain his street general's air. He is 27, slim and shifty, with the walk and style of a thug and gang member, which he claims to be, and the pasty complexion and freckles of a child. His wire-rimmed glasses and sandy goatee suggest a would-be philosopher; he blends cockiness and charm like a seasoned hustler.

"Well, at least we're still alive," says Paul Hubbard, who goes by Angel, and at 40 is the oldest in the group by more than a decade. "So we can start all over again."

Which was the point today. All six have been homeless for years. They've been in and out of the shelters and programs designed to help, tried to help themselves at times, and cycled through the local jails and mental institutions. During their brief periods off the street, they can eat three square meals a day, find clothes and blankets, and get and fill prescriptions for their various mental problems — schizophrenia, multiple personalities, attention deficit disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder. It all piles up alongside a highway or under a bridge, until someone steals it or throws it away.

Steve had concocted a simple plan. Chris, a small, squirrelly 28-year-old whose speech is slow and spastic, gets a disability check in the mail each month, which he usually blows within a week on hotel rooms and his Cricket Internet phone. Mary, 29, who has a second-grade education and several children with CPS, plus another on the way, also gets a check. They would combine the checks to rent a cheap apartment, and with a stable place to stay and shower and sleep, they'd get on their feet.

Steve always has a plan. He grew up in Houston and hit the streets at 15, he says, after fights with his dad, then cemented his place on them when he started smoking crack (he keeps to pot and alcohol these days). He has since spent time homeless in Alabama and Florida, and ridden out Hurricane Katrina in a New Orleans jail, before returning to Houston last summer for an ill-fated attempt to turn things around.

"I am dead set on getting off these streets," he had said a few weeks before the planned move. He was pacing furiously as he spoke, as he often does when trying to make a point, taking a few short steps in one direction, then skipping unpredictably in another.

"I want to make something of my life. I want to go somewhere. I'm 27 years old, and what do I have to show for it?" He looked down at himself. "A pair of shoes and a pair of pants."

Steve remembers that he's wearing two sets of clothes, which cheers him up, and leads the way to my truck. He takes the front, Corey, Mary and Cynthia take the back, and Chris and Angel shiver in the bed with the salvaged blankets. They head to northwest Houston, where Corey has apparently arranged the apartment. After a few wrong turns and some arguments, it's clear he doesn't know the way. He hasn't been to the complex, in fact, or called the landlord, or spoken to anyone about anything except a friend who once stayed there, or knew someone who did. Everyone assumed they could walk in and get an apartment, no questions asked, at eight o' clock on a Friday night.

An hour later, Steve and the crew check into a run-down motel on the other side of town, which brings them to about $650 after paying $50 for three crusty beds. Cynthia checks the sheets for bugs, then curls into a shivering ball. Chris is lost in his phone, and Corey in his mini-laptop, which he'd bought in the morning with $300 from Mary's check. Mary dances and sings along to a game show on TV. Steve is having trouble ordering a pizza.

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