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.

"Well," says Angel, surveying the scene."At least we're off the street."

It is, of course, unlikely to last. The inability to reach the right housing is perhaps the biggest barrier keeping people like Steve and his friends, who are classified as chronically homeless, from finding their way off the streets.

Officer M.L. Frazee, who oversees the Houston Police Department's homeless efforts downtown, including a monthly outreach with the SEARCH Homeless Project to bring people from the street into the social system, sees much of his effort go to waste.

Steve Shreve, Cynthia and Chris have each tried and failed repeatedly to get off the street. They recently lived under some trees near a highway.
Daniel Kramer
Steve Shreve, Cynthia and Chris have each tried and failed repeatedly to get off the street. They recently lived under some trees near a highway.
Steve Shreve was arrested for stabbing another homeless man during a fight in front of City Hall. Police took his bloodstained clothes for evidence.
Courtesy Harris County Sheriff's Office
Steve Shreve was arrested for stabbing another homeless man during a fight in front of City Hall. Police took his bloodstained clothes for evidence.

"We don't have a lot of housing," he says. "So I can take a person — or I can help, not take, a person — they can clean up, they can wash their clothes, they can take a shower. But then what do you do? If there are no beds available, then they go back on the street."

Houston's best options are its shelter programs. They are either narrow in focus — AIDS, veterans — or religious in nature, and laden with rules, which many homeless people have a hard time following in the first place. There are people like Kaos, a bullish 20-year-old girl with a black Mohawk, who, as the misspelled name on her massive bicep suggests, just won't be controlled. "You know what they say," she says, as she sits in the grass near a food line, stoned, with her boyfriend in her lap. "Rules are meant to be broken."

But even those making an honest effort to get off the street often have a hard time sticking to the shelter programs — not being able to bring a girlfriend; not being able to sip a beer, even off the grounds; a 5 p.m. curfew; spats with other residents and staff — or stomaching the religion. Houston is the only major city in Texas without a city-sponsored shelter.

Those who do well in the shelters might face the housing problem once they're through.

Debbie Smiley is a Salvation Army success story. She was homeless and addicted to crack for three years, and she has the battle scars to prove it — she once jumped through a glass window to avoid being raped. She's been clean for a year, leads AA meetings and recently regained custody of her two kids, who are playing happily in her lap. She doesn't break down until she considers what will happen when her time in the program is up. Then she rambles and sobs. There is her criminal record. She hasn't had a job in years.

"Now I don't know what I can do and what I can't do...Also, I used to walk the street and hop in cars to get money...How'm I gonna keep my kids if I can't get no job?...All the failings..."

Michael Blockson, the outreach coordinator for Covenant House, which takes in unaccompanied teens, sees many former residents return to the street. He attributes this to the lack of supportive housing — the combination of subsidized housing and casework that many dearly need, especially those with mental and drug problems and the chronically homeless.

"You can't just all of a sudden say: 'You're in a shelter. We've helped you with your health or substance abuse. Okay, now you're all right,'" he says. "It's a nice story for the moment, but what about when the TV's not there, and the newspaper's not there, and things get back to normal life, which is chaos?"

Six days after checking into the motel, Steve is standing on a street corner in Montrose, nodding and winking at passing cars. Occasionally he flashes two fingers sideways across his chest, which lets the drivers know he's game and also stands for his nickname, Duce. There is enough money left for two more nights at the motel. If he makes a hustle tonight, it'll be three.

An older man in a red Malibu is making his third or fourth pass and looks to be slowing down. Steve starts for the car, but a police cruiser pulls up, and the Malibu speeds away. Steve waits expectantly at the curb for a few more minutes, then gives up for the night. Two days later Angel is back with his abusive boyfriend, and Cynthia is missing. Mary has checked into a mental hospital, and Corey is in a shelter. Steve and Chris are back in their spot near the highway.

The next plan is to get back to Louisiana, which seems to be the only place where Steve has put together stretches of relative stability. Steve says he's worked in kitchens along Bourbon Street. The man Steve calls his only true friend, Jim, is in Louisiana, and over the next few weeks he and Steve make plans for a reunion. This time around, Chris's disability check will go toward two bus tickets.

Steve writes, among many e-mails to Jim:

"why dont we just go home and you know what i mean by home New Orleans where we where happy then i can go back to working on burban street they have martie gra going on right now and i can get a job the first day im there i checked the internet and there is all kinds of cooking and dish wasing jobs open right now and called a couple of are friends and they say there is lots of work there".

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