Houston's Working Class Gets Bumped into Homelessness and Poverty by the Crashing Economy

An already strained system struggles to accommodate a new breed of homeless.

Lorenzo Timmons spent most of the ride home staring at the crisp piece of paper in his lap. He remembers thinking, "we won't have to worry about nothing no more," and, "everything's going to be all right."

Lorenzo, who was 27 at the time, has the reserved, thoughtful demeanor a man his size might develop to put others at ease. He's bald and broad, 6-foot-3 and more than 300 pounds, and his dark, intense eyes are set deep behind unassuming glasses.

It was a weekday afternoon last April. Lorenzo filled the passenger's side of a friend's beat-up Saturn, which was headed south on the 610 Loop.

Earnest Dyer reaches out to Russell Parish, a homeless man in Hermann Park. As the social services coordinator for St. Vincent de Paul, Dyer now sees people like himself facing homelessness. Former donors are even asking for help.
Daniel Kramer
Earnest Dyer reaches out to Russell Parish, a homeless man in Hermann Park. As the social services coordinator for St. Vincent de Paul, Dyer now sees people like himself facing homelessness. Former donors are even asking for help.
One-third of the 300 students at J. Will Jones Elementary are homeless, and the number is growing. Principal Brian Flores says homeless families have trouble finding the right help on their own.
Daniel Kramer
One-third of the 300 students at J. Will Jones Elementary are homeless, and the number is growing. Principal Brian Flores says homeless families have trouble finding the right help on their own.

The paper in Lorenzo's lap said he didn't have tuberculosis, which of course he knew. But it was the last pre-hire hurdle for a job driving a food truck for the Houston Independent School District, and Lorenzo couldn't relax until it was in his hand. The 20 minutes since had provided his first relief in months.

Lorenzo had left his job as a long-haul trucker in early February. He had never been more than a week or two between jobs. But Houston was already feeling the first tremors of the national recession that officially began in December 2007 in its unskilled labor pool, and the weeks turned into worrisome months. As Stephen Klineberg, the Rice University professor who directs the annual Houston Area Survey, puts it: Recession "starts at the bottom, and it keeps going up."

By the time Lorenzo heard from HISD, there were maybe two or three months of security left in the bank, and he'd taken to donating plasma just to earn some cash. With the new job he would be back on track, supporting his wife and three-year-old daughter again. They'd have insurance. He'd see them every day. And they'd be out of the Third Ward and back in Alief.

The car veered suddenly to the right. Lorenzo looked out his window at the concrete divider, which was approaching fast as the car shot across two lanes. He watched it close in until there was a deafening crash, and then life was silent and slow as the car bounced into the opposite wall, then back once more.

The pain gripped Lorenzo's back when his adrenaline drained on the way to the emergency room. He was helped into a wheelchair and fitted with a neck brace, and the doctors said his herniated disk would heal in six weeks. The six weeks came and went, and Lorenzo still couldn't get up and down stairs or into cars without a struggle. The rent and utility bills kept coming, and the medical bills piled on top, until one day he and his wife Derly realized they might lose their home.

And just like that they were on a bus, surrounded by all the boxes, trash bags andsuitcases they could carry, on their way to ahomeless shelter.

The full force of the recession is finally hitting Houston. It could lose 44,000 jobs in 2009, according to a recent report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose 101.8 percent last year, including 18.4 percent in December alone. The year-end unemployment rate increased by a quarter, to 5.5 percent. "Houston's economy is now locked into the national economy," says Klineberg. The city, he adds, will at last join the rest of the country in its "day of reckoning for living beyond our means."

For many Houstonians, that means foreclosure and eviction, and a growing number of people and families are suddenly facing homelessness. Houston is not ready to help. Its underfunded and outdated homeless system is already stretched thin by a population 10,000 strong, which gets help to subsist in homelessness but not overcome it — or avoid it in the first place. Briggitte Stevenson, the chief case manager at Star of Hope, calls it a "full circus," something previously stable, working people — especially families — will be hard-pressed to navigate on their own.

"A family like the Timmonses would not make it. They're in the middle, and you don't know what to do," she says. "You're faced with the question: What do you do with the Timmonses? And there are going to be a lot more Timmonses to come."
_____________________

"Nobody wants to help me! Cuz I'm old!"

The woman on the bench with the red cowboy boots is shouting at Earnest Dyer. He has been walking around Hermann Park for about an hour, trying to find the homeless, which can upset people if he gets it wrong. But Dyer usually gets it right. He gives the woman his card.

Dyer, a large, towering man with an unhurried gait, is the social services manager at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Galveston-Houston, the Catholic Church's lay volunteer arm. When he first started in social work seven years ago, he says, taking a seat on a vacant bench, he was surprised by how many people he met like the woman with the cowboy boots — unskilled, uneducated, maybe a little crazy.

Now some of the people asking for help are former donors. Dyer first noticed the disturbing new trend last summer, as requests for things such as shelter and rent and utility assistance began to rise.

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