By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
"What gets to me," he says, "is you start seeing people like yourself."
Aid agencies across the city are reporting big spikes in demand. Northwest Assistance Ministries, a network of more than 45 congregations with a combined annual budget of nearly $10 million, saw a 10 percent rise in requests for its family shelter program from 2007 to 2008, along with a 25 percent increase in applications for help paying the rent, mortgage or utilities. Catholic Charities reopened from hurricane damage in January to an almost 20 percent increase in rent assistance requests. At the United Way of Greater Houston's 211 referral hotline, the number of calls increased in January and February — by 105 percent for food, 51 percent for utility assistance, 35 percent for rent and mortgage assistance, and 42 percent for shelter — compared with a year ago.
New faces have been showing up at food pantries as well.
"Our agencies as a whole, whoever they serve, have been reporting that they see people they would never expect to see," says Betsy Ballard of the Houston Food Bank, the main hub for the city's pantries. "Folks are coming in who previously did not need help."
At The Salvation Army, requests for shelter assistance swelled in December, says Gerald Eckert, its social services manager, and January brought people from the first big wave of layoffs to hit Houston. Clients are further behind than usual — instead of needing a month of rent, for example, they might need three.
"It's always been the case that people don't plan for unexpected things," Eckert says. "The difference now is that everyone's experiencing an unexpected thing, which is the downturn in the economy."
People who have always been housed aren't likely to go right to the street. Like the Timmonses, they'll exhaust every option first, tapping their savings, family and friends, then reaching for the city's limited prevention resources. After that, it's a quick descent into chaos.
"They sleep in their car, because that's the last tangible belonging they have left," Dyer says. "Or they hide behind Dumpsters or buildings, because they're afraid of CPS [Child Protective Services]. Quite a few stay in the park, and they roast hot dogs and bake beans. The kids like it for a week or two, but then the picnic party is over."
Brian Flores is the principal at J. Will Jones Elementary in Midtown, where about 100 of 300 students are considered homeless, including about 30 from The Salvation Army. It is the most the school has seen in his six years there, which Flores says is due to a combination of Hurricane Ike and the economy.
The school often learns about its homeless families from the youngest children.
"Generally, it's not the older children who tell us. It's the four-year-old and the five-year-old, because they're so honest," he says.
When he or the school's counselor calls home to ask how they can help, they find parents lost in the disjointed process of trying to find the right help. It may take direction from Flores and the counselor, as well as pointed calls to the right people, to move the process along.
"Oftentimes, they're thrown into homelessness, and they can't deal with it. They don't know how to get help," Flores says. "It's just great that there's someone who can help them navigate the system, because the system is very bureaucratic. And it makes a big difference."
HISD classifies children as homeless if they are living in motels or doubled up with another family — or anywhere out of the ordinary — in addition to staying in shelters or on the street. According to Connie Thompson, the school district's management counselor responsible for homeless children, the numbers skyrocketed from fall to winter, rising to about 1,500 by Christmas. By the time school resumed after the holidays, there were 300 more, and the number has reached 2,319 since.
"It's coming. Oh, it's coming," says Anthony Love, director of the Houston Coalition for the Homeless, the umbrella organization that loosely coordinates the various facets of the city's homeless services. "We're going to see a flood of people really beginning to experience homelessness."
Tim has been on the streets for nine days, but says it seems longer. A stocky man in his late thirties with thick dreadlocks and a blue hoodie, he hangs back in the shadows during a church service under the Pierce Elevated bridge, waiting for the food line to start. He's embarrassed to be holding a blanket in public, and he vows to discard it first thing in the morning.
Tim, who wouldn't give his real name, isused to working, living in a nice place anddriving a nice car.
"This recession caught me with my pants down, bottom line. I can't hang nobody's feet over the fire but my own. Nobody tricked me out of shit," he says. "It was just too much frivolous spending. A lot of us live above our means. But when those means run out, you're exposed."
On Tim's first night he went to The Salvation Army's downtown shelter, which gave him a cot in its crowded overflow room. The shelter has been in overflow since the fall and now serves 450 men a night instead of its usual 300. Sick-looking people were coughing all around him, so Tim wrapped his entire head in his hoodie like a mummy, then passed the night in a full sweat. Since then, he's been sleeping on the street.