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The next day he went to the SEARCH Homeless Project, which directs people to jobs and other services, but found it similarly overrun with the usual suspects and felt he was just being processed through with everyone else. Tim decided to look for help on his own, and he uses the computers at the library to find job and apartment leads on craigslist.
"All this shit is depressing," he says, warning that newly homeless people frustrated by the situation could end up losing heart. "Once you lose hope, it's pretty much over with. You end up just trying to get a meal."
Reginald McDaniel, 47, has been off and on the streets for years. He leans against a bridge column and watches the food line get underway.
"Sometimes you hurt a person if you help them too much," he says.
But the problem in Houston is that the right kind of help is too often missing.
Alief is less than 20 miles from the small house on Wyoming Street where Lorenzo grew up. He always resented the Third Ward, with all its drug dealers and wife beaters, and believed he was bound for better. When he first arrived in Alief in 1997 after his sophomore year at troubled Yates High, to spend the summer with an aunt, the suburb was a blend of its affluent, white former self and the predominantly poor, ethnic enclave it has since become. The way people talked and dressed was different. There were fields and mowed lawns. Blink 182 played on the radio. It all made the Third Ward seem a world away.
"Beautiful, Alief," Lorenzo says. "That was it. That was where I wanted to stay. It was so much better than what I had."
Lorenzo's aunt became his legal guardian so he could finish school at sprawling Elsik. For the next two years, he woke at 4 a.m. in the Third Ward and boarded the public bus. He met Derly in geography class and married her in 2001; their apartment in Alief had a kitchen big enough to fit five people Lorenzo's size. But then he was back where he started.
Lorenzo tried everything from warehouse work and home health care to managing a Baskin-Robbins before he settled, in late 2005, on long-haul trucking and its promise of freedom and good money. In his first months on the road, though, he struggled, and the family was forced to the Third Ward. Lorenzo drove almost constantly for two years, missing birthdays and Thanksgiving and Christmas as he piled money into the bank and dreamed of a house in Alief. Then Jasmine, who was two at the time, started blocking the door. She frantically fought his every attempt to leave the house, and she suffered separation anxiety once he was gone. Lorenzo began sneaking out in the middle of the night, so Jasmine slept in her parents' bed — right on top of Lorenzo, so she could feel it if he moved.
In retrospect, Lorenzo says, he and Derly were overconfident that their savings would last. Once the money was gone, the family had nowhere to turn. Derly's dad had been a safety net in the past, but he'd recently lost his job. On Lorenzo's side of the family, he was the one people turned to when money got tight.
Lorenzo and Derly scrambled to piece together $100 and $200 rent assistance pledges from various churches and local charities, their best option for staying in place. They were mostly told to try again next month, next week or between 2 and 4 p.m. two weeks from Wednesday. Houston has no centralized system of rent assistance, or a means of relocating families to more affordable accommodation. The Timmonses continued to scramble until the eviction notice came.
Derly called the United Way's 211 help hotline in late June to get a list of shelters. Some didn't take children. Others didn't take men, or people without HIV. The few that would have all of the Timmonses were full — Star of Hope's women and family emergency center, the largest family shelter in the city, has been operating at overflow capacity since last spring.
The eviction date passed, and the Timmons family stayed, because they had nowhere to go. Derly and Lorenzo never left the apartment together so the locks couldn't be changed. They were still inside with the shades down when a rare spot opened in Star of Hope's transitional living center. That was the day they boarded the bus with whatever they could carry and arrived at the facility at 6897 Ardmore, less than a mile from Wyoming Street, where his mother still lives.
Dennis P. Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, has long questioned why otherwise stable, competent people are forced to hit rock bottom and start over before they're given help. The recession has sparked a paradigm shift in the national mindset for fighting homelessness — one toward preventing it in the first place, especially for people like the Timmonses who might be better served by help bridging the gap between one job and the next. The stimulus package recently passed by Congress contains close to $1.5 billion in funds that can only be used for the type of assistance that might have kept the Timmonses from becoming homeless; Houston and Harris County will receive almost $17 million.