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.

"These are the kind of people who have employment prospects, maybe even are recently coming from a job," says Culhane, who has been advising the new administration on homeless policy. "If you're homeless, the only thing we know how to do is put you in a shelter, which effectively keeps you homeless...We're stabilizing them in an unstable situation."

The money is scheduled to arrive no later than April 1, but it could take at least three months for it to be distributed and put to use. Culhane and others warn that communities with little prevention experience may not be able to spend the new money effectively.

"They're getting this big block of funds under a program which is designed to prevent homelessness," says Brian Sullivan, a spokesman of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is allocating the funds. "So it's fair to ask the capacity question: Can they handle it?"

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.

As the new trend takes hold, Houston is still scrambling to catch up with the old. Its goal is to relieve the strain of the people who now rotate inefficiently and perennially through the city's homeless system, draining what little resources it has and creating a backlog people like Culhane say can keep the newly homeless from making it quickly back to their feet (see "Hardcore Homeless").
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Akylah Martell was evicted last summer after losing her job, then failing to get her fledgling catering company off the ground. She and her six-year-old daughter ended up in the overflow room at Star of Hope, sleeping on mats on the floor with 50 other people.

The people in overflow must leave in the morning and can't return until night. Martell watched as groups of women and their children clustered together outside. From time to time, a woman would leave the group and jump into one of the cars prowling nearby. When Martell finally got a room, her roommate, an ex-prostitute, resented the details of Martell's former middle-class life; she eventually stole all of Martell's clothes. Martell made it into Star of Hope's transitional living center in November. She doesn't know how much longer she could have lasted in a chaotic emergency system that's getting more crowded by the day.

"In a way, I feel lucky," she says, "for having gotten into the system when I did."

Housing First is a concept that originated in New York City in the early 1990s and has since spread throughout the rest of the country as a way to end homelessness instead of manage it. It has been the standard for getting the chronically homeless off the streets and out of shelters for much of the decade. It holds that people need stable housing before they can get their lives in order, not the other way around, and it was controversial at first — the idea of giving the drunk guy under the bridge his own place, no questions asked, can be a hard sell. Proven success in cities from New York and Seattle to Chattanooga and New Orleans has since turned around most critics.

Houston has been slow to catch on.

The crux of the concept is permanent supportive housing — not just getting someone housed, but surrounding him with the social services he needs to get himself stabilized. This is expensive and requires a steady cash flow to maintain. Texas ranks near the bottom of the country in funding for both social services and housing. There are no dedicated revenue streams that can be counted on to support anything long-term. It even leaves federal Medicaid matching funds on the table, which can be used for case management. And it puts very little money toward mental health, the primary cause of chronic homelessness.

"We made tremendous strides in the last 50 years in public awareness and understanding of mental health issues, but there's still a long way to go," Houston Mayor Bill White says. "It's unrealistic to just tell somebody suffering from schizophrenia to go get a job."

White and the other big-city mayors in Texas recently signed a petition requesting a $25 million increase in state funding for supportive, work and housing retention services for the homeless.

Houston contributes very little money of its own to fill the gap. Almost all government money comes from HUD, and this is mostly spent on affordable housing. The Coalition for the Homeless says the city needs almost 1,400 shelter beds and almost 2,000 permanent supportive housing beds. There are 534 permanent housing beds under construction. Like the bulk of those already available, these will be the cheaper, dorm-like single-room occupancy units that most Housing First proponents consider outdated.

The city's Housing and Community Development Department controls the bulk of the federal funds, and it will dole out all of the new prevention funds. The department was ordered to repay $15.1 million in misspent money after a recent HUD investigation into its housing programs.

The Houston Housing Authority, meanwhile, does not view directly addressing homelessness as part of its mission, according to its spokeswoman, Regina Woolfolk. Critics argue that the fourth-largest housing authority in the country should contribute by providing vouchers and setting aside units for the homeless.

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