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.

In 2007, Houston instituted a privately funded Rapid Re-Housing program for single homeless men and women, which operates about 25 units. It provides housing and services for just three months — one way of trying to reach more people with limited resources.

"Case management is key to getting people to stay off the streets. Once you get them into housing, you need to follow up with post-employment and case management, and there are just not enough dollars to do that," says HCDD director Richard Celli.

He suggests that more philanthropy is needed to meet the demand.

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 city relies heavily on its charitieswhen it comes to dealing with all facets ofhomelessness.

"You have great nonprofits ­doing the work that [the government handles] in other cities," Love says.

But as demand for social services rises, donations to the organizations that administer them are dropping fast, from individuals and businesses alike — something Gerald Eckert of The Salvation Army calls the "double whammy" of the economic crisis. A 2007 study of the 30 most active city charities found that 25 percent of their budgets came from contributions and another 7 percent from foundations and corporate grants. Government money accounted for 51 percent, at more than $34 million; just $250,000 of that came from city funds. Houston is the only major city in Texas that doesn't sponsor a shelter.

"Where the problem is being solved is where there is local [government] investment that complements the HUD money," says John Rio, a homelessness consultant based in Houston.

White points out the delicate balancing act that is the city budget, whose expenses are dominated by things such as fire, public safety and transit, and says homeless services are best administered by charities that specialize in them instead of government bureaucrats. When asked why the city doesn't play a more visible role — as in San Antonio, which recently opened a massive shelter and services hub that was initiated by its mayor and has been funded so far with almost $20 million in city funds — White says he prefers to operate behind the scenes.

"I've always found that real leadership is giving credit and not taking credit," he says.

Two years ago, Houston issued its first comprehensive ten-year plan to address homelessness, a HUD requirement that brought it up to speed with much of the country. The city has steadily increased its share of competitive federal grant money since. Michael Moore, White's chief of staff, helps lead biweekly meetings to help coordinate the homeless effort. Initiatives such as Homeless Court, which allows tickets to be paid off with community service, and a free access bus that connects to the main social services, have addressed needs without expending major resources.

But the lack of city funding and control has left a network of loosely affiliated nonprofits to carry the homeless effort, and people unsure of where to turn for help. SEARCH, a primary coordinator of homeless services, has been turning people away on a daily basis.

"We're seeing more people that are newly homeless coming to our doors," says Thao Costis, its president and CEO. "We have to make sure that they don't lose faith in our ability to help them, or they don't prolong this time in homelessness. Which would make the problem worse for everyone."

On a weekday morning in the Museum District, the courtyard of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church was a picture of confusion. The church serves free breakfast, then provides services such as mail delivery, bus tickets and referrals. By closing time at 9:15 a.m., the line was still long and growing. Christina Jones filled out a form for birth certificates for herself and her two children, then donated $5 to the cause, while the church pitched in $3. The man behind the counter then flipped the form to reveal a map, which he used to instruct Jones on where to go to receive the rest of the funds and then turn in the paperwork.

Jones wasn't confident it would work out — "Every time we go to these places, it's just a hassle or a waste of time," she says.

Unemployed since job cuts at the airport last spring, she has since moved into her grandmother's house, where her sister's family also lives. Life had become a series of long lines that often ended with requests for more paperwork or directions to a different agency.

"They're two steps from anything, and there's no place to start," says Bob Hawley, the man behind the counter. "The first rung is six feet beyond your reach."
_____________________

Lorenzo couldn't sleep for his few weeks at Star of Hope. He spent the nights pacing the gray tiled floor of his new living room, trying to find a way out.

"I always worked, I always took care of family, and yet here I am, living in a shelter," he says.

For the first eight weeks of the program, he wasn't allowed to work, adding to his anxiety. Jasmine wasn't eating, and she was asking for things they'd left behind, which was everything they hadn't been able to carry with them on the bus — furniture, pictures, toys, a picture of Jasmine's ultrasound.

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