Prized Possessions

Homeless in Houston share their most important objects.

We'd been approaching homeless people all afternoon, badgering them with pesky questions, and it made a refreshing change when one of them decided to come talk to us. The fiftysomething lady locked eyes with photographer Daniel Kramer and me before we even parked Kramer's Sebring convertible, and abandoned her heavily-laden shopping cart on the east side of San Jacinto Street to totter over to us at our parking place on the west side.

As it happened, we were directly under the Pierce Elevated, and Kramer suddenly realized that filming this woman would be problematic. A thousand cars a minute thrumming past at 70 miles per hour, ka-chunk-a-chunking directly overhead, tends to play holy hell with your audio, he pointed out.

Meanwhile, the lady kept coming. She was positively beaming as she reached us. She offered each of us a hand, and we each grabbed ahold and gently eased her up to the sidewalk on our side of the street. I introduced Kramer and myself, told her we were journalists talking to the homeless about their lives and the one possession they owned that they loved most in the world.

And it turned out we needn't have worried about the audio for this particular interview. The smiling lady, a deaf-mute, answered me in sign language. We gave her a couple of bucks and went on our way.

Sadly, it was all too easy to find dozens of people to give us their hard-luck stories. It practically goes without saying, but the homeless are everywhere downtown — they throng San Jacinto Street pretty much from southern Midtown all the way to Buffalo Bayou and beyond, they are all around the vicinity of the downtown library, and many of them line the bayou's banks at Allen's Landing, and many others make their homes near the courthouse complex.

A few weeks back, we got to wondering what those people carried around with them. What was in those shopping carts some of them push around, aside from obvious salable merchandise like recyclable cans? Did many of them have lucky charms? Sentimental mementos of their lives before the streets? Or were they in flight from ownership and its woes? Did some or even most of them subscribe to Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" maxim: "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose?"

Some of the homeless we spoke to didn't want to talk at all. Others, like the cheery lady under the Pierce Elevated, couldn't. But most of the people we talked to were only too glad to tell us their stories, even if what many of them considered a prize possession might not actually be a tangible object at all.

As the recent story of Ted Williams, the Columbus, Ohio, beggar with the golden radio voice, reminds us, every person has a story, homeless or not. While none were as obviously gifted as the troubled Williams, who checked into a Padre Island rehab facility last week, here are a few we found on the streets of Houston.

Tim
Picture of girlfriend

A 62-year-old Vietnam vet, dignified, soft-spoken Tim was born in Alabama and raised there and in Missouri and Louisiana. We spoke to him on the loading dock of a decrepit warehouse off Congress near some abandoned railroad tracks.

Many years ago now, he had a wife, a home, a job and three kids. His wife died in 1997, and things slowly fell apart after that. His kids are all grown up now — they range in age from 33 to 47. "They love me still, but I just stay out of their way," he said. "They don't need to see me like this."

Tim pulled from his wallet his favorite thing: a faded, water-damaged snapshot of himself with Leanne, his sometime girlfriend out in the streets. They met at the Beacon downtown about five years ago and still see each other from time to time. "We're both doing pretty bad right now," he said. "But we still get along pretty well."

Billy Temple
Daughter's high school graduation photo

It's hard to believe now, but Allen's Landing was once Houston's very nexus of commerce, a place thronged by sweaty stevedores and dapper, haggling cotton factors. Today all that's left are some neglected monuments to mark the spot where the steamboats once took on great bales of cotton and chugged south towards Galveston and thence to the world.

There are also the ruins of a more recent phenomenon, the hulking remains of what in the 1960s was the Love Street Light Circus, home to many an acid-drenched 13th Floor Elevators happening. Today, Love Street's bayou frontage is a latrine, the stairs of the fire escape are rotting, the windows are broken and pigeons flap from out of the gaping holes.

At a nearby picnic table, we found 54-year-old Billy Temple sharing a bag of hot and spicy pork rinds with a buddy. Though neither appeared to be drunk, a cap to a bottle of Cobra malt liquor rested on the table.

Temple is 54 and a native of Pasadena. He spent 21 years as a long-haul truck driver, and then his heart gave out; after five heart attacks, he couldn't pass a company-mandated stress test. With his white-line fever days finished for good, he now lives off a $600 monthly disability check. He said that on some days — like the warm and pleasant one we were enjoying — his wasn't such a terrible life.

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19 comments
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Michael Belmares
Michael Belmares

John CatesU.S. Army beret

This man has harassed KPFT 90.1 repeatedly in the past. I find it strangely unsettling that he snake his way into the columns of this paper.

Sralph
Sralph

Hi: Chandler is a gentleman in our neighborhood. He is a nice guy but he has issues. After your story, he saw that he was in your paper and he did not remember talking to you at all. Poor Chandler was so upset Saturday night that he paced in front of my business all night trying to figure out what had happened to him and why his picture was in the Houston Press. We tried to help explain, but to no avail. I know you meant no harm in writing this article, but I felt it iportant to pass this sad situation on to you.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

Aw man, that's too bad. I'll try to go up there and see if he remembers me.

Sralph
Sralph

John, thanks. I have seen him the last day or so and he appears better. Perhaps his episode has passed over him. It was just sad to see him Sat night so distressed and really no way to help him.

Pat Hartman
Pat Hartman

It's a much-needed reminder that these are real people we're dealing with, not extras from Central Casting. Just as interview subjects tend to go off on tangents, a writer could go off on a large number of tangents from the information presented here. For instance, when a trained electrician with 18 years experience can't find work, something is seriously amiss.

It's obvious that some folks on the streets are seriously out of touch with reality. Even if housing can be found or created for them, that is not quite enough. They need structure, and someone on the premises to monitor them and look out for their neighbors, too. Mainstreaming the mentally ill is a nice ideal, but society needs to take responsibility somehow for people who can't be responsible for themselves. And this needs to be done without trampling on their rights, or the rights of anyone else. Just this morning a friend wrote, "My experiences in senior low-income housing have been so horrific as to leave me actually contemplating storing my things and sleeping at a shelter. I have never felt less safe in all of my life and to my amazement I fear the women here every bit as much as the men. My apartment itself is a delight, but what lies outside my front door is the stuff of nightmares… The reason for my fear is 100% based on the high ratio of mentally ill inmates...I mean tenants!"

Thanks for a very illuminating look at some lives.

Pat HartmanNews Editor, House the Homeless

Zan
Zan

I forgot to add that my favorite story was that of Mr. Temple, the gentleman who used a good portion of his disability check to help his daughter pay for her cap and gown. I can see the pride in his eyes for her, and yes, Mr. Temple, I think that she is proud of you, too. You did a lot more for her with that $400 than most men in better situations do for their children. I'd be proud of you if you were my dad.

Zan
Zan

Thank you for this. Stories like these remind me that our material possession don't mean crap and it is true that you don't necessarily have to be an alcoholic or a drug addict to be homeless; homeless people come from all walks of life. Lord knows that a lot of us are one paycheck away from being where they are. Not one of these people complained about anything, even though they had the platform to do so. Lord forgive me when I whine.

Creg
Creg

Really Real, if that is your real name.... Psalm 23 is not in your Gideon's New Testament.

John Nova Lomax
John Nova Lomax

@Ash: My mom died in the streets of Nashville in 1998. Like you, I know all too well that the homeless can come from anywhere, even your own home.

ash
ash

my uncle died a homeless man. before that he was a husband, father and my dad by default (after my parents divorced). he would take us camping and sit outside with us and watch us play. the girls were never allowed to wimp out of anything the boys were capable of and he made us try weird foods and contributed to my love of classic rock. he was an extraordinary man. i never turn a deaf ear or a blind eye to a homeless person, they're people too...

Michelle O
Michelle O

@Anon, your feelings called and said you're retarded.

TJ
TJ

Great story!

antiM
antiM

thanks for doing this story!

Christine
Christine

What a great story! Thanks for opening a window for us to see into their lives.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Please don't use the term "deaf-mute" to describe someone who is deaf or hard-of -hearing. Most deaf people are not mute, they are quite capable of making sounds. This term rates with other ignorant descriptive terms such as "Colored" or "Jewess" or "Spic". Thank you so much.

Gary Packwood
Gary Packwood

Anonymous...The smiling lady in this article was a deaf mute. She self identified as a deaf person who choose not to speak with her voice.

Attempts at being political correct almost always results in harm...which is itself ignorant.::GP

Anonymous
Anonymous

Gary, if she CHOSE not to speak with her voice she is not mute. It isn't about being PC so much as it is in being just plain correct. Mute means unable to speak or make sounds. Mute people do not choose to be mute. And not to put too fine a point on this, would you choose to call people colored? Or use any other "politically incorrect" term? I doubt it. You could at least show the Deaf community the same respect. And if you don't know Sign Language, or could she "self identify" to you? And, again honing the point a bit too fine for someone like you, if you had any experience in the Deaf community you would know its an offensive term, as well as an inaccurate one.

Being obtuse usually results in harm, which is in itself ignorant. And willful ignorance in light of available evidence to the contrary is the worst of all. Or is the best defense a good offense? In that case, points to you. Many many points.

MT

 
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