Prized Possessions

Homeless in Houston share their most important objects.

A few minutes later, he came back to where we were talking to some other guys and asked if he could trade sunglasses with me. I let him try mine on. "These are cop shades," he said, and handed them back to me. He already had my $10. This deal was off.

Big Country
Bedroll

His nickname was most apt: By his own estimation, the hulking, blue-eyed, blond-haired behemoth from the West Virginia coal country stood 6'5" and weighed in at 230 pounds. We found him at Peggy Point Park, across the street from the Midtown Sears, not far from the Wheeler MetroRail station.

Really Real
Daniel Kramer
Really Real
Big Country
Daniel Kramer
Big Country

He said that he's a trained electrician with 18 years experience but can't find a job here. He misses the mountains of his home state, but can't go back because the only jobs are in the coal mines, and he never picked up his father's all-too-often lethal trade. It might not kill you fast, but the black lung will come calling sooner or later.

Big Country said his favorite possession was his sleeping bag, which he keeps in a U.S. Army duffel bag. He has served in the military, but was tight-lipped with details: "That ain't worth talkin' 'bout," was all he'd allow in his deep, gravelly voice.

And then there's his second-favorite possession, which he fished out of the pocket of his jeans: a four-inch pocketknife. "People 'round here like to cut people," he said, disgust in his voice. "I ain't had to cut nobody yet or nothin' like that..."

Kathy
Rosary

We found Kathy near Allen's Landing charging her cellphone in one of the outlets embedded in a power pole — generally, these power sources are used by municipal workers. She's been in the streets for a little over a year, and she said that she and her husband were literally put there by the storms of life. In a voice rasped by Pall Mall reds, she told us how black mold ruined their home in the Northline area after Rita, and they rode out Ike while living in a hotel. And then their money ran out, and now they are on the streets.

Though she's a Baptist, Kathy loved the rosary she wears around her neck most of all. She loves it because it's sacred, and the San Antonio native believes it brings her luck.

She believes she needs all the help she can get out on the streets. Pointing to some rough-looking young men down by the bayou, she said, "Their habits are not my habits," but did not elaborate.

Still, she said that being homeless has not been an entirely negative experience. "I used to be an executive, but there are things about life out here that are better than working in an office," she said. "I've made some great friends, and they are people I never would have met if I still worked at my old job."

"I'm a people person," she added.

John Parker
Laptop computer

"Careful now," said John Parker. "I'm wanted by the FBI."

He laughed, and it soon became clear that Parker was decidedly not laboring under any of the grandiose delusions we found in some of our other subjects. In fact, Parker hardly matched any of our other subjects in any way, shape or form.

He was in the streets by lucid choice. "I enjoy being a drifter around the country," he told us as he sat on a park bench near the reflection pond in front of City Hall. Nearby, another homeless man swung a baseball bat and dug in against an imaginary pitcher. The American flag snapped in the warm breeze above the Art Deco city hall, as the aquamarine waters flashed bright sunshine in the ornamental pool. Parker pretty much defines the word "grizzled" — with his olive skin, bushy moustache and wavy long white hair, he looked like an old Turkish bandit. (He told us his mother was of Middle Eastern origin, even though he himself was as Midwestern as they come — a native of Des Moines, Iowa.)

Parker seemed straight out of the pages of John Steinbeck, a philosophical Depression-era hobo, albeit one with a high-tech twist.

We say high-tech because John Parker's favorite possesion was the sleek black laptop he unsheathed from the computer bag at his feet. He charged it on plugs at the public library and used the city's free WiFi to log on, and he said he spent most days chatting with women all over the world on a site called Tagged.com. Kramer, our photographer, was quite taken with Parker's life. "Man, I might just get rid of my apartment and sit around chatting with Russian women out in the sunshine all day," he would later say. "Homelessness with a laptop doesn't seem bad at all."

You might think keeping a laptop among the homeless would be more trouble than it was worth, but Parker said he was more than capable of taking care of it. "Don't let my disposition fool you," he said. "I might seem like a calm guy, but I spent three years in the Army. I can take care of myself, believe me." He added that he had to break a young guy's knee just the year before. Parker also said that the laptop serves as his pillow every night — so it's unlikely that anyone could snatch it while he was asleep. The only scenario in which he could imagine losing it would be if he walked off and left it unattended somewhere, and he said he wouldn't do that.

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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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