Houston's Hidden Homeless Live Under Bridges, in the Shadows, Out of Sight and Mind

Thousands are caught in the repetitive cycle of homelessness, and there aren't enough safe places to sleep for all of them.

Jaywalking, Dumpster diving, and creating an unreasonable "odor or smell" can also land a homeless person in hot water with the city. Public restrooms are limited, and private businesses are under no obligation to allow use of their facilities.

There are places where the homeless can head to without much issue; the public library or one of the city's day shelters are options, but once those doors close for the day, the homeless are again left to seek out a place they are ­welcome.

City parks are closed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., and camping in city parks can lead to a criminal trespass charge. A city ordinance that prohibits sitting or lying on the sidewalk, or on a blanket, stool, or other object, after 6 a.m. means that Sergeant Wick's team often becomes a "very expensive alarm clock," he says.

Percy Lyons finds a hot meal at Martha's Kitchen when the fish in the bayou are scarce.
Daniel Kramer
Percy Lyons finds a hot meal at Martha's Kitchen when the fish in the bayou are scarce.
The cats of the bayou bridge are well-fed with help from bridge resident Percy Lyons.
Daniel Kramer
The cats of the bayou bridge are well-fed with help from bridge resident Percy Lyons.

To be fair, it can be hard for business owners to deal with issues of panhandling or loitering, which often go hand in hand with the homeless. The aggressive nature of some panhandlers drives away customers, a problem that is apparent at many of the downtown gas stations and convenience stores.

There's also the fear of violence. Severe mental health issues or disputes within the homeless community over territory or stolen goods run the risk of turning into bloody brawls, and there's the fear that even as an innocent bystander, you run the risk of being dragged into the fray. For some, that makes stopping in an area heavily populated with homeless people a scary proposition.

Brandon, a young, animated man with an encyclopedia of knowledge on cartoons, has seen that violence all too many times.

"You never know what's going on out here, and you can approach the wrong type of person looking for a few bucks," he says.

It's then that he pulls the knife from his pocket, holding it out on display.

"The only thing I can trust out here is her. She's always got my back, and if someone comes up on me, I've got what I need to stop them."

To address the chronic problem, the city has introduced an ambitiously titled plan, "Houston's Plan to End Homelessness by 2016." Mandy Chapman Semple, the newly appointed "First Special Assistant for Homeless Initiatives," has mapped out a plan that calls for an increase in housing and a move toward coordinated placement and service delivery — all designed to "end" chronic homelessness.

Under the new plan, the city is working to increase its permanent supportive housing by 2,500 units while offering $100 million in federal vouchers for housing, which will include on-site support. Those vouchers will require 30 percent of the person's income to go toward rent, which, according to Semple's outline, will be zeroed out if the individual has no income.

The city will also move toward a central intake system at a still to be finalized location, which will theoretically streamline the process of obtaining social services. A coordinated, web-based placement system will be used to assess the client's needs and assign him or her to referrals or wait lists.

According to a 2012 survey by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, the greatest perceived unmet needs within the homeless community are permanent housing, transportation, and dental care. One out of three homeless people also indicated a need for mental health treatment, but only half had received that care.

The coordinated placement system aims to create one sole source of referrals for issues such as these and is designed to negate any overlap in services. There is a question as to whether it will be as effective as planned, though. The referral system is streamlined to one central intake among participating providers, but there will not be a way to view the immediately available spots in a program or a shelter. Case managers or Sergeant Wick's team will have to follow up in order to find out what's really open.

If the data in the city's homeless plan is accurate, we will see results as early as this year, at least for homeless veterans in Houston. According to Semple's plan, we will "achieve a functional zero in 2014, meaning we have created a system that has an immediate permanent housing option for any homeless veteran."

Or the city will have to come up with another plan.

Hope Elizabeth Sapp has been up for three days now, but she's wide-eyed and chatty despite the exhaustion. She's leaning against a post at The Beacon, a nonprofit day shelter in the heart of downtown Houston, waiting for the doors to open so she can rest.

"I worry out here every day," she says. "I've been raped out here; my ID has been stolen. There's a video on YouTube that somebody took of me getting beat up when I was pregnant, but no one stopped to help."

That beating took a huge toll on Sapp and her body. She was pregnant with twins at the time it occurred, and the beating was so severe that she lost one of them in the days after the beating. She lost the other child to the state of Texas many years later.

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My Voice Nation Help

The more services for homeless people you provide, the more homeless people will arrive to take advantage of those services.  Much better to DEMAND that homeless people WORK cleaning up the filth left by other members of the "community" in exchange for bare necessities and only if they pass daily drug tests.  Enabling the homeless lifestyle perpetuates the homeless lifestyle.  And no, you proggies, I'm not of the 1%!

Bobby Mcandrews
Bobby Mcandrews

Quality piece guys! I'm really happy this wasn't "Top 8 signs people fly on Houston streets" or something...

Wayward Shepherd
Wayward Shepherd

Food and clothing are the best things you can give a homeless person.


Years ago I worked part time with a charity that had a homeless shelter as part of the program.  I found a number of the people that passed through the facility had family or SS checks and wanted the shelter to free up money for drugs and booze.  Then there were those who were mental cases.  Solving such problems isn't part of our political process these days.


The moral of the story: Drugs are bad..

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