Houston's Hidden Homeless Live Under Bridges, in the Shadows, Out of Sight and Mind
A low, animal-like howl begins to rise from under the Main Street bridge along Buffalo Bayou. Through the eerie darkness, the reflective glint of countless eyes gives the feeling of being watched.
The howl ends in a chuckle. Percy Lyons is calling his cats home.
And they come from everywhere, responding to his howl with earnest meows of their own as they run, dart and hop across the dirt floor of the makeshift home.
This is all part of the daily routine under the bridge, and it has been for the past two years. This is where 16 cats and Lyons live.
It's apparent Lyons has been here awhile. A green military cot is tucked safely behind the jutted cement barrier, and the portable propane stove is stashed in the drainpipe for safekeeping. Every nook and cranny of the bridge has a purpose, down to the hollow cement blocks that enforce the structure's integrity. They serve as makeshift shelves, with a shirt here, a pair of shoes there.
He's made the earthen space as much of a home as he can, but no amount of staging can mask the dampness that hangs in the air. The home under the bridge is wet — very wet. The sun never reaches this far up.
"They call me the fisherman," says Lyons, grabbing his rod and reel earnestly. "I try to be independent out here. I don't want to cause a scene, so I just try to survive on my own."
He's a master of his craft, catching carp and gar, or even a catfish or two if he's lucky. He makes sure to save a few scraps for the rest of the bayou bridge residents, too. After all, Pocahontas and Seymour have come to expect their share.
This is survival in its most basic form, and Lyons is not alone in his struggle to find shelter. Authorities estimate that Houston ranks fourth in the country in terms of homeless numbers, with more than 40,000 people per year on the streets (counting the homeless is as harrowing a task as it sounds, and the count is done only once a year). That's as many people on the streets of Houston as Austin and Dallas's homeless populations combined.
Upwards of 6,000 people are homeless in the Bayou City on any given night — and there aren't nearly enough beds available for all of them to have a safe place to sleep.
An accompanying issue is not only citywide, but statewide. Identification is key to acquiring any housing, even temporary. Theft on the street and in shelters runs rampant, with identification often being the target of such thefts. It leaves a vulnerable population to navigate the bureaucratic red tape, often without the proper paperwork to replace it.
Couple the lack of identification with triggers like job loss, a criminal record, mental health problems or substance abuse issues, and homelessness becomes a repetitive cycle.
"Kush. It's the bane of my existence out here. Where we used to see heroin addicts and meth users, we're now seeing kush."
As Houston Police Department Sergeant Steven Wick picks up the colorful empty package that's been discarded on the bank of the bayou, his disgust for synthetic marijuana, or "kush," as it's known on the street, is apparent.
As a founding member of the HPD's Homeless Outreach Team, he is one of four officers tasked with helping to respond to the city's homeless population. The team members focus on needs rather than complaints or ordinances, and they play the role of provider as much as, if not more than, patroller. It seems to be working.
Until the formation of the HPD Homeless Outreach Team, the police department's main method for addressing homelessness was to hand out tickets. That approach turned out to be a lot of effort with little return, financial or otherwise.
"When you ticket the homeless, they don't pay it. It costs hundreds of dollars in manpower and time, and it's not effective," says Wick. "We had to find another solution. There needed to be an intermediate solution for people on the street, one that was a better use of resources and provisions."
Wick rides his bike along the banks of the bayou five days a week. "We try to build relationships," he says. "Everyone on the streets is broken in some way. It's our job to find the reason and help them in some way."
He and his team have been working with the city's homeless population for three years, searching the banks of the bayous and homeless camps for people unwilling, or perhaps unable, to navigate the city's social services on their own. They say they've been successful in helping hundreds of people get off, and stay off, the streets.
"We can't help anyone who doesn't want help," Wick says. "But if people are ready, you can help them get off the streets."
The officers have had to build a strong foundation of trust in order to reach the homeless. Much of their time is spent communicating; clients are free to call the officers, and they do so regularly. Prepaid cells are easy to come by, and there are federal programs that offer free cell phone service to low-income households. The officers also welcome visits to their downtown headquarters, which is housed in a renovated warehouse directly above the Houston Recovery Center, or the "sobering center," as it's most often called.
That relationship has earned Wick a spot as "one of the good guys" in Lyons's eyes, but even the good guys can do only so much when they have a notoriously difficult bureaucratic system to contend with.
The officers on Wick's team constantly network with local nonprofits and social service agencies to get help for the people they find. They've built relationships with many of the local nonprofits and are often able to find a way past the wait lists.
"Sometimes there's no room at a program, or there's too much redirection from one place to another. We have a hard time when it comes to navigating the information, and [HPD has] the ability to jump [ahead] in line," says Wick. "If we have a difficult time navigating all that red tape, what do you think it's like for a guy who's been on the streets for a decade?" he says.
When there is an opening in a program, it can still be difficult for a potential client to take advantage of the help. In order to obtain services, the client is usually expected to request them in person, and transportation or identification are all too often an issue.
While many homeless people are able to take advantage of those services, there are plenty who are not. That's who Wick's team places the greatest focus on, the ones who are not able to obtain services, whatever the reason may be.
"You can't just drop off a person at the DPS, especially a person with schizophrenia or drug issues, and expect them to make it through that process," says Wick. "We sit with them through the entire process, and we work with the agencies to make things happen. Otherwise they'll just give up."
Team members spend a great deal of time persuading people not to give up as they help them make their way through the system. That may mean spending the day at the Department of Motor Vehicles with a client or waiting to make sure that intake at a treatment center goes smoothly. They stay by the side of the client until the client is checked in or checked out, acting as an encouraging ear or an advocate when necessary.
"We had a guy, Randall, who was just rough to deal with," laughs Wick. "Fortunately, he's also one of our greatest success stories.
"After being on the streets 30 years — 30 years of kickin' and peein' and fightin' back, he decided he was done with it. He wanted help. We got Randall off the streets and into a motel while we waited for room in a program.
"But once he was in the program, all Randall wanted was some soda water and some cigarettes, and it just wasn't in the budget for the program. I bought him a case of cigarettes out of my own pocket, but they were the brown ones, because I'm cheap," laughs Wick.
"Randall called me up from treatment, and he informed me that he didn't want the brown cigarettes. He says, 'I'm not smokin' no brown cigarettes, Sergeant Wick.'
"I told him, 'Randall, as long as I'm buyin' 'em, you're smoking the brown ones."
A rough situation in Alabama, coupled with a severe alcohol dependence, caused the life of another man named Jeff to spiral out of control. Jeff ended up on the streets of Houston, spending three years on the banks of the bayou before accepting help from the Outreach team.
He's been out of detox for 30 days, and is upbeat about life at the treatment center.
"There are brilliant people who are on the streets, and it takes more than just throwing money at the situation. Sergeant Wick found me, and it was a long time before I wanted help," Jeff says. "He didn't give up, though."
Jeff insists he's determined not to give up this time.
"Being sober is a daily struggle, but I'm in the process of recommitting to my children and family relationships," says Jeff. "Sergeant Wick's a very good man. People can give money to charity, but it won't ever be as much as he and his team have done."
Wick worries about Jeff and Randall, but says it comes with the territory.
"It may sound strange, but I consider them my family," says Wick quietly.
Addressing homelessness in Houston is complicated by the negative publicity the city has received in recent years over its controversial feeding and Dumpster ordinances.
In 2012, the city passed a feeding ordinance making it a crime to give food to the homeless without permission and food service permits, and it limited feeding efforts to "Recognized Charitable Service Providers." The ordinance received a vocal push-back from both grassroots groups and news organizations.
A number of city ordinances make it essentially "illegal" to live on the streets, but a lack of shelter beds or treatment programs makes enforcement efforts sporadic.
This severe shortage of beds at local shelters also makes keeping a full-time job nearly impossible. In order to obtain a bed for the night, clients are expected to line up around 3 p.m., where they'll wait until the shelter opens its doors. That first-come, first-served policy is a tough thing to explain to an employer, and the homeless are often left to choose between shelter or a steady paycheck.
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.
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.
She's been on the street about two years, spending her time in and out of shelters. With no ID, though, securing a bed can be next to impossible. Most nights she's safe enough, using whatever money she can come up with to rent a hotel room, but some nights she has no choice but to roam the streets. Those are the nights she doesn't sleep. It's too dangerous to shut your eyes when you're on the streets at night. Staying up ensures you're alert enough to run.
It seems Sapp's done a lot of running in her 27 years. She wound up out here with three kids in tow after fleeing a violent relationship. There are four kids now, and she's lost custody of all of them. She carries the court papers with her as proof of her struggle and as a reminder of what she is fighting for. She'll always fight, she says. It's just with no roof over their heads, it was too hard to win.
For Sapp, the fight extends well past the court system. She has to fight for healthcare as well. The symptoms from a number of untreated mental health issues — schizophrenia, mania and bipolar disorder — have left her unable to work. She has been off her medicine for months now, but without proper ID, it is nearly impossible to receive treatment.
It's a vicious cycle, but Sapp still looks forward to the day she's off the streets. She's been eyeing a place out in Magnolia, a camper. It's not much, but she hopes to call it home.
For others, the city of Houston was a choice. The streets were another matter.
Darcell Lewis has been homeless for about six months now, the entire time she's been in Houston. She headed here from the blight of Detroit, a city with sky-high unemployment and an even higher crime rate. She wanted to start over, she says, but the promise of full-time work never came through.
Lewis picks up jobs where she can, a week here, a week there. A job as a holiday bell-ringer and a stint with Emerald Linen helped her out, but the temporary work wasn't enough to pay for her own place.
For now, temporary work is all that's available, though. Lewis's three-week stint with Rodeo Houston was the longest she's been employed in Texas. She loved the work, but it was temporary. The horses packed up, and so did she.
It's been fine, though, she says. The folks at the shelter have been treating her well, and she's staying focused in her bid to start over. But there are times when the beds are full at the shelter, which leaves Lewis no option but the street.
"I get leery of people walking past me," she says. "The first night I was out there it was cold and wet, and I stayed up all night. It's hard to stay up all day working when you've been up all night. I just try to keep my head up."
For some, the easiest way to avoid the danger is to simply stay as hidden as possible.
Timothy Mellons lives tucked away under one of the many bayou bridges and has been living here for the past nine years. He's quite difficult to spot, tucked away up there, and that's completely intentional on his part. He prefers to be alone, surrounded by jutted cement and broken bottles rather than people. This bridge is his home.
"I run by myself. Everything I do, I do for myself," says Mellons. "I've been up here nine years now," he laughs, his mouth agape at the sheer sound of it.
Unlike Lyons's camp, Mellons's shelter is bare except for a tattered copy of Gideon's Bible, which sits next to an open 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor. The pages are dog-eared, marking his favorite passages.
Life on the streets has, at times, been a respite. A childhood rife with abuse led him to search for ways to laugh, rather than cry. For Mellons, that meant turning to drugs to cope.
"If you got any kids, do not abuse your kids, man," he says. "I'd be a better person than I am right now if I hadn't come up abused."
He spends most of his days tucked away under the bridge, drinking and getting high. He panhandles when necessary, but he seems ambivalent about the money he earns doing so. "Sometimes I don't wanna have money, man. It burns a hole in my pocket, and I get high until it's gone," he says, his voice heavy with regret.
While he's open about his drug of choice — cocaine — he says little of the alcohol bottles that litter his home. He insists that the liquor not be photographed.
He had a girl, a "real good girl," Genie, but she's locked up, and he knows there's little chance for reconciliation on the streets.
There is one woman who still waits for Mellons, though: his mom. He's still welcome in her home in Galena Park, but she's older now and ailing. He wonders how much longer she'll be there, waiting for her son with a shower and a hot meal.
He could head to The Beacon, right down from where his home is under the bridge, but he chooses to stay away from the chaos. It's too busy and too easy to get yourself into trouble, at least in Mellons's eyes.
Plenty of folks do head there, though, to shower, wash clothes, eat a hot meal, or receive referrals and case management for services. The need for those services is apparent just by looking at the shelter's numbers. The Beacon serves around 600 clients daily, and the numbers continue to grow with each count.
"I lost my good buddy out here not too long after I got out here," recalls Percy Lyons.
"They called him Detroit. That's where he was from. We found him over there in the bayou, face down. Somebody killed him," he continues.
"Being out here can be dangerous," says Lyons. "I've seen people get killed, and there are spiders — brown recluses — and they've sent men under here to the hospital before. Nothing compares to that first night, though.
"That first night was spooky," he continues. "I woke up every few minutes; you hear the train, the cars. It's all right in your ear." He grins and pulls a hunter-green aerosol can out of his bag. "Luckily I got this stuff. If you have to stay out here, this stuff will save your life, man."
"Just make sure it's the one with Deet," he says. "OFF, Deep Woods, with Deet. Otherwise you'll get eaten alive."
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