Houston's Working Class Gets Bumped by the Crashing Economy: Hardcore Homeless
The man I am,
is not the man I want to be.
And the man I was is not the man I am.
And the man I want to be is the man I'm going to be,
and it's not the man I am.
— Steve Shreve
Steve Shreve and his crew hustle across an empty parking lot and jump into a Dumpster, and moving night seems dead even before it starts.
Five minutes earlier, they had breezed right past, their backs to the skyline as Heritage Plaza glimmered overhead in the crisp January night. They crossed the street, then a grass divide, and followed the curve of a highway ramp, forcing traffic to the right, until they reached the small cluster of stunted trees where they'd been living for weeks. Then they stopped short, because all their stuff was gone — cans of food, hand-me-down clothes and sleeping bags, disjointed mementos, bottles of meds.
They dig with their hands through the trash bags and branches, but climb out of the Dumpster with just a few of their blankets and an empty backpack. In her soft, childish voice, Mary begins to whine, while her boyfriend Corey broods by himself. Steve's girlfriend Cynthia coughs until her eyes tear, then spits on the ground. Chris just goes with the flow, taking his cues from Steve.
Steve curses the loss of his Bible notes and pictures of his mother, then tries to regain his street general's air. He is 27, slim and shifty, with the walk and style of a thug and gang member, which he claims to be, and the pasty complexion and freckles of a child. His wire-rimmed glasses and sandy goatee suggest a would-be philosopher; he blends cockiness and charm like a seasoned hustler.
"Well, at least we're still alive," says Paul Hubbard, who goes by Angel, and at 40 is the oldest in the group by more than a decade. "So we can start all over again."
Which was the point today. All six have been homeless for years. They've been in and out of the shelters and programs designed to help, tried to help themselves at times, and cycled through the local jails and mental institutions. During their brief periods off the street, they can eat three square meals a day, find clothes and blankets, and get and fill prescriptions for their various mental problems — schizophrenia, multiple personalities, attention deficit disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder. It all piles up alongside a highway or under a bridge, until someone steals it or throws it away.
Steve had concocted a simple plan. Chris, a small, squirrelly 28-year-old whose speech is slow and spastic, gets a disability check in the mail each month, which he usually blows within a week on hotel rooms and his Cricket Internet phone. Mary, 29, who has a second-grade education and several children with CPS, plus another on the way, also gets a check. They would combine the checks to rent a cheap apartment, and with a stable place to stay and shower and sleep, they'd get on their feet.
Steve always has a plan. He grew up in Houston and hit the streets at 15, he says, after fights with his dad, then cemented his place on them when he started smoking crack (he keeps to pot and alcohol these days). He has since spent time homeless in Alabama and Florida, and ridden out Hurricane Katrina in a New Orleans jail, before returning to Houston last summer for an ill-fated attempt to turn things around.
"I am dead set on getting off these streets," he had said a few weeks before the planned move. He was pacing furiously as he spoke, as he often does when trying to make a point, taking a few short steps in one direction, then skipping unpredictably in another.
"I want to make something of my life. I want to go somewhere. I'm 27 years old, and what do I have to show for it?" He looked down at himself. "A pair of shoes and a pair of pants."
Steve remembers that he's wearing two sets of clothes, which cheers him up, and leads the way to my truck. He takes the front, Corey, Mary and Cynthia take the back, and Chris and Angel shiver in the bed with the salvaged blankets. They head to northwest Houston, where Corey has apparently arranged the apartment. After a few wrong turns and some arguments, it's clear he doesn't know the way. He hasn't been to the complex, in fact, or called the landlord, or spoken to anyone about anything except a friend who once stayed there, or knew someone who did. Everyone assumed they could walk in and get an apartment, no questions asked, at eight o' clock on a Friday night.
An hour later, Steve and the crew check into a run-down motel on the other side of town, which brings them to about $650 after paying $50 for three crusty beds. Cynthia checks the sheets for bugs, then curls into a shivering ball. Chris is lost in his phone, and Corey in his mini-laptop, which he'd bought in the morning with $300 from Mary's check. Mary dances and sings along to a game show on TV. Steve is having trouble ordering a pizza.
"Well," says Angel, surveying the scene."At least we're off the street."
It is, of course, unlikely to last. The inability to reach the right housing is perhaps the biggest barrier keeping people like Steve and his friends, who are classified as chronically homeless, from finding their way off the streets.
Officer M.L. Frazee, who oversees the Houston Police Department's homeless efforts downtown, including a monthly outreach with the SEARCH Homeless Project to bring people from the street into the social system, sees much of his effort go to waste.
"We don't have a lot of housing," he says. "So I can take a person — or I can help, not take, a person — they can clean up, they can wash their clothes, they can take a shower. But then what do you do? If there are no beds available, then they go back on the street."
Houston's best options are its shelter programs. They are either narrow in focus — AIDS, veterans — or religious in nature, and laden with rules, which many homeless people have a hard time following in the first place. There are people like Kaos, a bullish 20-year-old girl with a black Mohawk, who, as the misspelled name on her massive bicep suggests, just won't be controlled. "You know what they say," she says, as she sits in the grass near a food line, stoned, with her boyfriend in her lap. "Rules are meant to be broken."
But even those making an honest effort to get off the street often have a hard time sticking to the shelter programs — not being able to bring a girlfriend; not being able to sip a beer, even off the grounds; a 5 p.m. curfew; spats with other residents and staff — or stomaching the religion. Houston is the only major city in Texas without a city-sponsored shelter.
Those who do well in the shelters might face the housing problem once they're through.
Debbie Smiley is a Salvation Army success story. She was homeless and addicted to crack for three years, and she has the battle scars to prove it — she once jumped through a glass window to avoid being raped. She's been clean for a year, leads AA meetings and recently regained custody of her two kids, who are playing happily in her lap. She doesn't break down until she considers what will happen when her time in the program is up. Then she rambles and sobs. There is her criminal record. She hasn't had a job in years.
"Now I don't know what I can do and what I can't do...Also, I used to walk the street and hop in cars to get money...How'm I gonna keep my kids if I can't get no job?...All the failings..."
Michael Blockson, the outreach coordinator for Covenant House, which takes in unaccompanied teens, sees many former residents return to the street. He attributes this to the lack of supportive housing — the combination of subsidized housing and casework that many dearly need, especially those with mental and drug problems and the chronically homeless.
"You can't just all of a sudden say: 'You're in a shelter. We've helped you with your health or substance abuse. Okay, now you're all right,'" he says. "It's a nice story for the moment, but what about when the TV's not there, and the newspaper's not there, and things get back to normal life, which is chaos?"
Six days after checking into the motel, Steve is standing on a street corner in Montrose, nodding and winking at passing cars. Occasionally he flashes two fingers sideways across his chest, which lets the drivers know he's game and also stands for his nickname, Duce. There is enough money left for two more nights at the motel. If he makes a hustle tonight, it'll be three.
An older man in a red Malibu is making his third or fourth pass and looks to be slowing down. Steve starts for the car, but a police cruiser pulls up, and the Malibu speeds away. Steve waits expectantly at the curb for a few more minutes, then gives up for the night. Two days later Angel is back with his abusive boyfriend, and Cynthia is missing. Mary has checked into a mental hospital, and Corey is in a shelter. Steve and Chris are back in their spot near the highway.
The next plan is to get back to Louisiana, which seems to be the only place where Steve has put together stretches of relative stability. Steve says he's worked in kitchens along Bourbon Street. The man Steve calls his only true friend, Jim, is in Louisiana, and over the next few weeks he and Steve make plans for a reunion. This time around, Chris's disability check will go toward two bus tickets.
Steve writes, among many e-mails to Jim:
"why dont we just go home and you know what i mean by home New Orleans where we where happy then i can go back to working on burban street they have martie gra going on right now and i can get a job the first day im there i checked the internet and there is all kinds of cooking and dish wasing jobs open right now and called a couple of are friends and they say there is lots of work there".
Then it is Thursday night, February 26, and Steve is drinking a Coors Light at the Next Door in Montrose. He's been off his pills for about a month, but seems focused and upbeat. The check comes tomorrow. Steve has the Greyhound schedule in his pocket, along with a shopping list of things he and Chris will need for the trip. He calls his brother and arranges to get his mail before he leaves. He keeps the send-off to a single beer, because he needs to get to bed on time. He says good-bye and disappears down the street.
Twelve days later, Steve is staring out from the wrong side of the murky glass in the visitation room at the Harris County Jail. He didn't go right to bed after the beer. Instead he drank a pint of Mad Dog 20/20, then went in front of City Hall with some friends to smoke a joint. Steve says he didn't know one of the guys in the group, and that the two got into an argument. He says the guy started shoving him, then pulled a knife. Steve carries a small, sharp flip blade with a blue handle. He stabbed the guy several times and took off down the street.
The police took his bloodstained clothes for evidence, even his sneakers, and Steve kicks his foot up onto the counter to show an orange sock and beige prison sandal. Steve is optimistic that his lawyer can prove self-defense — if he can find the witnesses, who probably gave fake names and phone numbers to the police because they're all homeless. He puts his mouth to the metal microphone embedded in the glass.
"If not, I'm spending a long mother-fucking time in here," he says. "All I want to do is get out of fucking Texas and back to Louisiana. So I can get my life together."
Then Steve flashes two fingers across his chest and shuffles out of the room. In his inbox there is an unread message from Jim:
"I went to the bus station [Fri] nite and all of the buses came until 11 pm. I went to sleep. Please hurry and let me hear from you. I assumed either the money did not come in the mail or you went to jail."
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