Houston's Working Class Gets Bumped into Homelessness and Poverty by the Crashing Economy
Lorenzo Timmons spent most of the ride home staring at the crisp piece of paper in his lap. He remembers thinking, "we won't have to worry about nothing no more," and, "everything's going to be all right."
Lorenzo, who was 27 at the time, has the reserved, thoughtful demeanor a man his size might develop to put others at ease. He's bald and broad, 6-foot-3 and more than 300 pounds, and his dark, intense eyes are set deep behind unassuming glasses.
It was a weekday afternoon last April. Lorenzo filled the passenger's side of a friend's beat-up Saturn, which was headed south on the 610 Loop.
homelessness in Houston
The paper in Lorenzo's lap said he didn't have tuberculosis, which of course he knew. But it was the last pre-hire hurdle for a job driving a food truck for the Houston Independent School District, and Lorenzo couldn't relax until it was in his hand. The 20 minutes since had provided his first relief in months.
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Lorenzo had left his job as a long-haul trucker in early February. He had never been more than a week or two between jobs. But Houston was already feeling the first tremors of the national recession that officially began in December 2007 in its unskilled labor pool, and the weeks turned into worrisome months. As Stephen Klineberg, the Rice University professor who directs the annual Houston Area Survey, puts it: Recession "starts at the bottom, and it keeps going up."
By the time Lorenzo heard from HISD, there were maybe two or three months of security left in the bank, and he'd taken to donating plasma just to earn some cash. With the new job he would be back on track, supporting his wife and three-year-old daughter again. They'd have insurance. He'd see them every day. And they'd be out of the Third Ward and back in Alief.
The car veered suddenly to the right. Lorenzo looked out his window at the concrete divider, which was approaching fast as the car shot across two lanes. He watched it close in until there was a deafening crash, and then life was silent and slow as the car bounced into the opposite wall, then back once more.
The pain gripped Lorenzo's back when his adrenaline drained on the way to the emergency room. He was helped into a wheelchair and fitted with a neck brace, and the doctors said his herniated disk would heal in six weeks. The six weeks came and went, and Lorenzo still couldn't get up and down stairs or into cars without a struggle. The rent and utility bills kept coming, and the medical bills piled on top, until one day he and his wife Derly realized they might lose their home.
And just like that they were on a bus, surrounded by all the boxes, trash bags andsuitcases they could carry, on their way to ahomeless shelter.
The full force of the recession is finally hitting Houston. It could lose 44,000 jobs in 2009, according to a recent report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose 101.8 percent last year, including 18.4 percent in December alone. The year-end unemployment rate increased by a quarter, to 5.5 percent. "Houston's economy is now locked into the national economy," says Klineberg. The city, he adds, will at last join the rest of the country in its "day of reckoning for living beyond our means."
For many Houstonians, that means foreclosure and eviction, and a growing number of people and families are suddenly facing homelessness. Houston is not ready to help. Its underfunded and outdated homeless system is already stretched thin by a population 10,000 strong, which gets help to subsist in homelessness but not overcome it — or avoid it in the first place. Briggitte Stevenson, the chief case manager at Star of Hope, calls it a "full circus," something previously stable, working people — especially families — will be hard-pressed to navigate on their own.
"A family like the Timmonses would not make it. They're in the middle, and you don't know what to do," she says. "You're faced with the question: What do you do with the Timmonses? And there are going to be a lot more Timmonses to come."
"Nobody wants to help me! Cuz I'm old!"
The woman on the bench with the red cowboy boots is shouting at Earnest Dyer. He has been walking around Hermann Park for about an hour, trying to find the homeless, which can upset people if he gets it wrong. But Dyer usually gets it right. He gives the woman his card.
Dyer, a large, towering man with an unhurried gait, is the social services manager at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Galveston-Houston, the Catholic Church's lay volunteer arm. When he first started in social work seven years ago, he says, taking a seat on a vacant bench, he was surprised by how many people he met like the woman with the cowboy boots — unskilled, uneducated, maybe a little crazy.
Now some of the people asking for help are former donors. Dyer first noticed the disturbing new trend last summer, as requests for things such as shelter and rent and utility assistance began to rise.
"What gets to me," he says, "is you start seeing people like yourself."
Aid agencies across the city are reporting big spikes in demand. Northwest Assistance Ministries, a network of more than 45 congregations with a combined annual budget of nearly $10 million, saw a 10 percent rise in requests for its family shelter program from 2007 to 2008, along with a 25 percent increase in applications for help paying the rent, mortgage or utilities. Catholic Charities reopened from hurricane damage in January to an almost 20 percent increase in rent assistance requests. At the United Way of Greater Houston's 211 referral hotline, the number of calls increased in January and February — by 105 percent for food, 51 percent for utility assistance, 35 percent for rent and mortgage assistance, and 42 percent for shelter — compared with a year ago.
New faces have been showing up at food pantries as well.
"Our agencies as a whole, whoever they serve, have been reporting that they see people they would never expect to see," says Betsy Ballard of the Houston Food Bank, the main hub for the city's pantries. "Folks are coming in who previously did not need help."
At The Salvation Army, requests for shelter assistance swelled in December, says Gerald Eckert, its social services manager, and January brought people from the first big wave of layoffs to hit Houston. Clients are further behind than usual — instead of needing a month of rent, for example, they might need three.
"It's always been the case that people don't plan for unexpected things," Eckert says. "The difference now is that everyone's experiencing an unexpected thing, which is the downturn in the economy."
People who have always been housed aren't likely to go right to the street. Like the Timmonses, they'll exhaust every option first, tapping their savings, family and friends, then reaching for the city's limited prevention resources. After that, it's a quick descent into chaos.
"They sleep in their car, because that's the last tangible belonging they have left," Dyer says. "Or they hide behind Dumpsters or buildings, because they're afraid of CPS [Child Protective Services]. Quite a few stay in the park, and they roast hot dogs and bake beans. The kids like it for a week or two, but then the picnic party is over."
Brian Flores is the principal at J. Will Jones Elementary in Midtown, where about 100 of 300 students are considered homeless, including about 30 from The Salvation Army. It is the most the school has seen in his six years there, which Flores says is due to a combination of Hurricane Ike and the economy.
The school often learns about its homeless families from the youngest children.
"Generally, it's not the older children who tell us. It's the four-year-old and the five-year-old, because they're so honest," he says.
When he or the school's counselor calls home to ask how they can help, they find parents lost in the disjointed process of trying to find the right help. It may take direction from Flores and the counselor, as well as pointed calls to the right people, to move the process along.
"Oftentimes, they're thrown into homelessness, and they can't deal with it. They don't know how to get help," Flores says. "It's just great that there's someone who can help them navigate the system, because the system is very bureaucratic. And it makes a big difference."
HISD classifies children as homeless if they are living in motels or doubled up with another family — or anywhere out of the ordinary — in addition to staying in shelters or on the street. According to Connie Thompson, the school district's management counselor responsible for homeless children, the numbers skyrocketed from fall to winter, rising to about 1,500 by Christmas. By the time school resumed after the holidays, there were 300 more, and the number has reached 2,319 since.
"It's coming. Oh, it's coming," says Anthony Love, director of the Houston Coalition for the Homeless, the umbrella organization that loosely coordinates the various facets of the city's homeless services. "We're going to see a flood of people really beginning to experience homelessness."
Tim has been on the streets for nine days, but says it seems longer. A stocky man in his late thirties with thick dreadlocks and a blue hoodie, he hangs back in the shadows during a church service under the Pierce Elevated bridge, waiting for the food line to start. He's embarrassed to be holding a blanket in public, and he vows to discard it first thing in the morning.
Tim, who wouldn't give his real name, isused to working, living in a nice place anddriving a nice car.
"This recession caught me with my pants down, bottom line. I can't hang nobody's feet over the fire but my own. Nobody tricked me out of shit," he says. "It was just too much frivolous spending. A lot of us live above our means. But when those means run out, you're exposed."
On Tim's first night he went to The Salvation Army's downtown shelter, which gave him a cot in its crowded overflow room. The shelter has been in overflow since the fall and now serves 450 men a night instead of its usual 300. Sick-looking people were coughing all around him, so Tim wrapped his entire head in his hoodie like a mummy, then passed the night in a full sweat. Since then, he's been sleeping on the street.
The next day he went to the SEARCH Homeless Project, which directs people to jobs and other services, but found it similarly overrun with the usual suspects and felt he was just being processed through with everyone else. Tim decided to look for help on his own, and he uses the computers at the library to find job and apartment leads on craigslist.
"All this shit is depressing," he says, warning that newly homeless people frustrated by the situation could end up losing heart. "Once you lose hope, it's pretty much over with. You end up just trying to get a meal."
Reginald McDaniel, 47, has been off and on the streets for years. He leans against a bridge column and watches the food line get underway.
"Sometimes you hurt a person if you help them too much," he says.
But the problem in Houston is that the right kind of help is too often missing.
Alief is less than 20 miles from the small house on Wyoming Street where Lorenzo grew up. He always resented the Third Ward, with all its drug dealers and wife beaters, and believed he was bound for better. When he first arrived in Alief in 1997 after his sophomore year at troubled Yates High, to spend the summer with an aunt, the suburb was a blend of its affluent, white former self and the predominantly poor, ethnic enclave it has since become. The way people talked and dressed was different. There were fields and mowed lawns. Blink 182 played on the radio. It all made the Third Ward seem a world away.
"Beautiful, Alief," Lorenzo says. "That was it. That was where I wanted to stay. It was so much better than what I had."
Lorenzo's aunt became his legal guardian so he could finish school at sprawling Elsik. For the next two years, he woke at 4 a.m. in the Third Ward and boarded the public bus. He met Derly in geography class and married her in 2001; their apartment in Alief had a kitchen big enough to fit five people Lorenzo's size. But then he was back where he started.
Lorenzo tried everything from warehouse work and home health care to managing a Baskin-Robbins before he settled, in late 2005, on long-haul trucking and its promise of freedom and good money. In his first months on the road, though, he struggled, and the family was forced to the Third Ward. Lorenzo drove almost constantly for two years, missing birthdays and Thanksgiving and Christmas as he piled money into the bank and dreamed of a house in Alief. Then Jasmine, who was two at the time, started blocking the door. She frantically fought his every attempt to leave the house, and she suffered separation anxiety once he was gone. Lorenzo began sneaking out in the middle of the night, so Jasmine slept in her parents' bed — right on top of Lorenzo, so she could feel it if he moved.
In retrospect, Lorenzo says, he and Derly were overconfident that their savings would last. Once the money was gone, the family had nowhere to turn. Derly's dad had been a safety net in the past, but he'd recently lost his job. On Lorenzo's side of the family, he was the one people turned to when money got tight.
Lorenzo and Derly scrambled to piece together $100 and $200 rent assistance pledges from various churches and local charities, their best option for staying in place. They were mostly told to try again next month, next week or between 2 and 4 p.m. two weeks from Wednesday. Houston has no centralized system of rent assistance, or a means of relocating families to more affordable accommodation. The Timmonses continued to scramble until the eviction notice came.
Derly called the United Way's 211 help hotline in late June to get a list of shelters. Some didn't take children. Others didn't take men, or people without HIV. The few that would have all of the Timmonses were full — Star of Hope's women and family emergency center, the largest family shelter in the city, has been operating at overflow capacity since last spring.
The eviction date passed, and the Timmons family stayed, because they had nowhere to go. Derly and Lorenzo never left the apartment together so the locks couldn't be changed. They were still inside with the shades down when a rare spot opened in Star of Hope's transitional living center. That was the day they boarded the bus with whatever they could carry and arrived at the facility at 6897 Ardmore, less than a mile from Wyoming Street, where his mother still lives.
Dennis P. Culhane, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, has long questioned why otherwise stable, competent people are forced to hit rock bottom and start over before they're given help. The recession has sparked a paradigm shift in the national mindset for fighting homelessness — one toward preventing it in the first place, especially for people like the Timmonses who might be better served by help bridging the gap between one job and the next. The stimulus package recently passed by Congress contains close to $1.5 billion in funds that can only be used for the type of assistance that might have kept the Timmonses from becoming homeless; Houston and Harris County will receive almost $17 million.
"These are the kind of people who have employment prospects, maybe even are recently coming from a job," says Culhane, who has been advising the new administration on homeless policy. "If you're homeless, the only thing we know how to do is put you in a shelter, which effectively keeps you homeless...We're stabilizing them in an unstable situation."
The money is scheduled to arrive no later than April 1, but it could take at least three months for it to be distributed and put to use. Culhane and others warn that communities with little prevention experience may not be able to spend the new money effectively.
"They're getting this big block of funds under a program which is designed to prevent homelessness," says Brian Sullivan, a spokesman of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is allocating the funds. "So it's fair to ask the capacity question: Can they handle it?"
As the new trend takes hold, Houston is still scrambling to catch up with the old. Its goal is to relieve the strain of the people who now rotate inefficiently and perennially through the city's homeless system, draining what little resources it has and creating a backlog people like Culhane say can keep the newly homeless from making it quickly back to their feet (see "Hardcore Homeless").
Akylah Martell was evicted last summer after losing her job, then failing to get her fledgling catering company off the ground. She and her six-year-old daughter ended up in the overflow room at Star of Hope, sleeping on mats on the floor with 50 other people.
The people in overflow must leave in the morning and can't return until night. Martell watched as groups of women and their children clustered together outside. From time to time, a woman would leave the group and jump into one of the cars prowling nearby. When Martell finally got a room, her roommate, an ex-prostitute, resented the details of Martell's former middle-class life; she eventually stole all of Martell's clothes. Martell made it into Star of Hope's transitional living center in November. She doesn't know how much longer she could have lasted in a chaotic emergency system that's getting more crowded by the day.
"In a way, I feel lucky," she says, "for having gotten into the system when I did."
Housing First is a concept that originated in New York City in the early 1990s and has since spread throughout the rest of the country as a way to end homelessness instead of manage it. It has been the standard for getting the chronically homeless off the streets and out of shelters for much of the decade. It holds that people need stable housing before they can get their lives in order, not the other way around, and it was controversial at first — the idea of giving the drunk guy under the bridge his own place, no questions asked, can be a hard sell. Proven success in cities from New York and Seattle to Chattanooga and New Orleans has since turned around most critics.
Houston has been slow to catch on.
The crux of the concept is permanent supportive housing — not just getting someone housed, but surrounding him with the social services he needs to get himself stabilized. This is expensive and requires a steady cash flow to maintain. Texas ranks near the bottom of the country in funding for both social services and housing. There are no dedicated revenue streams that can be counted on to support anything long-term. It even leaves federal Medicaid matching funds on the table, which can be used for case management. And it puts very little money toward mental health, the primary cause of chronic homelessness.
"We made tremendous strides in the last 50 years in public awareness and understanding of mental health issues, but there's still a long way to go," Houston Mayor Bill White says. "It's unrealistic to just tell somebody suffering from schizophrenia to go get a job."
White and the other big-city mayors in Texas recently signed a petition requesting a $25 million increase in state funding for supportive, work and housing retention services for the homeless.
Houston contributes very little money of its own to fill the gap. Almost all government money comes from HUD, and this is mostly spent on affordable housing. The Coalition for the Homeless says the city needs almost 1,400 shelter beds and almost 2,000 permanent supportive housing beds. There are 534 permanent housing beds under construction. Like the bulk of those already available, these will be the cheaper, dorm-like single-room occupancy units that most Housing First proponents consider outdated.
The city's Housing and Community Development Department controls the bulk of the federal funds, and it will dole out all of the new prevention funds. The department was ordered to repay $15.1 million in misspent money after a recent HUD investigation into its housing programs.
The Houston Housing Authority, meanwhile, does not view directly addressing homelessness as part of its mission, according to its spokeswoman, Regina Woolfolk. Critics argue that the fourth-largest housing authority in the country should contribute by providing vouchers and setting aside units for the homeless.
In 2007, Houston instituted a privately funded Rapid Re-Housing program for single homeless men and women, which operates about 25 units. It provides housing and services for just three months — one way of trying to reach more people with limited resources.
"Case management is key to getting people to stay off the streets. Once you get them into housing, you need to follow up with post-employment and case management, and there are just not enough dollars to do that," says HCDD director Richard Celli.
He suggests that more philanthropy is needed to meet the demand.
The city relies heavily on its charitieswhen it comes to dealing with all facets ofhomelessness.
"You have great nonprofits doing the work that [the government handles] in other cities," Love says.
But as demand for social services rises, donations to the organizations that administer them are dropping fast, from individuals and businesses alike — something Gerald Eckert of The Salvation Army calls the "double whammy" of the economic crisis. A 2007 study of the 30 most active city charities found that 25 percent of their budgets came from contributions and another 7 percent from foundations and corporate grants. Government money accounted for 51 percent, at more than $34 million; just $250,000 of that came from city funds. Houston is the only major city in Texas that doesn't sponsor a shelter.
"Where the problem is being solved is where there is local [government] investment that complements the HUD money," says John Rio, a homelessness consultant based in Houston.
White points out the delicate balancing act that is the city budget, whose expenses are dominated by things such as fire, public safety and transit, and says homeless services are best administered by charities that specialize in them instead of government bureaucrats. When asked why the city doesn't play a more visible role — as in San Antonio, which recently opened a massive shelter and services hub that was initiated by its mayor and has been funded so far with almost $20 million in city funds — White says he prefers to operate behind the scenes.
"I've always found that real leadership is giving credit and not taking credit," he says.
Two years ago, Houston issued its first comprehensive ten-year plan to address homelessness, a HUD requirement that brought it up to speed with much of the country. The city has steadily increased its share of competitive federal grant money since. Michael Moore, White's chief of staff, helps lead biweekly meetings to help coordinate the homeless effort. Initiatives such as Homeless Court, which allows tickets to be paid off with community service, and a free access bus that connects to the main social services, have addressed needs without expending major resources.
But the lack of city funding and control has left a network of loosely affiliated nonprofits to carry the homeless effort, and people unsure of where to turn for help. SEARCH, a primary coordinator of homeless services, has been turning people away on a daily basis.
"We're seeing more people that are newly homeless coming to our doors," says Thao Costis, its president and CEO. "We have to make sure that they don't lose faith in our ability to help them, or they don't prolong this time in homelessness. Which would make the problem worse for everyone."
On a weekday morning in the Museum District, the courtyard of Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church was a picture of confusion. The church serves free breakfast, then provides services such as mail delivery, bus tickets and referrals. By closing time at 9:15 a.m., the line was still long and growing. Christina Jones filled out a form for birth certificates for herself and her two children, then donated $5 to the cause, while the church pitched in $3. The man behind the counter then flipped the form to reveal a map, which he used to instruct Jones on where to go to receive the rest of the funds and then turn in the paperwork.
Jones wasn't confident it would work out — "Every time we go to these places, it's just a hassle or a waste of time," she says.
Unemployed since job cuts at the airport last spring, she has since moved into her grandmother's house, where her sister's family also lives. Life had become a series of long lines that often ended with requests for more paperwork or directions to a different agency.
"They're two steps from anything, and there's no place to start," says Bob Hawley, the man behind the counter. "The first rung is six feet beyond your reach."
Lorenzo couldn't sleep for his few weeks at Star of Hope. He spent the nights pacing the gray tiled floor of his new living room, trying to find a way out.
"I always worked, I always took care of family, and yet here I am, living in a shelter," he says.
For the first eight weeks of the program, he wasn't allowed to work, adding to his anxiety. Jasmine wasn't eating, and she was asking for things they'd left behind, which was everything they hadn't been able to carry with them on the bus — furniture, pictures, toys, a picture of Jasmine's ultrasound.
The items they salvaged are scattered around the apartment, which feels like a hospital waiting room. There are some pictures on a small bookshelf (they can't hang anything on the walls), including a prom photo of Lorenzo and Derly, and a stack of still-packed boxes rests in a corner by the door. Lorenzo and Derly sit together on their generic couch, with Jasmine asleep on their laps. Derly recently found out that she is three months pregnant; when she told Lorenzo, he ran outside to the water fountain.
Lorenzo can sleep now, because he has options. After an exhaustive search, he landed a job driving a Metro bus, which begins this week. He'll start part-time, without benefits, and work his way up. From there it will take another four years, he thinks, for the family to make it back to Alief.
Lorenzo steals a glance out the window, in the direction of his mother's house.
"Here I am," he says, more to himself than anyone else. "Back to where it all began."
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