Life on the Sunny Side
She wrapped herself in plastic and lay down carefully on the bed. It was the only thing she could figure out to do. They'd taken her to the room earlier, told her to stick around. And Brenda, someone who hears many voices and sounds, somehow heard theirs through all the static and decided that if they told her to be there, she'd just better be accepting.
Accepting of her good fortune, see, because after living out on the street under the Pierce Elevated for weeks, months, years, she was one of the lucky 172 people rounded up and farmed out to satellite motels at the request of the authorities on March 14.
She didn't have to go in the SEARCH van. They'd given her options. She could have stayed where she was and watched the workers begin fencing in the lot for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. She could have gone to residential treatment. The choice she made was to go with nine others, all men, to a particular motel where each one was to get a room. Independent living on someone else's dime.
Rumors had been circulating for weeks that they were going to be relocated, but nothing happened. Still, in the dispute between Metro and the residents of nearby 2016 Main over who has the rights to the parking there, the homeless were definitely the odd man out.
They'd even been shown names of places that might become their new homes. Activists had come to help them protest, and it looked like things had stalled.
Delayed but not discarded, the mobilization began as caseworkers assembled at the site around 5 a.m. that Monday. At the last minute, some of the motels opted out of the agreement.
And that's how Brenda and others ended up at the Stallion Motel at the corner of Tangerine and Mallory, in the Sunnyside part of south Houston. They were offloaded at a motel that hadn't been on anyone's list.
"We were supposed to go to Cullen Inn," said 46-year-old James, one of the homeless. "They got lost on the way over here."
A low-slung building with a faint pink glow, the Stallion is a motel whose better days are long past. Exposed wires run along its fuchsia trim. The punched-in doors to some rooms carry the heel marks of anger or desire; it's impossible to say. Room No. 3 is by far the best, even has a different color on its door, and the motel's new residents say that's where the prostitute ran her tricks in 15-minute intervals. Of course, that may be nothing more than a rumor, bringing some sense of life to a ghost town.
The Stallion had been scheduled for "remodeling," according to its fill-in manager, Steven Nand, an immigrant from the Fiji Islands. Instead, it graciously opened its doors to take in the ten homeless guests, three of whom booked it out of there the first day, the remaining seven say.
Rooms are small, and even the mirrors running along the walls fail in the attempt to double their apparent size. TVs don't work in all the rooms. There are no phones. Doled-out bus tokens are the group's lifeline to downtown.
Nearby are small churches, empty lots and ranch-style brick homes. This is a community struggling to come back, and neatly manicured lawns are intermingled with homes covered in burglar bars, wire fencing and concertina wire.
The group is here for 30 days, courtesy of $190,000 collected by the Coalition for the Homeless from the city of Houston and private donors. The Stallion Motel has been deemed better than life under an overpass.
So when the rain started up and got louder and louder, and when it began pouring into her room, because the room was missing most of a ceiling, Brenda stayed.
She wrapped herself in plastic and lay down on the bed and stared up at the rafters as the rain came down around her. And waited to see what would happen the next day and the next.
What happened was that Todd Williams, a Disciples of Christ minister at New Covenant Christian Church, got a call from a caseworker assigned to the homeless at the Stallion, saying he needed to see what she was seeing.
A somewhat unlikely coalition has formed between Williams, a white, openly gay minister, and the nonprofit Families Under Urban and Social Attack, with its predominately African-American staffing and clientele. At Christmas, for instance, Williams's church, whose congregation itself is 60 percent homeless, helped fill 100 stockings for FUUSA's clients.
He sent e-mails to people who could get his message to the right people. In a scathing assessment, he questioned the motives of the city and Metro evicting people from under the bridge just so property could be leased for contract parking.
"The hotel, an infested building with a leaking roof, no heat, no hot water, no food or facilities to prepare a meal located in an obscure area of the city, provides little or no hope "
Residents were removed from their access to medical treatment and a way to clean their clothes.
Or as one of the residents, James, told the Press: "My commode wouldn't even flush." He got that fixed, and ended up taking 90-minute showers, washing himself and his clothes at the same time. Hanging out his wash on the back fence line put spots on the clothes from the rusty nails in the wood.
Dressed in a bathrobe on a recent morning while his clothes dried, he walked the motel's courtyard, pulling a card to show that he did have prospects of getting hired on at a construction site. "I got to stay on top of it, but I don't have a phone here."
He'd missed any food the night before, came back too late, and even though he tried to wave the van down, it wouldn't stop.
Williams's e-mail was not well received by Earl Hatcher, executive director of the Houston SRO (single room occupancy) Housing Corporation. He said it was not factual.
Hatcher, who was the first executive director of SEARCH in 1988 before moving on to the Housing Corporation of Greater Houston, thought Williams was a well-meaning Johnny-come-lately who might be better off applying his efforts elsewhere. The average homeless person is a 45-year-old male, not the homeless youth that Williams sees in the Montrose, he said.
No one was forced to move in the March 14 relocation, Hatcher insisted, and whatever new conditions they found themselves in had to be better than living out in the open. He knows this was just a temporary solution, he said, but this buys them some time. About 55 people out of the group already went into residential treatment programs, he said.
"This was not a smoke-and-mirror plan," Hatcher said. "It is true Metro had leased that property from the city and was anxious to fence it in. The Houston Police Department did not go in there and run anyone off. This was a humanitarian thing.
"This was well planned and carried out by people with experience."
Still, the Stallion residents were complaining they were isolated from downtown soup kitchens and food drop-offs. Told they would be receiving two meals a day, they instead got a once-a-day delivery at 6 p.m. -- and better be there or there would be no food.
Accompanying their dinner meal was a separate bag containing a muffin or roll. Officials called this a continental breakfast. For most of the homeless it was dessert.
Anthony Love, head of the Coalition for the Homeless for Houston/Harris County and organizer of the relocation effort, said he had to scare up a caterer at the last minute when the groups who had been feeding the homeless under the bridge decided not to follow them to the hotels. The caterer, he said, was providing the meals at cost, so he was trying to help her out by cutting down the number of runs.
Nicole Caldwell, a member of Food Not Bombs, agreed her group met one time with a representative of SEARCH, who asked them to continue the same food-sharing efforts they've been doing for the past five years under the Pierce Elevated.
Group members said they didn't see how that would work, she said. "A lot of our members show up on bikes with food in our backpacks." It didn't seem feasible to carry this ten or more miles out to the motels in South Houston, Pasadena and Channelview. Also, the city and other nonprofit groups are funded. Food Not Bombs exists solely on the efforts of its members, many of them students or part-time workers.
"This is a new thing for us," Love said. "There's been a lot of growing pains and lessons learned."
Williams's e-mail finally made it to Love himself.
And by mid-week last week, Anthony Love said he too found the motel unsuitable.
"They're being moved even as we speak," he said, adding he had no idea conditions were so bad "until I got that note from Reverend Williams" and checked it out for himself. Apparently no one from the city had taken a close look at the facility earlier.
The caseworkers from FUUSA would continue to work with them, to try to get these people into jobs or programs before the funding ran out.
Shawn Wilson, 38, is a poster child for the enormity of that task.
He's been in prison three times for felony drug convictions. "Crack cocaine each time," he said, biting off each word sharply. He's held only one job that he got for himself, a stint at a car wash in McAllen in the Valley. He lasted 30 days. "Well, it was hot and they wanted you working all the time. And I didn't speak Spanish."
Using terms reflecting the years of group counseling he's had while in prison -- "My problems are drugs, alcohol and a lack of self-esteem" -- Shawn said he got out of a halfway house in San Antonio, but headed back to Houston.
"It was the Spanish again. I can't speak Spanish," he said ruefully. "See, if you have a top skill, they'll hire you anywhere. But if they're looking for a ditch digger and that's all I'm qualified to be, well, they want a Spanish-speaking ditch digger."
He's looking for FUUSA to teach him how to apply for a job. Asked if he has any support, any family, he laughed. "A lovely family. I'm running from them."
Anthony Love said he never tells anyone that there's going to be a happy ending for everyone, especially those considered the chronic homeless. They route most former prisoners into Project Rio, which is designed to find them jobs, he said.
But even for Project Rio, someone like Don Robertson is going to be a tough sell. Sporting the kind of muscles acquired at a fancy gym or a prison yard, Robertson said he's spent 20 years in prison for murder. "I killed a friend over a girl."
Prospects are few for the 53-year-old. "I can't get a job at McDonald's," he said. He was staying at the Salvation Army for a while, but it has a limit of seven days, he said. He was at the Star of Hope men's shelter, but he missed curfew while working at the rodeo and was barred from staying there for 30 days. He had a job working for a landscaper but left because he said the guy was cheating him on his pay.
He doesn't like where he is -- "all the food is still downtown" -- and claimed they gave him only two bus tokens to last the week, so he couldn't get back and forth. Love said each person was given 14 tokens.
Robertson said he had no choice. He figures he's way out there because it's the cheapest place the agencies could find. Asked what's going to happen next in his life, he said, "It's all up to the people who brung us here. We need to see what they do next."
The morning after the Stallion Motel's occupants had been moved, there was a call from Love. Guess what, when caseworkers went there last night, everyone refused to go. "The guys were kind of like, no, we don't want to move," Love said.
Other than having no phones, they said they were happy, Love said.
"We told them if they ever decide they want to move, to let us know. The choice is theirs. We don't force the issue."
Hearing the news, Williams was flummoxed, but promised to continue to bring additional food, underwear and socks through the Easter weekend.
Just for grins, the Press decided to make a late-morning revisit to the motel, to ask about the change of heart.
Turned out it wasn't that they liked the Stallion Motel so much. It was that the alternative was worse.
"Because they wanted to take us to a house with three men to a room," Shawn said. "Some house on Wayside, they didn't say exactly where. Three men to a room.
"We just accepted what we already had."
Brenda's room is filled with four or five TVs, which she talks about making money on once she finds someone to fix them, but which everyone else says were just dumped on her. The TVs have no picture, but they're loud, if garbled, when she gets them all going.
"You're in for it now," Shawn muttered as she began flipping them on.
She's lived in Houston for all of her 49 years, Brenda said, and although she talks at different points about family members -- a dead son, a mother who sold dope, a daughter, a nephew who liked her -- she seems permanently disconnected. She wears layers upon layers of clothing and has converted her room into even more of a rat's nest, with Chef Boyardee ravioli cans ranging about her bed.
Somewhere among all those layers she's hidden a cell phone. Whether this is one the women's shelter hands out to call 911 can't be immediately determined. She shows off pretty rings and talks about the people in the neighborhood "running from the laws all night."
Shawn is philosophical. "I'm sleeping in a bed. I'm not using a restroom upside the fence. Metro isn't kicking my feet, telling me to get up."
The homeless aren't the only ones whose lives -- at least temporarily -- have changed.
Food Not Bombs is researching new sites for food delivery, Caldwell said. They want to make sure that wherever they move to is going to last a while. "We don't want to become as transient as the people we're trying to serve."
Hatcher is philosophical as well. At the end of the 30 days, he said, "Some are going to be in treatment, some are going to be in long-term housing, and some will be back on the street."
As for Williams, he remains an unrelenting thorn in the city's side. In his most recent e-mail to Love, he expressed support for the effort. But he just couldn't stop himself from asking that one more question:
"Do you believe that after having visited the motel, that the Stallion Motel currently meets city codes to even be open?"
Out of 172 people, ten were unlucky enough to end up at the Stallion. Seven remain, weighing their chances. They could have packed themselves into a residential house, three to a room, no privacy. Not an option anyone would want.
The coalition says the homeless have free will and it has done all it can. Williams believes it could do more, and certainly he's right. How about one more try in all of Houston to find a place to store these people until the city can figure out what to do with them?
Because one thing the Stallion Motel shows us for sure: Life away from the Pierce Elevated is no walk in the park.
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