Every day and every night, Cheryl Ann Young's vast ceiling fills with the sounds of faint thunder.
Over her head is the constant 60-mph rumble of semis and sedans atop the concrete roadway of a U.S. 59 overpass, shortly before it becomes the Southwest Freeway. Young's only trees are sequoia-thick bridge support pillars. In a front yard "borrowed" from state right-of-way, this isolated figure watches more traffic flowing north along Main Street toward the trendy new nightclubs of a revitalized downtown.
Everywhere is the urban hallmark of big-city life -- pulsating movement: autos, places to go, places to leave, people headed for shopping and holiday events.
But the action around her only accentuates the obvious for Young. She's going nowhere. Young is homeless. And she's handicapped.
Last August the woman left Ben Taub hospital in a wheelchair and managed to make it to this gritty island under the freeway. The soaring concrete canopy is her only shelter. It partially shields her from rain, but Young isn't even sure why she selected this place to call home.
"I've been asking myself that question," she says with a grimace as a passing car chases dust into her eyes. "I just rolled myself up here one day and been here ever since."
Young, whose parents are dead, hinges her last hope for family help on an aunt living just outside Houston. She says the relative and the members of her household know Young's plight but haven't offered to take her in.
"They hear me crying. I know they do. But still nobody has come out here to get me. I can't get them to understand the situation I'm in," Young says. "I guess when you got what you need, what anybody else needs don't matter."
But bitterness is not a companion of this 12-year veteran of homelessness. She seems oddly at peace with her life under the overpass. The constant traffic and the frequent screeching of the Metro buses don't bother her, she says.
She doesn't carry a sign asking for food or money, although the wheelchair itself, loaded down with saddlebaglike bundles of belongings, makes a stronger statement to those who notice her. Young doesn't beg. She just wants to make it through every day -- and be able to take a bath once in a while.
"I guess I just miss being able to do for myself," she says.
She sits with her black hooded jacket and navy blue sleeping bag, which she asks a visitor to work up around her legs to ward off the chill of the night. Her only company is the trash surrounding her, the occasional passerby and the strains of country music drifting from the headphones of her Walkman tape player.
While she can be articulate, Young can also ramble and backtrack into recollections that are hazy at best about her earlier years and medical problems. Even getting her last name can be a challenge.
"Isn't Cheryl enough?" she asks bluntly when pressed for her full name. Her age is out of the question.
As a teen, she went to night school at Yates High School to get her diploma in about 1966, so she is in her early fifties.
Never married, she relocated later to a rural life in north Texas with her mother. After her mom died, Young returned to Houston to try to find work, ending up in a laborer's job at a hospital. She says she injured her back but the hospital ignored her doctor's recommendation to transfer her to lighter duty. She says heavy hospital machinery fell over on her, causing serious injuries -- "I was even spitting up blood."
She moved on to odd jobs. A friend signed her on at a sewing company, where she cut patterns and helped make uniforms for $27.50 a day. Wages were as bad -- when she could get paid -- for another job as a cook for a halfway house. And she says her health steadily deteriorated until she found herself without work or lodging.
But Young still had the use of her legs and feet back then. She says she settled into a fairly comfortable existence in an empty building. The owner knew she stayed there but didn't mind, she's quick to point out.
Health problems worsened. She says she thought she had aggravated a muscle in her back. She got medication, but then she "lost control of everything."
"All of a sudden, I started feeling a lot of pain in my legs even though I could still walk," she says, eyeing her wheelchair. "Finally I had to go to the hospital, and they stuck me in one of these. I'm still not used to it."
Young says one of her treating doctors speculated that her condition had come from a bad reaction to drugs.
"I don't know," she says of her disability. "It's a weird feeling. I gotta get used to the idea."
Young insists a hospital caseworker sought shelter for her at several places, including the Star of Hope, but she was turned away. She says they told her the places were not equipped to handle wheelchairs.
Shelter operators strongly deny those claims, saying the disabled are not refused if they are self-sufficient, not needing special assistance. As for wheelchair-accessible facilities, Star of Hope representative Marilyn Fountain explains that the shelter's own director of transitional living is a paraplegic who works in a wheelchair.
However accessible the accommodations are at area shelters, officials don't doubt Young's account of being turned away. On most days, particularly as the weather gets cooler, there is no shelter space for more than half of the city's 10,000 homeless.
And advocates for the homeless agree that this woman living under the overpass symbolizes the very prevalent problems facing the disabled trying to escape the streets.
Tony Koosis delivers the basic figures that frustrate efforts by his Houston Center for Independent Living to help the handicapped poor:
For the overall population, unemployment has dipped to near 5 percent. It is about 70 percent for the disabled who are willing and able to work. Koosis cites Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County findings that 30 percent of those living on the streets or in shelters are partially or totally disabled.
A coalition study of emergency shelters this year reported that 14 percent of the women were disabled, as were 52 percent of the men.
The University of Houston School of Public Policy reported in 1996 that 34 percent of the homeless people surveyed cited health problems as the primary factor for their homelessness.
Koosis, peer support services director for HCIL, says his agency and others try to help, "but it's extremely hard due to lack of accessibility." "And," he says, "if the person needs personal assistance, it becomes even more difficult, because most centers require that you be self-sufficient, and they don't want the responsibility."
Demand continues to outpace resources. While overall shelter space has increased by 30 percent over the past eight years, agencies often had no vacancies last year. Calls to the coalition for information nearly doubled between 1997 and 1998. And federal funding has been reduced for homeless services.
Coalition executive director Pam Williford explains that the Inner Loop revitalization and housing boom boosted rents on what used to be affordable housing, pushing more people into the street. Health care for the homeless is the over-riding issue, and disability is the reason many become homeless in the first place, she says.
The SEARCH agency offers various types of assistance to homeless people seeking help, including its Baylor College of Medicine clinic. However, a survey last February showed that 51 percent of the clients had to be turned away because of limited capacity.
Officials say there is cause for optimism, as additional single-room-occupancy housing will open next year. And Williford says the coalition and others want to form an umbrella group -- Houston's Healthcare for the Homeless -- to improve services and coordination for the disabled.
As for Cheryl Ann Young, SEARCH helps refill her prescriptions and has been trying for several weeks to assist her in other ways, including lodging. "She doesn't seem to want to come into structured programs," says executive director Sandy Kessler.
In telling of reports from staff about the cantankerous woman under the bridge, Kessler is diplomatic: "She has been very difficult to work with.Her disposition is not wonderful."
"Sometimes people get on my nerves, but I don't have a choice but to be out here," says Young, taking a puff off a Saratoga Menthol. Her interviewer has just returned from a Young-requested shopping trip to the nearby Fiesta for cigarettes, batteries for her Walkman and a few bottles of Coca-Cola.
The few minutes' walk to that grocery store on San Jacinto could take her at least half an hour one way. And venturing out requires her to remove her belongings from the sides of her wheelchair. Besides the physical challenge of making the journey, there's the worry that someone will steal her few prized possessions, especially her Country Weekly magazine.
Another apparently homeless person, in long white hair and blue jeans, walks by, and the two nod at each other. "Hey," she calls out to him. "Can I ask you to get me a Coke, please?"
"Sure." Young hands him a dollar that she says some woman gave her and motions to the Days Inn. He returns with the soft drink and disappears into the night. As it turns out, the semi-stranger has rolled her to the store in the past and, she says, "watched my things so I could use the bathroom."
Young taps the metal arm of her wheelchair with her dirty fingernails in telling of her new problems with mobility.
"So many places don't have ramps for wheelchairs, and this thing gets hard to roll. And try catching a bus with one of these -- it ain't easy.
"It don't feel good to get stuck somewhere in this thing and have to wait on someone to help me."
That assistance comes in unexpected ways.
A middle-aged couple pulls their car over to the curb. The man asks if she has room for a turkey.
"Look around me," she replies, pointing to her bedsheet-filled belongings draped from the wheelchair. "What do you think?"
Undeterred, the man continues. "Well, do you have room for some money?" His question provokes a smile that breaks out on her unlined face. "I think so." He advances to deliver a fistful of change before driving off.
Young got her biggest treat on Thanksgiving Day. A stranger drove up and paid for a night's lodging at the nearby Days Inn. According to the motel staff, various benefactors pay for Young to have a night's stay there about once a month. But it isn't exactly a scene of an awestruck invalid bashfully entering comparatively opulent quarters, the stuff of sanitized toilets and color TV.
Staffers provide her with the medical room rate of $45 -- a $14 discount -- and brace themselves for anything.
Once she checks into the room, there are often repeated calls to the front desk, reporting that someone is knocking on her door. They receive her stream of complaints and commentary, often in person, for prolonged periods.
Even the housekeeping crew knows when the guest has been Young. They have to do extra cleaning, they say, to remove the left-behind dirt and occasional smells.
"She really isn't that friendly," one staff member says. "But we manage."
Young displays none of that behavior in a series of interviews. There is a slight odor of urine, but she seems obsessed with hygiene.
Asked what she would like for Christmas, she leans over and first mentions a walker.
"That would be good. And some soap from Clinique. If I give you some money -- I know Foley's has a special -- I could get one of those gifts, too, that comes with all sorts of stuff."
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Her mind seems to drift into the dream. "You'd only have to put in a little bit."
Then she interrupts herself for the music, the Walkman music that she says comforts her. "Wait, I like this song." She turns up the volume on her headphones, now around her neck. "It's Alan Jackson," she announces.
The conversation, even about Christmas gifts, is suddenly over.
Yule lights flash in the far distance from this desolate campsite, but there is no miracle on Main Street coming tonight for Cheryl Ann Young. She returns the headphones to her ears and closes her eyes, as the music drives away the thunder from her concrete ceiling above.