Clients at the Beacon, a downtown day center for the homeless, received a strange visit during this afternoon's free lunch: attorney Andy Vickery, who held a press conference to announce that he and other lawyers will be representing both them and the Beacon.
Christ Church Cathedral, which runs the Beacon, was recently sued by a neighbor who alleges that the "derelicts" it assists have become a public nuisance, destroying the value of his business and property in the process. So the church has taken the unusual step of hiring a lawyer and public-relations firm to defend itself in and out of court.
"It's unique that a homeless organization would be sued. Especially during the season of giving and compassion," says the church's new PR man Jay Hickman.
Personal injury attorney Harry C. Arthur, who filed the suit, runs his practice and owns offices in the Marine Building across the street. He claims the 400 or so clients the Beacon attracts daily from Friday through Monday are scaring away tenants and clients.
"If this was Skid Row like in New York City, or Skid Row like in Los Angeles and you come down and feed these people, that's one thing. But this isn't where people normally stay and sleep. And the thing that attracts them is the church," Arthur tells Hair Balls.
According to Arthur and neighbor Deborah Keyser -- another lawyer who recently wrote a letter in support of the suit -- the Beacon's clients regularly sleep, litter, go to the bathroom and use drugs on and around their property, especially after the Beacon closes at night.
"No matter how good your intentions are, when you are affecting someone's peace -- that's what a nuisance is," Arthur says. "If all you do is feed them, you encourage them to stay on the street. And I'm afraid that may be kind of a little bit what's happening. They don't have any incentive to do anything."
Arthur says the problem has greatly increased over the past year as more and more people have arrived to access the Beacon's services. By summer, the Beacon was reporting a 20- to 30-percent increase in clients, which its director Tracy Burnett credited to the worsening economy. But Arthur believes the new clients are being bused in from elsewhere.
"I think they've always been homeless," he says. "I don't know that the economy has anything to do with it. ... I guess maybe a little."
The unemployment rate in Houston is now 8.6 percent, up from 5.3 percent at this time last year.
Anthony Love, director at the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, likens Arthur's actions -- which call for $250,000 and a court injunction to shut down the Beacon's services -- to "suing a hospital for having too many sick people" and says it could set a dangerous precedent for shutting down other homeless services in the city.
Says Vickery: "I guess the bottom line is that homelessness is a problem. It's a significant problem. But the Beacon didn't cause homelessness. And we're working like crazy to be part of the solution."