They were just poking out of their sleeping bags and tents, camped beneath the U.S. 59 underpass and nearby building awnings, when the dozens of volunteers came knocking.
The volunteers had set out early, before the sun had even risen, to find as many homeless people as possible in the area surrounding the Fiesta Mart in Midtown, near Wheeler Station. The ground was damp from rainfall, and the cardboard some slept on seemed a thin shield against the uncompromising pavement beneath. The volunteers approached them delicately, like moms waking teenage sons for school, and were careful not to startle them, but got straight to the point nonetheless: How, in any way, can we help?
“The purpose of today is to find out who these people are and what they need to get off the street — today,” Marc Eichenbaum, the mayor's special assistant for homeless initiatives, told a large group of volunteers in the grocery store parking lot. “If they say they just need a job, we can help them with that today.”
The highly coordinated homeless outreach effort was one of the city's biggest yet, with more than 60 volunteers and a dozen organizations present and working together at once. There were mental health professionals, Houston Health Department workers, volunteers assessing people for free, permanent housing and representatives from the Income Now program, which seeks to immediately find work for the unemployed based on their current skill set. All of those volunteers offered assistance on the spot — some people were even driven to shelters or to their appointments with doctors or job counselors within the hour.
Just as the sun came up, a volunteer with a clipboard approached a woman who had just crawled out of her sleeping bag and lit a morning cigarette. The woman, Rochelle Franks, said she had been homeless for two years, and had recently been out of the hospital after a blood transfusion: She was severely anemic, she said, and suffering from a too-large heart. She was also schizophrenic and bipolar, and said things had gotten worse after her mother — the nationally known and respected Harriet Ball, founder of the KIPP charter schools — died in 2011.
When the volunteer asked whether she had any children, Franks, who has four, started to cry.
“It's going to be okay, babe,” the curly-haired volunteer told her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
Within moments, housing assessors and doctors were called over to get Franks the assistance she needed. She had been trying to find housing, but that got harder after a thief swept through her belongings and stole her birth certificate and ID. The volunteers could help. Without health insurance, she had only been going to the hospital for emergencies. The doctors could help with that, too: They made Franks a 10 a.m. appointment on the spot, to get her checked out and back on track to receive psychiatric and heart medication she needs to stay healthy.
Eichenbaum said that of 20 homeless people surveyed shortly before Monday's outing, 100 percent self-identified as mentally ill.
“It shows there's a severe need [for mental health services],” Eichenbaum said. “For a lot of these individuals, there's a big gap in mental illness services that either causes people to end up homeless on the streets, or they develop it once they're on the streets and it makes it very difficult for us to help them to emerge off the streets and become stable.”
Monday's outreach efforts were part of a more long-term, citywide initiative called The Way Home. Since 2012, the City of Houston has found permanent housing for more than 3,300 chronically homeless people and more than 4,920 homeless veterans (which officials say is essentially all of them), reducing homelessness in Houston by 57 percent. The Way Home has stressed thinking outside the box and moving away from stringent rules that deter homeless people from wanting help (e.g., that those who refuse to give up drinking are ineligible for housing help). Instead, as Eichenbaum told the Houston Press Monday, it's about taking a holistic approach to ending homelessness: identifying people's core needs — the root cause of their homelessness — then connecting them with the right services.
For the next week, outreach volunteers plan to come to the area three times a day to make sure they do not miss a single person who may need services. Volunteers the Press spoke with said this wasn't about just making contact with people, giving them a business card, then checking back in later to see if they've thought about help — but having a sense of urgency.
One homeless man ran up to Eichenbaum to tell him he had run into his case manager under U.S. 59, happy to know the case manager had not forgotten about him. He had already been assessed for housing, but because there is a waiting list, Eichenbaum was wondering: What about tonight? Where will he sleep tonight?
“That's where I sleep,” the man told him, pointing to the same awning Rochelle Franks was sleeping under.
“Not for much longer,” Eichenbaum replied, and then he dialed for the team that would take the man to a shelter, on the spot.