Houston's Hidden Homeless Live Under Bridges, in the Shadows, Out of Sight and Mind

A low, animal-like howl begins to rise from under the Main Street bridge along Buffalo Bayou. Through the eerie darkness, the reflective glint of countless eyes gives the feeling of being watched.

The howl ends in a chuckle. Percy Lyons is calling his cats home.

And they come from everywhere, responding to his howl with earnest meows of their own as they run, dart and hop across the dirt floor of the makeshift home.

This is all part of the daily routine under the bridge, and it has been for the past two years. This is where 16 cats and Lyons live.

It's apparent Lyons has been here awhile. A green military cot is tucked safely behind the jutted cement barrier, and the portable propane stove is stashed in the drainpipe for safekeeping. Every nook and cranny of the bridge has a purpose, down to the hollow cement blocks that enforce the structure's integrity. They serve as makeshift shelves, with a shirt here, a pair of shoes there.

He's made the earthen space as much of a home as he can, but no amount of staging can mask the dampness that hangs in the air. The home under the bridge is wet — very wet. The sun never reaches this far up.

"They call me the fisherman," says Lyons, grabbing his rod and reel earnestly. "I try to be independent out here. I don't want to cause a scene, so I just try to survive on my own."

He's a master of his craft, catching carp and gar, or even a catfish or two if he's lucky. He makes sure to save a few scraps for the rest of the bayou bridge residents, too. After all, Pocahontas and Seymour have come to expect their share.

This is survival in its most basic form, and Lyons is not alone in his struggle to find shelter. Authorities estimate that Houston ranks fourth in the country in terms of homeless numbers, with more than 40,000 people per year on the streets (counting the homeless is as harrowing a task as it sounds, and the count is done only once a year). That's as many people on the streets of Houston as Austin and Dallas's homeless populations combined.

Upwards of 6,000 people are homeless in the Bayou City on any given night — and there aren't nearly enough beds available for all of them to have a safe place to sleep.

An accompanying issue is not only citywide, but statewide. Identification is key to acquiring any housing, even temporary. Theft on the street and in shelters runs rampant, with identification often being the target of such thefts. It leaves a vulnerable population to navigate the bureaucratic red tape, often without the proper paperwork to replace it.

Couple the lack of identification with triggers like job loss, a criminal record, mental health problems or substance abuse issues, and homelessness becomes a repetitive cycle.

"Kush. It's the bane of my existence out here. Where we used to see heroin addicts and meth users, we're now seeing kush."

As Houston Police Department Sergeant Steven Wick picks up the colorful empty package that's been discarded on the bank of the bayou, his disgust for synthetic marijuana, or "kush," as it's known on the street, is apparent.

As a founding member of the HPD's Homeless Outreach Team, he is one of four officers tasked with helping to respond to the city's homeless population. The team members focus on needs rather than complaints or ordinances, and they play the role of provider as much as, if not more than, patroller. It seems to be working.

Until the formation of the HPD Homeless Outreach Team, the police department's main method for addressing homelessness was to hand out tickets. That approach turned out to be a lot of effort with little return, financial or otherwise.

"When you ticket the homeless, they don't pay it. It costs hundreds of dollars in manpower and time, and it's not effective," says Wick. "We had to find another solution. There needed to be an intermediate solution for people on the street, one that was a better use of resources and provisions."

Wick rides his bike along the banks of the bayou five days a week. "We try to build relationships," he says. "Everyone on the streets is broken in some way. It's our job to find the reason and help them in some way."

He and his team have been working with the city's homeless population for three years, searching the banks of the bayous and homeless camps for people unwilling, or perhaps unable, to navigate the city's social services on their own. They say they've been successful in helping hundreds of people get off, and stay off, the streets.

"We can't help anyone who doesn't want help," Wick says. "But if people are ready, you can help them get off the streets."