On Monday, all of the dozens of homeless people and vagrants disappeared from beneath the U.S. 59 underpass near Wheeler Station as the Houston Police Department ordered them away: The Texas Department of Transportation was constructing a fence around the area to keep people from wandering into the road—many of whom are kush users.
But with the site entirely empty by sundown, with bicycles and chairs and makeshift tents left behind, the obvious question soon became, well, where did all of them go?
It turns out, the mayor's office and homeless outreach organizations actually had no idea, and were not notified that TxDOT and HPD would be clearing out the area. The Houston Press's inquiry about the removal of all of the people underneath U.S. 59 was actually news to mayor's office representatives and several homelessness organizations, who frequently canvass the area to help the homeless obtain free, permanent housing and substance abuse assistance, given kush is a major problem in that specific area.
Marc Eichenbaum, the mayor's special assistant for homeless initiatives, said there appeared to be a breakdown in communication among the city, TxDOT and HPD, whom TxDOT asked to assist in asking the homeless people and loiterers to leave. While Eichenbaum was aware TxDOT was considering constructing the fence for safety purposes, he said the city was never told when this would happen, and he wishes he and the outreach teams could have better notified all of the people who camped out down there. He said less than half were homeless, and an estimated 25 or so have scattered to live on the streets elsewhere.
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"We're not exactly clear where the breakdown occurred, but this is clearly not how we wanted to handle the situation. Having not been involved, we have no idea if it was done the right way or the wrong way, and we always want to do it the right way: working with people and giving them notice and giving them options, to maximize impact and effectiveness in helping these vulnerable individuals."
A homeless woman named Sheronda, sitting on a curb near the Fiesta Mart just behind the underpass, told us that many of the homeless people who lived in that area did not relocate to a specific place but simply scattered throughout the city. She said they felt kicked out by police, and are unsure where to go as they wait for permanent housing. Sheronda said that homeless outreach teams have come out and met with her and her friends, and that she is simply on a waiting list.
While some have speculated that the city is simply sweeping away the homeless as the Super Bowl approaches, Eichenbaum maintains that over the past four years the city has been working to find housing and work for people stuck on the street. And those efforts are evident: Since the city launched The Way Home initiative, more than 8,000 homeless people have been permanently housed, including 3,300 who were chronically homeless and 4,920 who were veterans, essentially wiping out veteran homelessness, city officials have said.
Eichenbaum said that outreach efforts have surged over the last few months, and that while they will have to search for all the homeless people they had once known underneath U.S. 59, they'll find them again, and make sure they get the help that they need.