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Homeless in Suburbia

Michael Lyddon lies slumped over a school desk, his face smooshed into the crook of his right elbow. With his teacher's blessing, the 17-year-old junior at Austin High School in Fort Bend Independent School District spends his last period of the day napping.

When the bell rings he staggers outside, squints bleary-eyed into the winter sun and fumbles for his cell phone. "Steve-O!" he shouts. "Do you think I can come over?" With that settled, Michael trolls the school parking lot to hitch a ride from one of the many students whose parents gifted them shiny new cars for their sweet sixteens. "What can I say," he shrugs. "They're lucky. I wish I was them."

Michael is homeless. He constantly needs help but hates to ask for any. If he was in an urban setting like Houston, he actually would have a much better chance of getting support than in the affluent community in which he lives.


Michael Lyddon

Recent studies detail a burgeoning homeless population in suburban Fort Bend County, where there are no emergency shelters, no soup kitchens and no specialized housing for homeless youths or the mentally ill. There is also no bus system to move people around.

But several elected officials insist there is no homeless problem, instead touting the county's national reputation as among the fastest growing and most livable.

Three-term Katy mayor Doyle Callender compares his city to the sleepy TV town of Mayberry, a place where residents know their neighbors and look out for them. "We take care of our own," Callender says. "There is no homelessness in Katy -- none whatsoever."

Two-term Sugar Land mayor David Wallace says his city, the county's largest, does not need a homeless shelter. The same goes for public transit, he says. "Why create something that nobody would use?" he asks.

Social workers in Fort Bend tell a different story, of extended families crammed into trailers with no running water. And school social workers say they are overwhelmed by rising numbers of teenagers from even the most upscale communities camping out on sidewalks, park benches and school campuses.

So often the kids get sent on to Houston, where there's generally a waiting list and no room.

In September 2006, Dr. Cache Steinberg released the first-ever comprehensive report on homelessness in Fort Bend County. A senior researcher at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work, Steinberg estimates as many as 9,300 county residents become homeless each year -- a number that far exceeds what even front-line social workers had anticipated.

A network of local churches and social-service agencies funded the $35,000 study in an attempt to identify the neediest segment of the population and to win over skeptics. "Our own church leaders don't recognize this as a problem," says Tracy Schindler, coordinator of the social concerns ministry at St. Laurence Catholic Church in Sugar Land.

According to Steinberg's report, every year hundreds of teenagers become homeless in Fort Bend County -- which comprises 875 square miles, 18 cities and nine unincorporated communities southwest of Houston. Many are classified as unaccompanied youths since they have no legal guardians. Some, such as Michael, are runaways fleeing from abusive family situations. Others are throwaways, booted from their homes for everything from getting pregnant to coming out as gay, failing a class or simply turning 18.

The suburban homeless are largely hidden. They're more apt to sleep in cars or double up with friends than push grocery carts downtown. And the few existing programs to help them are severely limited. For instance, shelters serving domestic violence or sexual assault victims deny aid to hundreds each year due to lack of space, and families needing Section 8 housing assistance are put on a two-year waiting list.

Fort Bend Family Promise, a two-year-old transitional shelter program based in Missouri City, provides housing for four families, or up to 14 people, for three to six months. The program depends on the participation of several area churches, which convert their Sunday school classrooms into makeshift bedrooms. But to be eligible, a family must own a car, parents must be employed and put their kids in day care, which is often cost-prohibitive, and all applicants must pass a criminal background check and cannot participate if they have mental health or substance abuse problems.

"The eligibility rules did not make sense and seemed an unnecessary burden," Steinberg concluded in her study, which until now has received no media attention. "As one woman stated, 'If I had a car and income, I wouldn't need help.'"

Steinberg's 60-page report devotes just a single paragraph to the issue of unaccompanied youths, though it was these few words that caused the biggest stir among local social workers. Steinberg says that two of the county's seven school districts served more than 1,800 homeless youths and their families during the 20052006 school year. Since many were hurricane victims, she adds that during more typical years the school districts have between 90 and 125 homeless youths, with just one or two caseworkers to assist them.

"We were shocked," says Sheena Timberlake of Texana Center, a Rosenberg-based nonprofit that provides services for the mentally ill. "We knew all about the adult homeless population but had no idea there were so many kids in this situation."

The Houston Independent School District also employs just two caseworkers to oversee its homeless student population, estimated at 4,500. This figure is somewhat deceptive since about half are Katrina and Rita evacuees who remain classified as homeless even if they have found stable housing. HISD receives $225,000 a year in federal grants for its homeless population, which amounts to $50 per child, to cover everything from school supplies to clothes, bus tokens, field trips and brochures advertising services. The funding falls far short, leading some teachers and counselors to dip into their own wallets. "It is overwhelming," says Marsha Jones, an HISD social worker for 13 years. "Kids cannot concentrate academically if the most basic needs are not met. We do the bare minimum."

But even this is better than what goes on in Fort Bend, where the school systems are widely perceived as affluent and free of the problems generally associated with inner cities. And that false perception creates the biggest barrier to helping suburban at-risk kids. "Some out here feel there's no need for social-work services, like we don't have problems," says Paulette Bray, a social worker at FBISD. Bray and others warn that unless there are funding increases for social-service programs, the problems will intensify as the school districts carry out their ambitious expansion plans. FBISD, for instance, plans to add 20 schools and 32,000 students by 2015. Katy ISD will grow by 25 schools and 38,000 students during the same period.

Joan Arasteh, who has worked with at-risk kids in KISD for 15 years, scribbles on her desk calendar the name of every troubled teen referred to her office. Some months have more than 500 names. So far this school year Arasteh has received 3,320 referrals, which she says more accurately represents the at-risk population than the 100 or so that the school district officially classifies as homeless. "The district's numbers don't accurately reflect the situation," she says. "We come across at-risk kids on a daily basis, and there are tons more we don't even know about."

Identifying homeless teens can be challenging since many are too embarrassed by their situation to seek help or fear they will be returned to unsafe family environments. Some kids resort to couch-surfing or squatting in abandoned buildings while others have been known to sleep overnight on school property in student equipment rooms or sports stadiums, according to Karen Jennings, homeless liaison for 11 years at FBISD. "They don't have anywhere out here to go," Jennings says. "We have nowhere to send them."

According to Steinberg, Fort Bend County's mantra regarding homeless youths has been to ship them off to Houston. But there's no public transportation linking the two counties, and Houston's shelters are frequently filled to capacity. Still, some suburban teens find their way to Covenant House Texas, the city's lone emergency shelter for unaccompanied youths, located in Montrose. "Katy kids always stick out with their nice backpacks, neatly packed," says executive director Ronda Robinson, who works in Houston and lives in Missouri City. "They don't have a clue when they get out here."

There's no guarantee teens will be admitted for the typical 30-day stay since Covenant House requires parental consent to enter its shelter. An exception is made only if the minor alleges abuse, in which case a call is made to Children's Protective Services. School districts likewise do not contact CPS unless the student is of elementary school age or alleges abuse. It's an unspoken rule that CPS considers teenagers even as young as 13 able to care for themselves, according to Roderick Martin, a ten-year veteran social worker at FBISD. "There has to be an injury to the head or sexual abuse," Martin says, "or CPS is not gonna do anything."

The federal government encourages school districts to undergo sensitivity training for all employees, including bus drivers, who pick up homeless kids from shelters first and drop them off last to protect their privacy. A 2004 U.S. Department of Education report advises: "If a district does implement a supplemental program exclusively for homeless children, such as a shelter-based evening tutoring program, it should not be called 'the homeless tutoring program' or the 'shelter tutoring program.' Instead, the district should use a name such as 'Discovery Club' or 'Homework Club' to avoid stigmatization."

This is taken a step further in the Katy district, where social workers are known as "student support specialists" and at-risk counselors are called "academic achievement specialists."

Yet all this sensitivity doesn't always translate to the classroom. Often, Bray says, it's the teachers who resist most strenuously when asked to help homeless students. Some chide the students for sleeping through class though the teens may have spent the night outdoors. "I hear teachers say it all the time," Bray says. "'Homeless? He don't look it.'"

Michael Lyddon is a big, strong, athletic kid. He stands 6'1" and weighs 187 pounds. The school's football coach asked him to join the team but he declined. Michael's laugh is really more of a roar. He smiles a ton, especially when he talks about what he has been through. He's easygoing because that's who he is. But it's also a survival tactic he has learned. After all, he can't afford to offend the small, loyal army of counselors, teachers, administrators, parents and friends that help him each day.

One thing Michael isn't is shy. The official story he has represented to teachers and caseworkers is that his speed-addicted mom bounced him around to more than a dozen schools in California when he was little and gave him a marijuana joint to smoke for Christmas when he was seven. And how in eighth grade he fled his mom's chaotic household, seeking a more stable environment with his dad in Pecan Grove, an upscale community just outside Sugar Land. But, Michael says, he quickly learned that his father had problems of his own after finding lighters that sparked huge flames stashed in the apartment. One night Dad pressured Son to try crack-cocaine and Michael was instantly addicted, his story goes. He stopped going to school and started stealing from friends and getting into fights. One drug-deal-gone-bad cost him two upper teeth. He eventually managed to quit the drugs but was illiterate when he enrolled in ninth grade. "I went into a class and put my head down and I passed," he says of his middle-school years.

Every homeless kid's story is unique, and many are plain brutal. "For a lot of them," says Jennings, "the kids are very mature and it's the parents who have the issues." Steinberg, the UH researcher, agrees: "They're not always delinquents; sometimes they have good reason to run away."

Adam, an 18-year-old senior at Kempner High School who did not want his actual name revealed, was attending Sugar Land Middle School when one morning he discovered his mother's unusually pale, clammy body hunched over her bed. She had overdosed on painkillers. Adam found his mom's suicide note, which instructed him to go live with his older sister. But she had a boyfriend who delighted in pinning him to the floor and whaling on his back. In tenth grade Adam started cutting, and he has the scars on his arms and back to prove it. Tired of getting beaten by his sister's boyfriend, Adam moved out to Katy to live with his eldest brother and enrolled at Morton Ranch High School. But the brothers clashed and eventually Adam got tossed.

He spent several days sleeping outside before his best friend's family took him in. He has lived with them for several months and follows their rules regarding curfew, homework and cleanliness. But the situation still feels temporary. "If I do something wrong, I don't know if I'm gonna be back on the street," he says. "They say they wouldn't do that, but it's a feeling I have inside me."

The National Center for Homeless Education reports more than half of unaccompanied youths report being physically abused at home, and more than one-third allege sexual abuse. Two-thirds say that at least one of their parents abuses drugs or alcohol. Once out of the home, they are frequently victimized. As many as half have been assaulted or robbed; one in ten runaways reports being raped. Juanita, an 18-year-old senior at George Bush High School who also did not want her real name used, was kicked out of her adoptive mother's house when she was 11 after an argument.

"One day I came home from school," she says, "and my stuff was piled up outside the door." She stayed with friends and extended family. Last year, she says, she was raped by a student who let her move into his family's home for a week. For several months Juanita has found some sense of normalcy and safety living with her best friend's family, who take her on outings to malls and restaurants. Few classmates know about her experiences. "I don't tell anybody because I don't want them to look at me different," she says. "And anyway, if you're trying to get rid of your past, why talk about it?"

For 33 years Dulles High School teacher Martha Wood opened her own house to students fleeing abuse, a practice that is increasingly less common due to fears of false allegations and lawsuits. Wood, who is 67 and retired from FBISD three years ago, housed dozens of teenagers. Some stayed one night, others four years. Referrals came from the school principal, counselors, teachers and the students themselves. "The abuse of some of them was absolutely unreal," she says, adding that two teens attempted suicide in her home. "There was such a need, and we had the room."

Michael's decision to leave home and stay with friends was embraced by FBISD social workers. So far this year he has shown some improvement, posting a good attendance rate and passing classes. He now reads at a seventh-grade level, and credits his progress to special-education teacher Adrienne Thompson, who knows all about his situation and sometimes lets him doze off in class but then pushes him harder the next day. "Some kids with all this money complain they have no PlayStation 3, no new BMW," Thompson says. "This kid doesn't know where he's going to sleep at night and he takes it all in stride, with a big goofy grin on his face."

Michael insists he isn't homeless. Those nights spent on park benches? "I was just arguing with my dad so I went outside to sleep," he says. Staying with a different friend every night? "Homeless, to me, means no place to go," he says. "But, yeah, I mean, it would be nice to have, like, a steady place to stay. To have my own things, my own house that no one can take away."

Careful not to overburden anyone, Michael makes it a rule never to stay with the same family more than once or twice a week. Friends and their families give him rides, meals and places to hang out, shower and sleep.

His pals mostly live in large pale-brick houses on quiet suburban streets in and around Sugar Land. Some keep their back doors open for him just in case.

The state-mandated Fort Bend Community Plan for 20052006 calls the lack of public transportation "a major contributing factor in a multitude of problems faced by residents" and cites "a serious if not critical need for all types of emergency and transitional shelters, permanent housing, and services for sheltered homeless families with children."

But neither the community plan nor Steinberg's report on homelessness has prompted any action from public officials. Jeff Wiley, president of the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council, also denies the existence of the county's growing underclass. "If we do have a homeless problem, and I'm not saying we do, it's probably the stuff churches are handling," Wiley says.

It's exactly this sort of talk from local leaders that most inflames social-service workers. "Clearly they are not educated on the needs of the poor and the elderly," says Schindler of St. Laurence Church, who has invited mayors from across the county to a March 2 community meeting to discuss ways to address the county's homeless population. None has replied.

Fort Bend County, and Sugar Land in particular, may be too in love with their own images to recognize their numerous failings. Call it community narcissism. And it's easy to see why, given their exalted national reputations.

In 2005 and 2006, CNN and Money magazine ranked Sugar Land the third best place to live in America -- a title posted on billboards at the city's periphery. Sugar Land has also topped lists ranking the nation's best places to raise a family, best communities for young people and most affordable suburbs. A longtime white-Republican stronghold represented by former Congressman Tom DeLay, Sugar Land is now among the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation.

Fort Bend County, meanwhile, ranks in the top 1 percent in the nation for projected population and employment growth during the next 20 years, according to Woods & Poole Economics, a firm that tracks county economic and demographic projections. The county's population nearly doubled, to 225,000, from 1980 to 1990, will likely exceed 500,000 this year and is expected to reach one million by 2025.

During the last quarter century Fort Bend County's economy has shifted from agricultural to computer and service industries. Its cotton fields paved with enormous master-planned communities, the county today ranks among the highest per capita golf areas in the country. In 1994, The Washington Post ribbed this dramatic transformation to "man-made lakes and pampered pansy beds," concluding that "Texas has lost a little of its Texas-ness." Some cities, such as Needville, have resisted new growth in an attempt to preserve their more rugged, agricultural heritage. But land located as far as 50 miles southwest of downtown Houston is selling for a premium and fast appreciating in value, according to Wiley. "Development," he says, "is coming whether they like it or not."

The local economy's increasing dependency on service-sector jobs raises a red flag since they attract families who are often marginally housed, with low incomes and no savings -- one crisis away from losing their homes, according to Anthony Love, CEO and president of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County. "There's a huge potential for people to fall," Love says, "and there's no assistance there."

In 2005, the number of poor suburbanites outnumbered poor people in inner cities for the first time in American history, according to a study by Alan Berube, research director for The Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program. The Brookings report singled out Houston and its suburbs for experiencing one of the greatest increases in child poverty from 1999 to 2005. "This 'tipping' of poor populations to the suburbs represents a signal development that upends historical notions about who lives in cities and suburbs," Berube observed. "The poor -- and especially the working poor -- figure prominently among suburban populations today."

Dr. Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston, says Fort Bend County needs strong political leadership to confront the scarcely discussed issues of poverty and homelessness. "It will be a painful transition," Murray says. "Sugar Land and other cities are going to have to deal with a wider range of problems than where to put the Mercedes dealership."

It's three o'clock when Michael Lyddon arrives at Steve-O's house. He leans against the bed of a black pickup truck and shoots the bull with six other high-schoolers.

All wear oversized T-shirts, bulky sneakers and baggy jeans hung low over boxer shorts. Michael alone styles his hair with gel bummed from classmates who keep product in their lockers. Kids come and go but Michael mostly stays on the winding, well-paved street framed by manicured lawns. He passes the time by throwing a plastic bottle of tea sky-high and catching it. His principal bought it for him at school. "I don't have money," Michael says. "I don't need money."

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Michael's mom pays for his cell phone, which rings every few minutes. First his dad calls to check in, then his girlfriend to apologize about something or other and finally his buddies to ask about his plans for the night. Michael wants to lie down somewhere and just relax, but he's not comfortable lounging in Steve-O's house. That's only for sleeping. He hopes to lift weights later on and waits on a call from his friend Nathan, who belongs to Pecan Grove Plantation Country Club. Nathan sometimes takes Michael as his guest and lets him put dinner on his family's expense account.

Carmen Oliver, Steve-O's mom, says Michael doesn't ask for favors from anyone. "I have to push him to eat. I offer advice and he just smiles." Upstairs in the house, in a bedroom once occupied by Steve-O's older sister, there sits a freshly laundered, neatly folded pile of Michael's clothes courtesy of Mrs. O. Similar stacks of Michael's stuff can be found in several other homes in the neighborhood.

An hour or so passes and the guys play two-on-two basketball in Steve-O's driveway. Michael shows some skill, blocking and sinking shots. They break and watch Steve-O's uncle wash his dog, then wander back to the pickup truck. Michael's dad calls again. He tries to see his old man at least once a week. "I'm always gonna love him," he says, "but there are some things he's got to fix."

As six o'clock approaches, the sun goes down and the air turns cold. Michael still hasn't heard back from Nathan. He's getting restless. Everybody except Michael starts making plans. "What are you doing?" one teen asks. "Yeah, what are you guys doing?" another echoes. "I don't know, man. What do you want to do?" a third kid joins in. But the questions are meaningless. They know exactly what they're doing. It's dinnertime. They're going home.

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