Bayou City

Citing Public Health Threat, Houston Orders Cleanup of U.S. 59 Underpass

Michelle and Eugene Stroman are unsure how they're going to move all their belongings.
Michelle and Eugene Stroman are unsure how they're going to move all their belongings. Photo by Meagan Flynn
After Houston Health Department inspectors toured the U.S. 59 underpass near Wheeler Station in Midtown, the City of Houston is temporarily kicking out the homeless people who live there to conduct a thorough cleanup of the area.

Dr. David Persse, director of the city's Public Health Authority, ordered the city to "abate the public health nuisance" under the freeway after he found human waste, makeshift toilets, large amounts of pigeon and crow droppings near or on people's tents, some dead birds and overflowing trash bins in the vicinity, according to a memo Persse sent to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

"I don't want to sugarcoat this and try to make it pretty," said Marc Eichenbaum, the mayor's special assistant for homelessness initiatives. "There's a lot of filth that is jeopardizing their health, and that's why we've taken action. We want to mitigate the impact as much as possible, but we should not be okay with the homeless living in the dirt and filth that they are right now."

But as the homeless prepare for the cleanup — which will commence at 8 a.m. Thursday — some are wondering how they will manage to keep larger belongings, like mattresses or tables, that have made their camps more homey.

Various homeless people the Houston Press talked to said Houston police officers have asked them to vacate the underpass by morning, taking with them whatever they can carry. Eichenbaum said the officers have been handing out large plastic bags that people can use for storage of personal belongings they aren't able to carry with them, such as clothing, utensils and other small items. The city will then store the bags at a warehouse in East Downtown until people are ready to grab them, or for up to 90 days, Eichenbaum said.

But large items such as mattresses, chairs, tables and grills are not allowed in storage. Which means that unless the homeless can find a way to haul their belongings to a new location before 8 a.m. Thursday (they were notified Monday), those will go in the trash. "If anything is left, it will be considered abandoned," Eichenbaum said.

Around lunchtime Wednesday, Michelle Stroman flipped hot dogs on the grill, and worked on crossword puzzles intermittently. She and her husband, Eugene, have a large couch, another chair and a coffee table, making their outdoor spot feel like a living room. The bedroom — a tent — is behind them. Asked where they plan to go and how they plan to move all their stuff there, Michelle arched her eyebrows and raised her hands in the air. She gestured to her dogs lounging nearby: "What are we supposed to do with them while we're hauling all of this stuff back and forth?" she said.

Eugene said they may just have to leave the couch, unsure where, exactly, they would be able to set up camp away from the underpass. Behind them and, mostly, all around them is a residential neighborhood. In front of them are a Fiesta Mart and other small businesses.

The Stromans are also lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit they and others filed against Houston over its anti-encampment ordinance, which bans sleeping in tents, boxes and other makeshift structures; using a grill in the encampment; and having belongings that can't fit in a three-by-three-by-three container. The ACLU of Texas is representing them. The ordinance, however, has largely gone unenforced, as all three of the banned types of items are rampant throughout the Wheeler Station encampment and the one along Chartres Street.

Even though many items banned under the ordinance may ultimately end up in the trash, Eichenbaum maintained that the cleanup has nothing to do with the ordinance.The city also cleaned up the encampment along Chartres Street last month, which homeless people there said had gone pretty smoothly — though one man, Darvin Lynn, said that was largely because people were able to move everything about one block away to a nearby field dubbed "tent city." "Where are those people at Wheeler supposed to go?" Lynn asked.

Shere Dore, a local activist for the homeless and with Black Lives Matter, said she and other advocates will be onsite Thursday morning to help the homeless move their items. The ACLU of Texas also handed out "know your rights" flyers to people, letting them know police can't illegally seize their property without just cause.

"While I agree a cleanup is necessary, I believe the city could have done a better job offering solutions and giving more than two and a half days' notice," Dore said. "Thursday morning, I and local activists will stand with the homeless until the city can offer a better solution."

Eichenbaum and the police, who have been at the encampment answering questions periodically, said the clean-up is expected to last just one day. Once the place is cleared out, they are welcome to come back, but Eichenbuam said one-third of the underpass will be turned into a parking lot on Friday.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn