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

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The officers have had to build a strong foundation of trust in order to reach the homeless. Much of their time is spent communicating; clients are free to call the officers, and they do so regularly. Prepaid cells are easy to come by, and there are federal programs that offer free cell phone service to low-income households. The officers also welcome visits to their downtown headquarters, which is housed in a renovated warehouse directly above the Houston Recovery Center, or the "sobering center," as it's most often called.

That relationship has earned Wick a spot as "one of the good guys" in Lyons's eyes, but even the good guys can do only so much when they have a notoriously difficult bureaucratic system to contend with.

The officers on Wick's team constantly network with local nonprofits and social service agencies to get help for the people they find. They've built relationships with many of the local nonprofits and are often able to find a way past the wait lists.

"Sometimes there's no room at a program, or there's too much redirection from one place to another. We have a hard time when it comes to navigating the information, and [HPD has] the ability to jump [ahead] in line," says Wick. "If we have a difficult time navigating all that red tape, what do you think it's like for a guy who's been on the streets for a decade?" he says.

When there is an opening in a program, it can still be difficult for a potential client to take advantage of the help. In order to obtain services, the client is usually expected to request them in person, and transportation or identification are all too often an issue.

While many homeless people are able to take advantage of those services, there are plenty who are not. That's who Wick's team places the greatest focus on, the ones who are not able to obtain services, whatever the reason may be.

"You can't just drop off a person at the DPS, especially a person with schizophrenia or drug issues, and expect them to make it through that process," says Wick. "We sit with them through the entire process, and we work with the agencies to make things happen. Otherwise they'll just give up."

Team members spend a great deal of time persuading people not to give up as they help them make their way through the system. That may mean spending the day at the Department of Motor Vehicles with a client or waiting to make sure that intake at a treatment center goes smoothly. They stay by the side of the client until the client is checked in or checked out, acting as an encouraging ear or an advocate when necessary.

"We had a guy, Randall, who was just rough to deal with," laughs Wick. "Fortunately, he's also one of our greatest success stories.

"After being on the streets 30 years — 30 years of kickin' and peein' and fightin' back, he decided he was done with it. He wanted help. We got Randall off the streets and into a motel while we waited for room in a program.

"But once he was in the program, all Randall wanted was some soda water and some cigarettes, and it just wasn't in the budget for the program. I bought him a case of cigarettes out of my own pocket, but they were the brown ones, because I'm cheap," laughs Wick.

"Randall called me up from treatment, and he informed me that he didn't want the brown cigarettes. He says, 'I'm not smokin' no brown cigarettes, Sergeant Wick.'

"I told him, 'Randall, as long as I'm buyin' 'em, you're smoking the brown ones."

A rough situation in Alabama, coupled with a severe alcohol dependence, caused the life of another man named Jeff to spiral out of control. Jeff ended up on the streets of Houston, spending three years on the banks of the bayou before accepting help from the Outreach team.

He's been out of detox for 30 days, and is upbeat about life at the treatment center.

"There are brilliant people who are on the streets, and it takes more than just throwing money at the situation. Sergeant Wick found me, and it was a long time before I wanted help," Jeff says. "He didn't give up, though."

Jeff insists he's determined not to give up this time.

"Being sober is a daily struggle, but I'm in the process of recommitting to my children and family relationships," says Jeff. "Sergeant Wick's a very good man. People can give money to charity, but it won't ever be as much as he and his team have done."

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Angelica Leicht
Contact: Angelica Leicht