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

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Wick worries about Jeff and Randall, but says it comes with the territory.

"It may sound strange, but I consider them my family," says Wick quietly.

Addressing homelessness in Houston is complicated by the negative publicity the city has received in recent years over its controversial feeding and Dumpster ordinances.

In 2012, the city passed a feeding ordinance making it a crime to give food to the homeless without permission and food service permits, and it limited feeding efforts to "Recognized Charitable Service Providers." The ordinance received a vocal push-back from both grassroots groups and news organizations.

A number of city ordinances make it essentially "illegal" to live on the streets, but a lack of shelter beds or treatment programs makes enforcement efforts sporadic.

This severe shortage of beds at local shelters also makes keeping a full-time job nearly impossible. In order to obtain a bed for the night, clients are expected to line up around 3 p.m., where they'll wait until the shelter opens its doors. That first-come, first-served policy is a tough thing to explain to an employer, and the homeless are often left to choose between shelter or a steady paycheck.

Jaywalking, Dumpster diving, and creating an unreasonable "odor or smell" can also land a homeless person in hot water with the city. Public restrooms are limited, and private businesses are under no obligation to allow use of their facilities.

There are places where the homeless can head to without much issue; the public library or one of the city's day shelters are options, but once those doors close for the day, the homeless are again left to seek out a place they are ­welcome.

City parks are closed between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., and camping in city parks can lead to a criminal trespass charge. A city ordinance that prohibits sitting or lying on the sidewalk, or on a blanket, stool, or other object, after 6 a.m. means that Sergeant Wick's team often becomes a "very expensive alarm clock," he says.

To be fair, it can be hard for business owners to deal with issues of panhandling or loitering, which often go hand in hand with the homeless. The aggressive nature of some panhandlers drives away customers, a problem that is apparent at many of the downtown gas stations and convenience stores.

There's also the fear of violence. Severe mental health issues or disputes within the homeless community over territory or stolen goods run the risk of turning into bloody brawls, and there's the fear that even as an innocent bystander, you run the risk of being dragged into the fray. For some, that makes stopping in an area heavily populated with homeless people a scary proposition.

Brandon, a young, animated man with an encyclopedia of knowledge on cartoons, has seen that violence all too many times.

"You never know what's going on out here, and you can approach the wrong type of person looking for a few bucks," he says.

It's then that he pulls the knife from his pocket, holding it out on display.

"The only thing I can trust out here is her. She's always got my back, and if someone comes up on me, I've got what I need to stop them."

To address the chronic problem, the city has introduced an ambitiously titled plan, "Houston's Plan to End Homelessness by 2016." Mandy Chapman Semple, the newly appointed "First Special Assistant for Homeless Initiatives," has mapped out a plan that calls for an increase in housing and a move toward coordinated placement and service delivery — all designed to "end" chronic homelessness.

Under the new plan, the city is working to increase its permanent supportive housing by 2,500 units while offering $100 million in federal vouchers for housing, which will include on-site support. Those vouchers will require 30 percent of the person's income to go toward rent, which, according to Semple's outline, will be zeroed out if the individual has no income.

The city will also move toward a central intake system at a still to be finalized location, which will theoretically streamline the process of obtaining social services. A coordinated, web-based placement system will be used to assess the client's needs and assign him or her to referrals or wait lists.

According to a 2012 survey by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, the greatest perceived unmet needs within the homeless community are permanent housing, transportation, and dental care. One out of three homeless people also indicated a need for mental health treatment, but only half had received that care.

The coordinated placement system aims to create one sole source of referrals for issues such as these and is designed to negate any overlap in services. There is a question as to whether it will be as effective as planned, though. The referral system is streamlined to one central intake among participating providers, but there will not be a way to view the immediately available spots in a program or a shelter. Case managers or Sergeant Wick's team will have to follow up in order to find out what's really open.

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Angelica Leicht
Contact: Angelica Leicht