Longform

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

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If the data in the city's homeless plan is accurate, we will see results as early as this year, at least for homeless veterans in Houston. According to Semple's plan, we will "achieve a functional zero in 2014, meaning we have created a system that has an immediate permanent housing option for any homeless veteran."

Or the city will have to come up with another plan.
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Hope Elizabeth Sapp has been up for three days now, but she's wide-eyed and chatty despite the exhaustion. She's leaning against a post at The Beacon, a nonprofit day shelter in the heart of downtown Houston, waiting for the doors to open so she can rest.

"I worry out here every day," she says. "I've been raped out here; my ID has been stolen. There's a video on YouTube that somebody took of me getting beat up when I was pregnant, but no one stopped to help."

That beating took a huge toll on Sapp and her body. She was pregnant with twins at the time it occurred, and the beating was so severe that she lost one of them in the days after the beating. She lost the other child to the state of Texas many years later.

She's been on the street about two years, spending her time in and out of shelters. With no ID, though, securing a bed can be next to impossible. Most nights she's safe enough, using whatever money she can come up with to rent a hotel room, but some nights she has no choice but to roam the streets. Those are the nights she doesn't sleep. It's too dangerous to shut your eyes when you're on the streets at night. Staying up ensures you're alert enough to run.

It seems Sapp's done a lot of running in her 27 years. She wound up out here with three kids in tow after fleeing a violent relationship. There are four kids now, and she's lost custody of all of them. She carries the court papers with her as proof of her struggle and as a reminder of what she is fighting for. She'll always fight, she says. It's just with no roof over their heads, it was too hard to win.

For Sapp, the fight extends well past the court system. She has to fight for healthcare as well. The symptoms from a number of untreated mental health issues — schizophrenia, mania and bipolar disorder — have left her unable to work. She has been off her medicine for months now, but without proper ID, it is nearly impossible to receive treatment.

It's a vicious cycle, but Sapp still looks forward to the day she's off the streets. She's been eyeing a place out in Magnolia, a camper. It's not much, but she hopes to call it home.

For others, the city of Houston was a choice. The streets were another matter.

Darcell Lewis has been homeless for about six months now, the entire time she's been in Houston. She headed here from the blight of Detroit, a city with sky-high unemployment and an even higher crime rate. She wanted to start over, she says, but the promise of full-time work never came through.

Lewis picks up jobs where she can, a week here, a week there. A job as a holiday bell-ringer and a stint with Emerald Linen helped her out, but the temporary work wasn't enough to pay for her own place.

For now, temporary work is all that's available, though. Lewis's three-week stint with Rodeo Houston was the longest she's been employed in Texas. She loved the work, but it was temporary. The horses packed up, and so did she.

It's been fine, though, she says. The folks at the shelter have been treating her well, and she's staying focused in her bid to start over. But there are times when the beds are full at the shelter, which leaves Lewis no option but the street.

"I get leery of people walking past me," she says. "The first night I was out there it was cold and wet, and I stayed up all night. It's hard to stay up all day working when you've been up all night. I just try to keep my head up."

For some, the easiest way to avoid the danger is to simply stay as hidden as possible.

Timothy Mellons lives tucked away under one of the many bayou bridges and has been living here for the past nine years. He's quite difficult to spot, tucked away up there, and that's completely intentional on his part. He prefers to be alone, surrounded by jutted cement and broken bottles rather than people. This bridge is his home.

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Angelica Leicht
Contact: Angelica Leicht