Marc Eichenbaum, Mayor Sylvester Turner's special assistant for homeless initiatives, feels a little embarrassed to be wearing a suit down here, fresh out of a meeting. He strolls through the U.S. 59 underpass near Wheeler Station in Midtown like he is walking through his office, greeting homeless people and others so high on kush they either don’t notice Eichenbaum or don’t care to.
Trash and endless kush packages of “Space Cadet 100X” and cigarillos litter the walkways like permanent ornaments — and sleeping bodies do too. One man lies on the gravel, his bare feet so black they look like shoes. Another woman sleeps in a comfy recliner that seems to have been relocated from a living room, her tightly rolled blunt of kush damn near burning a hole into the leather.
Though he is there to offer help, Eichenbaum looks a bit out of place — most obviously like an authority figure fishing around for rule-breakers in plain sight. And some loiterers think that’s exactly what he’s doing when, a couple blocks from the underpass, Eichenbaum approaches a man with his eyes glazed over and mouth open, leaning against a fence to hold himself up. A spent kush blunt dangles from his fingers. He drops it without noticing.
“Hey, man, are you okay?” Eichenbaum asks, picking up his phone to dial the Public Intoxication Team for help. It seems like everyone nearby thinks he’s calling the cops — who can blame them for mistrusting the guy in the suit? — and they mumble under their breaths as they take off past him. To one Eichenbaum asks, “Hey, ma’am, are you homeless?” as though he can help everyone at once. She ignores him.
The relatively chaotic scene is typical of the blocks surrounding the Wheeler light rail station. If you’ve driven past the area, you have seen what Eichenbaum and the city’s two-person Public Intoxication Team see every week: a whole community of people set up underneath the U.S. 59 overpass — the tents, the tiny parking lots of bicycles, the dazed-and-confused wobblers coming down from their 15-minute kush highs. Eichenbaum, who frequently canvasses the area and knows many of the users, has found the majority of them are actually not homeless, just there for the ride. “The problem is, they’re very concentrated and very visible,” he said.
Solutions to the kush problem — one entirely separate from homelessness though sometimes intertwined with it — have evaded every major city across the country, Eichenbaum says. Here in Houston, over a ten-month span from September 2015 through June of this year, nearly half of the 3,000 overdose calls the Houston Fire Department responded to were for kush. That’s why, Eichenbaum said, he and Houston outreach organizations have started to get creative in their search for the kush epidemic panacea — and it’s no short-term project.
“There’s absolutely no silver bullet — but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try everything and anything that we can to try to resolve this situation,” he says. Enter the Public Intoxication Team. Due to the high volume of kush-related calls taking up emergency response team and police resources, the city created this small squad in June, consisting of one EMT and one peer support specialist who is trained to effectively communicate with substance-abuse patients and mentally ill people. Every weekday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., the same two people drive around in an inconspicuous white van, proactively seeking out the stumbling drug users — the majority of them on kush— and asking them if they’d like to sober up at the Houston Sobering Center in the east end of Downtown. In just three months, the PIT team has brought more than 300 people to the sobering center, where patients have access to substance-abuse counselors who were once substance abusers, too, and where, if they are homeless, they can get on track to obtain free housing through the city.
In another time, city police may have just arrested all of them instead.
“Let’s just be honest: As we’ve seen, jail is not always the best deterrent or the best solution to dealing with drug epidemics,” Eichenbaum said. “The last thing we want to do is fill the jail with these low-level drug offenders and use up valuable resources.”
The PIT team arrives within moments of Eichenbaum's call for the man leaning against the fence, unable to respond to Eichenbaum’s basic questions. Rachel Lopez, an EMT with two sleeves of tattoos, a tongue piercing and long red nails, checks the man’s heartbeat and his blood pressure. As she works, peer support specialist Michael Zamarron explains to the man that the cops here with them are not going to arrest him—he promises—and asks if he would like a sandwich and some water. The man starts dozing off. “Don’t fall asleep on me!” Lopez says, nudging the man’s shoulder.
“This drug will put you on the ground,” Lopez told the Houston Press later. “It’ll make you a zombie. It’s really weird. It keeps them down for just a little point in time, and then they come to — and then they go down again. It’s sad. But a lot of them are in crisis. That’s what we’re here for.”
Before PIT came along, police would encounter these intoxicated people and have to call the fire department, which would either take them to the hospital or ask police to take them to the sobering center. Police would have to handcuff them (which, as you can imagine, caused some confusion for high people), and take them one at a time in the back of a squad car (which, as you can imagine, ate up a lot of patrol time). Now, Lopez herself makes the call as to whether an ambulance and paramedics are needed, and so far she has never once made the wrong call, Eichenbaum said. The cops only come to give the PIT team permission to transport intoxicated people (otherwise, it's considered kidnapping).
"The PIT team is not a solution to the kush problem overall," Eichenbaum said. "But it is a tool to help mitigate the issue and help people get off the drugs."
With two kush users in tow, Lopez and Zamarron take off for the sobering center. Roughly 38 percent of the PIT team’s admissions are repeats, with 12 percent of patients having been to the sobering center more than ten times. Center staff said one patient refused help 43 times until his 44th trip — and that was when he decided to accept housing and substance-abuse counseling.
“We got a lot of frequent flyers, so they become kind of like family. A lot of them we know on a first-name basis, and they trust us,” says Lopez, who adds that she picked up street lingo from family members who had abused drugs, making it easier for her to know how to help people on kush. “I tell them, ‘come on, mama, talk to me, let’s do this’—and they’ll listen. It gets their attention.” The City of Houston and Mayor Turner started cracking down on kush in June, after 16 people overdosed in Hermann Park in one day. The Houston Police Department has gone after sellers and distributors with several successful undercover sting operations, leading the Harris County Attorney's Office to take illicit businesses to court. On the streets, Turner pulled 173 officers from desk jobs and put them on patrol near several hotspots where kush users hung out and also added more park rangers to clean up various parks. Eichenbaum said the patrols have been effective, with all but one kush hotspot almost entirely cleared out. He estimates that before the enforcement efforts, more than 150 people loitered in concentrated places from Midtown to the Near Northside; now, he estimates it’s less than 100.
That remaining location: the U.S. 59 underpass.
Anywhere from 20 to more than 60 people may be hanging around the underpass at any given time, Eichenbaum says. Its centralized location and proximity to public transportation — not to mention the day laborer temp agency that recently opened nearby — has made it an ideal hangout. And plus, he added, kush users have been pushed away from everywhere else: Metro police keep them off the actual Wheeler train platform, while park rangers shoo them from nearby park spaces.
What Eichenbaum can’t figure out, however, is why the dozens of non-homeless kush users continue to return to the underpass, even after the city has found them a place to live and a job to get them on their feet. “It’s a million-dollar question,” Eichenbaum says.
While the PIT crew peruses the area, Eichenbaum heads to the underpass — sometimes he likes to ask the question to the loiterers themselves. Many of them know him personally. Some give him a hard time for his clean-cut look.
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“It doesn’t matter to me — I’ll come down here in a tuxedo,” Eichenbaum says to one sly guy rolling a blunt. “I like you so much, I just don’t want you getting in trouble and all that stuff.”
The man, who we’ll call Steve, says he and his boyfriend are getting tired of Wheeler Station. Steve says it’s someone’s sister’s birthday today, and there will be pizza — otherwise, he’s been trying to stay away. “I don’t socialize with any of these low-lifes,” he said. “It’s so chaotic now — it’s like doping territory.”
Still, he is rolling about nine blunts of kush — just for the special occasion, he says. He says it was homelessness that first brought him here, and the social atmosphere and the comfort of friends that has brought him back. He started using kush, he said, to kick marijuana to the curb; before that, for more than two decades, it was crack cocaine. While kush may send some people into psychotic episodes, for Steve, it’s calming. His boyfriend was one of the 16 who was taken to the hospital from Hermann Park that humid day in June, but still, the two of them say it was just because of the heat.
Perhaps growing impatient with the curious journalist and the friendly, well-dressed city official hovering over his shoulder, Steve says, “Now if you guys don’t mind, I’m gonna light up this blunt.”