Just like that, the dozens of homeless people or vagrants camped out beneath the U.S. 59 underpass near Wheeler Station disappeared on Monday, leaving their bicycles and comfy chairs and makeshift tents behind.
Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Danny Perez told the Houston Press that, after the Houston Police Department raised safety concerns about many people wandering into the road, including the U.S. 59 exit ramp, TxDOT began constructing a large fence around the area to keep people from entering and to keep them safe.
"Some are under the influence of some type of substance. They're not paying attention. They're not looking both ways. And you've got vehicles coming down that ramp at a high rate of speed," Perez said. "The concern was that there would be a serious accident and someone would be seriously hurt, not just the person that's crossing, but the motorist: somebody trying to swerve and make a last-minute move."
The underpass had long been known as a hot spot, particularly for the synthetic drug known as kush, and on a trip to the urban campground on any given day, kush users could be seen swaying back and forth right next to the guardrail, or lying in the dirt, or standing zombie-like, seemingly unaware of their surroundings. Complaints about the ruckus and the vices have flooded city government for months, as kush continued to plague the streets of Houston and city emergency-response resources. Marc Eichenbaum, Mayor Sylvester Turner's special assistant for homeless initiatives, told the Houston Press on a trip to the underpass that it was the city's last remaining kush hot spot — albeit a rather large hurdle.
Now, with all the underpass dwellers and kush users gone from the area, the obvious question is, well, where did they go?
We were unable to find out by the end of the day Monday. One man who had just gotten off the light rail at Wheeler Station told us that he had seen homeless people being loaded onto buses earlier in the afternoon — buses that were not affiliated with Metro. KPRC, which had a crew present during the quasi-evacuation, reported that homeless organizations were on the scene as police helped TxDOT clear out the area to begin fence construction. Thinking Star of Hope might have been one, since we have seen the organization passing out free water and help at the location in the past, we contacted the organization but did not hear back by press time. City officials also did not get back to us by press time, either (though were contacted late in the afternoon).
Some people at the Metro light rail station speculated that the city was simply trying to clean up the area before the Super Bowl by sweeping away all its homeless.
However, recent efforts suggest the city is actually making serious strides toward permanently housing the homeless and helping them find work — not simply relocating them so they become another street's problem. As we reported recently, in the past four years, the city has permanently housed more than 8,000 homeless people — 3,300 who were chronically homeless and 4,920 who were veterans, meaning veteran homelessness has essentially been wiped out in Houston, officials said at a recent press conference.
"It is less expensive to house the chronically homeless with supportive services than it is merely to walk by them on the street," Mayor Turner said at the time.
We will update this story once we can find out where all the people were taken. Eichenbaum has told us in the past that not everyone there is homeless — some are just there for the kush — and so perhaps some simply left the party and went home.
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