There is a shelter smack dab in the middle of downtown Houston where those who are homeless are welcome to go. There are no beds, and no overnight hours.
This place, decorated with a scattered array of cafeteria tables and not much more, is known as The Beacon. This is a homeless shelter for the daylight hours.
See more: Houston's Hidden Homeless
Clients can use the phone, eat a warm meal, or simply find a seat or a corner to rest in. Shower and restroom facilities are available, as are laundry services. Beacon clients are even offered a set of scrubs to wear while volunteers wash their clothing, because that's often the only clothing they own.
The Beacon's concept is unique, and it focuses on the daytime to give some respect and dignity back to a population that is often overlooked. That concept seems to be working, though. The Beacon is known as one of the "safe places" in the city. And there's nothing scary about it, according to the clients, except maybe the food. Too many vegetables.
The programs at The Beacon have been around since 2007, but they've grown rapidly in recent years. They now serve about 800 clients a day, up from the 60 or so in their early years.
They've also added programs targeted at long-term solutions as well, in a bid to meet growing demand. There is now the option to receive help by way of case management or mentoring programs for those clients who are interested, in addition to the other services that are available.
Carl Payne It is outside of The Beacon that we met some of the most colorful additions to this week's feature, Carl and Reginald. Their stories continue after the jump and work as a preview to this week's Houston Press print feature on Houston's homeless.
At 58 years old, Carl Payne is having little luck with employment. He works temporary jobs when they're available, but his age and a felony record have kept him from doing much more with himself lately.
He's one of the many men standing outside of The Beacon, waiting for the doors to open. Carl knows to get here early, since he comes here a lot. It's better than sitting on the streets, but he'd rather be home with his wife and child. He can't go home, though.
Not until he's got one to call his own, anyway.
For now, Carl's wife's parents have allowed her and their 8-year-old child to stay in their home while they wait on Carl to find work. But Carl, on the other hand, is not welcome.
He stays in shelters around the city, navigating the never-ending lines and the continual shuffle back out onto the streets when it's closing time.
The choice between the shelter and nights on the street was an easy one for Carl. Life outside the shelter is just too dangerous at night, and too many people come up missing in the dark. He can't risk it; he has a family he wants to get home to once he's got it together.
Carl hasn't always struggled with homelessness. The shelter shuffle is a relatively recent thing for him, and it came many years after a steady gig working for the city. They were good to him, and even gave him a chance at a career with the felony on his record, but cutbacks and fewer hours on the job led to lean paychecks and stretched dollars.
Carl stole a pack of baloney from the grocery store in desperation, and the short stint in jail that followed meant no more chances at his job. He's not had steady work since.
With no income and no roof over his head, he doesn't get to see much of his family. What he does see, at least these days, is the inside of whatever shelter will take him in.
He knew a few guys in the parks and bayous downtown, but most of them have been displaced by construction or resident complaints now. And even if he wanted to venture out, he can't risk jail.
And that's what happens if you're out there, he says. They'll take you to jail, with your "big ass bags" full of stuff, and it'll all be gone when you're out.
Unlike most of the clients at The Beacon, Carl doesn't drag those bags full of clothes with him. He doesn't want to be targeted, and really, he doesn't have anything to bring along with him anyway.
When Reginald Bennett flagged us down outside of The Beacon on a recent day he was leaning against the wall, dressed to the nines in a lime green beanie and dress pants. He had even accessorized his outfit with some Mardi Gras beads.
The rest of his clothes were tucked away inside plastic garbage sacks stacked against the wall alongside him. As he chatted with us he eyed the bags closely. Clothing is a commodity when you're living on the streets, and it would be easy to lose sight of them out here, considering each person has at least a few bags in tow.
It makes sense that he'd be so careful, though. Those bags contain everything Reginald owns. There used to be more -- dress shoes, nicer pants -- but he's sold everything of value for crack. He's been addicted to the drug for many, many years now, and even with a few tries in a treatment facility, he's been unable to kick the habit.
He's lost everything to the drug. He paid the dope dealer instead of paying rent, and the management at the apartment, and his roommate (his brother) would only take excuses for so long.
As the addiction has progressed, so has the loss. He sold his phone for $5 recently, and even his Lone Star Card has gone to the dealer. And now, as he looks around at the bags beside him, he motions to what's left. A few bags of clothes, and those Mardi Gras beads strung around his neck.
And yet, even with all of those years of addiction under his belt, Reginald beams from ear to ear as he speaks. He's the definition of giddy, and his eyes light up as he speaks of everything from his need to do laundry to what he hopes to become in the future.
That seems to be the one thing that crack hasn't stolen from Reginald. He's still got hope for his life. At 55, if he can find a treatment center, this will officially be his sixth attempt at sobriety, but he says he's ready to beat the addiction.
He's even ready for work -- he'd be just right for some clerical or office work, he says -- and even if he's not able to figure it out right away, he's always willing to learn.
All it takes is finding a place that will give him the chance.
Read the complete story on Houston's homeless in this week's cover story.
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