Some Homeless Braved Harvey Outside All Week

The spot where Charly Conley and a group of homeless people braved Harvey all week.
The spot where Charly Conley and a group of homeless people braved Harvey all week. Photo by Meagan Flynn
From beneath the awning of a Sears building in Midtown, Charly Conley and about 15 other homeless people watched the flood waters creep up closer to them, like waves on a beach.

It was Saturday night, when Harvey hurled its most treacherous rainfall down on Houston. Conley said they had heard from other homeless people that volunteers were urging the homeless to go to shelters. But no one had reached them, she said, and so as the country’s most devastating flood in history began revealing itself, the group, stronger in numbers, huddled with blankets, pillows and, most importantly, umbrellas against the brick wall of the old department store.They rotated to different sides of the building based on how the wind was blowing, to try to stop the rain from blowing into their faces.

Conley said it was not until Monday night that a rescue truck, noticing the homeless group on the corner of Main and Fannin, even stopped to check on them.

“They said they were gonna come back for us,” Conley said, “but they never did. They never came back.”
Conley and her friends were among the minority of homeless who braved Tropical Storm Harvey from start to finish beneath thin protection from the elements. They were among the minority that the volunteers apparently did not reach before Harvey hit, as they urged hundreds of homeless people elsewhere to seek shelter before the storm. 

“They said they were gonna come back for us,” Conley said, “but they never did. They never came back.”

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Many did. On Sunday, Marc Eichenbaum, the mayor’s special assistant for homeless initiatives, said it had been at times difficult for volunteers and law enforcement to convince homeless people to leave behind their belongings and come to a shelter, but that the majority of homeless heeded the advice and took shelter. Salvation Army Area Commander Major Kent Davis said more than 700 homeless people came off the streets into the organization's shelters across the Houston region, with the vast majority coming from within Houston city limits.

“We’re at capacity, but we’re still not turning anyone away,” Davis said. “Everyone is working to make it happen.”

In retrospect, Conley said she isn’t sure she would have wanted to go to the shelter, saying she had a bad experience with shelters in the past — but that many of the people with her were banking on it, particularly an older man with aching feet.

Early Tuesday morning, a police officer saw the group and he, too, came over to tell them he would call for help from people who could take them to a shelter, but those people also did not come, Conley said. Her friend, Isak, said that while they watched the waters rise over the weekend, flooded, impassable roads were within eye-shot. “God is good,” he said. “It flooded all around us, but we’re okay — we’re surviving.”

The attitude was a bit different at the homeless encampment underneath U.S. 59 near Wheeler Station, where at least two dozen homeless people turned down repeated offers from volunteers and the police’s Homeless Outreach Team to catch a ride to the shelters.

Homeless there told the Houston Press that this was no big deal to them, that they could see the roads filling up with water but that underneath the bridge, they knew they’d be safe. The ground was muddy, but people told us that while homes across Houston flooded, their tents were dry.

“What do you mean how did we brave it? Only the strong survive — ever heard that?” one homeless man known to friends as “Cowboy” told us.

Informed that it is likely the worst flood in U.S. history, he said, “This is what they call bad? What flood?”

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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn