Cover and Inside Photo Credit: Priscilla Graham
In a city where oil industry giants rule and business is booming, it hurts to be homeless in Houston.
Homelessness is a still an issue in 2014, but is the city trying to hide one of its worst problems?
Whether its a large business convention markets, the annual Houston Chevron Marathon and development and construction progress knocking at the door, the homeless seem to be the ones hurt the most, being pushed out, swept away or shuffled around.
Is Out of sight is out of mind?
It appears that in the city’s zeal to be a world class technological center and high roller, it has done a poor job not completely solving it’s Third World problem.
According to the homeless coalition statistics, there are 29,739 homeless people in Texas.
Of those, 7,366 homeless individuals live on the streets of Houston, Harris County and Fort Bend each night. Of that number 1,007 are currently sitting in jail.
Another 27,728 people are registered by the Homeless Coalition as accessing homeless services.
Conditions for the homeless are not that encouraging either.
About 32-percent are chronically homeless, 65-percent experience some form of mental illness and nearly 50-percent have no source of income. One of 7 homeless people are military veterans and 1 in 4 is a family with children.
Most homeless people describe life in Houston as a day to day affair filled with uncertainty and live with the expectation that the city or police department is going to come and crack down on them or kick a person while they are down.
Solving that problem of homelessness has not been at the top of the list of priorities of city and business leaders.
City and business officials downtown go on the defensive, develop sudden amnesia or go into denial when asked about Houston’s treatment of homeless people.
However, despite reports on the street telling stories of ticketing, shuffling and harassment happening, officials are mum and do not seems to recall any negative incidents. They also fail to take responsibility for the stories the homeless tell about what happens in their lives on a regular basis.
Does Houston really do this to its homeless population to hold them at bay and keep them swept out of visible areas in the interest of making Houston shine on the national and world stage.?
“We are unaware of any protocol or policy to move people and have no role in displacing citizens at anytime,” said Wade Morehead, Chevron spokesman and Executive Director of the Houston Marathon Committee. “We value all citizens and do our best to be good corporate examples in the community.”
He added that his company does its part in charitable contributions to homeless agencies and other organizations that help the poor.
Houston Mayor Annise Parker has vowed to end chronic homelessness by 2015, but is it enough to help the ones currently trapped by a system in flux as some in the city continue practicing an “under culture” of mistreatment and disrespect.
“We have no knowledge of coordinated plans or anyone pushing out or hiding the homeless during tourism events,” said Marc Eichenbaum, DeputySpecial Assistant to the Mayor for Homeless Initiatives. “This issue is a serious moral and financial issue. Band Aid approaches or hiding the homeless does not address that.”
According to Eichenbaum, oner 103 million dollars is spent yearly trying to help, but the problem continues to linger. He also said some non-profit groups also have worked on the issue too, but the main obstacle over the years has been overall cooperation.
“There has not always been full cooperation when dealing with this issue in the past,” he said. “Efforts to make the kind of progress we would like to see have not made it to the levels we would like.”
Another problem is the way some not always treated with respect by some business owners and police officers not assigned to the city’s H.O.T. Team.
Some homeless citizens reported that some police officers view them with contempt and show them little compassion.
H.O.T is a small special unit of about three police officers that works downtown Houston area that is trained to help the homeless by offering services needed to help get them off the streets.
Houston is the 5th largest police agency in the nation and has over 5,400 sworn police officers and 1,600 civilian employees.
On the homeless, Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland said he is concerned if any of his officers on the force are not professional with any citizen homeless or not.
“All members of the Houston Police Department have been trained in dealing with the homeless and others who have encountered unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “HPD does not criminalize someone for their socioeconomic status. There is no crime to be homeless and it is not a crime to be a street person.”
However, some tickets, arrests and jail time come to the homeless mainly for some being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Again, 1,007 homeless people are currently sitting in jail.
If a citizen or business owner is uncomfortable with a homeless person or thinks that person is a threat to his person or business, calling the police seems to be the quickest way to solve the problem – in essence “kicking a man while he is down”.
Houston Coalition for the Homeless President and CEO, Marilyn Brown said many of the tickets and troubled encounters with the law often delays the homeless from receiving much needed housing, food assistance or getting employment or other vital and necessary services.
“We are concerned about how the homeless are treated. What happens to them can cause them to be denied housing and prolong their situations,” she said. “It should not hurt to be homeless in Houston.”
The city also has a homeless court it claims helps, but with many homeless under duress and suffering from mental illness, tickets can pile up and getting outstanding tickets and arrest warrants leads to more hassles, burdens and troubles for the homeless.
Trying to manage the problem using the criminal justice system is hardly the best way to deal with the issue. City officials might need to look at doing away with the court and completely decriminalizing homelessness.
McClelland pointed out that much of the issue with homelessness comes from complaints from the public and the business sector who want the homeless shuffled from areas, not understanding the law or the plight and condition that led to an individual being on the street.
“The constitution protects the homeless also,” he said. “People must be educated. Not wanting the homeless around or making complaints because they are on public rights of way or on the street in front of a business is not a complaint; there is no crime in that.”
McClelland said he expects officer to follow the law whenever necessary..
“It’s behavior we look at,” he said. “No matter what your status if you urinate or defecate in public or you assault someone being an aggressive panhandler, you are gonna get a citation or arrested and taken to jail.”
Eichenbaum said he wants all homeless citizens to be treated with dignity and respect.
According to him, a new collaboration plan between the city and agencies is over the horizon and that is where it will impact homelessness the most in the city. It will involve 300 million dollars in state, local, federal, non-profit, and private funds.
“It is an all hands on deck effort,” he said. “It will take the time and use the resources needed and reflect Houston’s compassion for the homeless.”
We Must Remember that “There but by the Grace of God Go I”
In the land of plenty, where large groups of corporate folk in Houston are driving an Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Volvos, Cadillac or an Infiniti and living off six-figure incomes and estates larger than football fields, one can only wonder how can Houston allow this unkind pattern of hunger, pain and suffering continue to happen on its streets.
Being homeless in Houston should not be one of the most traumatic experiences in life.