The homeless encampments growing under Highway 290 and Interstate 610 may be nowhere close to the size and impact of those in downtown Houston, but they are still raising concern among residents in this area.
“It’s not safe for them to be there, [and] not conducive to residents in the area,” said Scott Lewis. “The city and county needs to step up on this.”
Mary Lamb made note of a couple living at I-610 and Ella on the west side of the street.
“Several requests to 311 have been fruitless,” she said.
Readers may remember Mayor Sylvester Turner’s March 2017 initiative ‘The Way Home’ which aimed to place 500 chronically homeless individuals into permanent housing within six months. The city surpassed the goal, housing nearly 550 individuals. At the same time, numerous city agencies began work to develop a cohesive plan for the rest of Houston’s homeless. ‘Housing first’ was the goal, but with more than 6,300 people in Houston without a home on any given night, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, the problem is pervasive.
In February 2018, the Coalition for the Homeless surveyed the homeless population in Houston. They found that 39 percent of unsheltered homeless individuals had a high school diploma or GED while 21 percent had some college or a college degree or higher. Approximately 78 percent of unsheltered homeless individuals became homeless in Houston. A quarter of surveyed homeless reported no income, and 20 percent reported panhandling for income.
In a February letter to a concerned constituent, the mayor said that, “our homeless population today may be smaller than five years ago, but it is a different population that is more condensed and located in highly visible public spaces.”
Because of the health and safety dangers, the City Council passed an encampment ordinance prohibiting tents and large amounts of personal items on public property. The ACLU then filed a lawsuit to stop the city, but the ordinance was upheld by a federal judge in December of 2017.
The case has been scheduled for trial for later this year.
The judge wrote in part: “Since the (temporary restraining order) has been in effect, instances of homeless persons having been seriously injured or killed at or near the encampment sites have been reported; trash and waste have accumulated, causing health hazards for both the general public as well as the inhabitants of the encampment sites…The sites have no plumbing, sanitation or trash pick-up.”
Mayor Turner expressed gratitude for the ruling.
“My staff, including my special assistant for homeless initiatives, and Houston Police Department commanders will meet to decide how to move forward with enforcement of the ordinance,” the mayor said.
What you can do
Part of the delay in addressing a particular encampment might be confusion about whose jurisdiction it is under.
“I was told that it is the responsibility of the 290 build out crew to clean these camps under 290 out,” said Alexie Swirsky. “I called them a few years ago and they did come and remove the furniture. One lady was sleeping in a recliner.”
“I think this is really the core issue,” said Caroline Carrillo. “Whose responsibility is it? In my situation that was part of the hold up to take action. They had to meet to determine whose property was what, and in my case the flood control or railroad.”
Jessi Heiner said that when she sees homeless encampments, she’s had the best response from emailing different teams within the Houston Police Department, including the HPD Homeless Outreach Team, or the Crisis Intervention Team. Heiner says the North Division has a Differential Response Team too. For specific contacts in the Mental Health Division visit http://www.houstoncit.org.
“From personal experience, all units have been very helpful with these situations,” she said. “They often work and communicate well together when their areas overlap. They are really compassionate and help shepherd individuals into homeless shelters and drug rehab programs. It’s pretty incredible.”
Deputy Press Secretary Tanya Makany-Rivera told The Leader that they will continue to work with city departments, local non-profit agencies and the Houston Police Department to place encampment residents in short-term and long-term housing.
“We also discourage residents from dropping off large items to homeless encampments as these items will not be permitted and often present a public health nuisance to the surrounding community,” she said.
If residents see illegal activity taking place at a homeless encampment, they should call the HPD non-emergency number at 713-884-3131.
Those wanting to help the homeless with a monetary donation are encouraged to visit meaningfulchange.org where they can buy a welcome basket with necessary supplies for a newly housed individual or family.
Parents on the Oak Forest Parent Resource page shared how they engage their children to help. Pippa Evans and her kids have a counter clicker which they click for every homeless person they see. They assign an amount to each person and donate each month to meaningful change. Others do supply drives or volunteer at the Houston Food Bank.