The insults start flying as soon as Brad McPhee approaches.
Kyle Rimel first calls him a jezebel, then a twerp. He claims that McPhee harasses him, aggravates him and brings him bad luck. He even accuses McPhee of trying to poison him.
But it’s all bluster, a way for Rimel to mask the way he really feels about McPhee, who laughs at the jabs and dishes out some of his own. They talk to each other like childhood friends who are catching up as adults.
But their relationship dates back only to February, and it’s far from typical.
Rimel is homeless, having spent the last 15 months living under the Loop 610 overpass at Ella Boulevard. McPhee lives in a house in a nice neighborhood to the north, drives an SUV and makes periodic visits to see how Rimel is doing, bring him hamburgers or, as he did last week, deliver him a new wheelchair.
“I love Brad to death. He’s like a brother to me,” Rimel said. “Well, he is my brother – in the Lord. I’d defend Brad just like he was my real brother. That’s why I give him heck all the time.”
Rimel, 53, is one of nearly 4,000 homeless people in the Greater Houston area, according to the Coalition for the Homeless. The nonprofit organization estimates there are about 100 in the six zip codes served by The Leader.
McPhee, an unemployed petroleum engineer, is a regular churchgoer who has long had a soft spot for the homeless. He said he initially approached Rimel thinking he was another homeless man he already knew and ended up talking to him for an hour.
McPhee said Rimel, who counts a Bible among his few possessions, is unique in that he knows Scripture “about as well or probably better than 90 percent of the people that I go to church with.” That was the tie that bound them.
McPhee, who said he was laid off from his job about a month ago, also understands that homelessness can be circumstantial and not just a product of poor choices.
“There are people that are homeless that have engineering degrees and worked for banks,” McPhee said. “I’m just trying to do what I can do to help.”
Rimel said he once worked as a heavy machine operator and drove a truck in his native Indiana. He said he moved to Houston in 2017 to be with a woman he had met a few years earlier, but it didn’t work out and he had nowhere else to go.
He said he initially stayed in two Houston homeless shelters and was taken to the hospital three times in a two-month span to treat some of his array of medical conditions. Rimel said he suffers from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes, hypertension, neuropathy, rheumatoid arthritis and sleep apnea, conditions that have largely gone untreated since April 2018.
That’s when Rimel said he was discharged from Memorial Hermann Greater Heights Hospital. He wheeled from there to the nearby intersection of 610 and Ella, where he has been stationed ever since.
Rimel panhandles during the day, attempting to attract passersby with a series of hand gestures such as clasping his hands, spooning from an imaginary bowl and holding his index finger and thumb close together to indicate he wants just a little bit of food or money. He said he can collect $50 or more on a good day, whereas some days, particularly when the weather is bad, he gets nothing and doesn’t eat.
He said a few of the nearby fast-food restaurants will set out extras for him and the other homeless people in the immediate area – Rimel knows most of their names, backstories and tendencies – and he also relies on generous people like McPhee.
“You get a lot of good people that stop and give us money and food,” he said. “But then we get the butt munchers that call us names, flip us off, tell me to get up off my lazy butt and get a job.”
Downs and ups
Rimel said he cannot hold down a job because of his physical ailments and mental health issues, which he cited as bipolar disorder, manic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he also has suicidal thoughts and has made attempts to kill himself.
“I’ve started to, like me being in a wheelchair, waiting for a truck or somebody to come flying around that curve, then just roll myself out in front of them,” he said. “But it seems like every time something like that happens, they drive real slow. So I can only blame the Lord almighty for that.”
Despite his Christian faith and knowledge of the Bible, a copy of which he keeps with him, Rimel is no saint and not without vices. He doesn’t drink alcohol but smokes cigarettes when he can and admits to using drugs on occasion, including methamphetamine.
Rimel said he once sold meth in Indiana and spent 14 years in prison there, first for transporting stolen firearms across state lines and then for selling other drugs. He said he also experienced homelessness in his home state.
While he still lives on the streets and is prone to self-medicating, Rimel seems to have found higher moral ground since migrating to Houston. He talks about looking after his fellow homeless people, even ones he has arguments with, and warns that not all homeless people are as friendly as he is.
Rimel said he’s been assaulted and robbed during his short time in Texas. He’s also seen homeless people get aggressive while panhandling.
“About 85 to 90 percent of us are OK,” he said. “You get ones that are violent and crazy, but they’re very few.”
Rimel hopes to become a different kind of statistic by eventually leaving Houston’s homeless community. Ana Rausch of the Coalition for the Homeless, the lead agency for a region-wide partnership called The Way Home, said the organization helped house more than 2,700 homeless people in 2018 and has housed about 17,000 since 2011.
Rimel has been assessed by case workers and put on a waiting list for either permanent or temporary housing. Rausch said Houston-area homeless people are prioritized based on need and vulnerability, with preference given to those with veteran status, children, physical disabilities or mental health issues.
During a phone interview, Rausch said she searched an online database and found a 53-year-old man named Kyle whose location was listed as 610 and Ella. She said records indicated that an outreach team looked for the man about two months ago and “couldn’t find him.”
When told that on Tuesday, Rimel said, “Everybody knows where I’m at. Even my ex knows where I’m at.”
Until Rimel reconnects with case workers who might help him get a home, he’ll continue to make do under the overpass. On the night of July 11, he had a rug and pillow to lay on, a small collection of food and drinks, his Bible, a cell phone that works in places with free WiFi and the new wheelchair brought by McPhee.
He also had the company of Keith Thomas, a friend and fellow homeless man who said he was working his way through a “bad spell” in life.
They had to worry about ants, spiders and the mice that scurried in and out of the concrete foundation of the freeway. There also was the letter that had been dropped off by the Houston Police Department, which said they were in violation of the city’s encampment law and could face a $500 fine or be arrested if they had “too much property” in their possession.
The letter said wheelchairs were exempt, but more drop-offs by McPhee could be problematic. Still, Rimel would probably accept whatever his friend offers, so long as it doesn’t contain mayonnaise or sour cream, which would cause an allergic reaction.
That’s unlikely, though, because McPhee knows better by now.
“Brad’s got a good heart. He’s a good person,” Rimel said. “He’s here to do the Lord’s work, and a lot of us appreciate that.”