HOUSTON — Just a bit after sunrise Tuesday, sleeping bodies lay cocooned in bedspreads and blankets on block after block beneath the Pierce Elevated, the stretch of Interstate 45 that cuts through the southern edge of downtown.
The Houston Chronicle reports Preston Witt walked up to a lump in a turquoise sleeping bag and leaned in.
“Good morning! How are you, sir?”
The sleeping bag stirred. A man poked his head out. He looked at Witt and said hello, but he didn’t want to have a conversation.
That’s OK. Witt merely needed to count the man, along with everyone else sleeping unsheltered in the blocks of Houston where downtown melts into Midtown.
The annual Homeless Count and Survey, ending Thursday, is a three-day census that tallies the homeless in the Houston area. More than 300 volunteers fan out across Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties, counting and — when possible — interviewing people who are sleeping on sidewalks and in cars, sheltering in tents or under piles of blankets.
The federally mandated census, coordinated by the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County , helps secure funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It also helps local agencies figure out where and how they are needed.
Last year’s assessment located 3,605 homeless people in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties — 2,287 of them sheltered and 1,318 unsheltered. In Houston, Harris County and Fort Bend County, that’s a 60 percent decline since 2011, when the number was higher than 8,500.
But those who work with the homeless worry that something might have upset that downward trend: Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in late August.
“That’s why I’m out here,” said a 24-year-old man who sleeps on Austin Street.
“I had a pretty good job just before Harvey,” he said.
But he said he lost his transportation after the flood and things snowballed from there. He spent the month after Harvey in the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter and has been out on the streets ever since.
That interview information is invaluable, said Eva Thibaudeau-Graczyk, Coalition for the Homeless director of programs.
“We’re trying to capture the number, but we’re also really trying to capture the experience,” she said. “And, it’s an incredible opportunity to detect really vulnerable people and get them immediately connected to assistance.”
Betty Thornton, 62, said she’s been on the streets for 13 years. She had a deep, wracking cough and was interested in going to rehab for drug abuse.
Witt, who works as chief services officer at the nonprofit Harmony House, told Thornton he should be able to get her help. He could do a housing assessment on the spot.
“Are you really for real?” she asked. She’s been promised some things before.
He nodded. “We don’t want you out here,” he said.
Using an iPad, Witt searched for Thornton in a regional database and frowned: She’d been on the list for housing before. But without a phone number or an address, no one could ever locate her when her number came up.
“They haven’t been able to get in touch with you,” Witt told Thornton.
“Because I’m homeless!” she said, exasperated.
Witt took the woman to a McDonald’s in the next block and bought her an Egg McMuffin and a large coffee.
The official tally will be published in May.
Everyone acknowledges that the annual homeless tally is likely on the low end of reality. But the census methodology has remained the same since 2012, and that provides a consistent annual snapshot, Thibaudeau-Graczyk said.
“When you compare that year after year, you can get a sense of the trends,” she said.
Harvey might have an impact on this year’s numbers, but on Tuesday morning, everyone on the streets seemed to have a different story.
Outside the El Expreso bus company, volunteer Amy Jo Davison interviewed a man who said he’s been on the streets for about a month.
She peppered him with survey questions: What’s your age? Any disabilities? Mental health issues? Substance abuse? Are you a veteran?
The man nodded.
“Meg, he says he’s a vet,” Davison called out.
“Really?” said volunteer Meg Pohodich, who’s CEO of Harmony House. She approached the man.
“What are you doing out here?” she asked.
A military veteran like him should fall into one of HUD’s priority groups for housing, she explained.
He looked at her.
“I’ve got some anger issues right now,” he said.
On Austin Street, a woman in a black hooded sweatshirt sat on a pile of blankets with her hands tucked into her pockets. “The last time I was in a shelter was 2014, 2015,” she told Pohodich.
Why hadn’t she tried to get more of the services available? Pohodich asked.
“I always feel like somebody’s situation is worse than mine,” she said. “That’s why I never do anything — I feel like somebody’s situation is always worse than mine.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
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