At any given time, the City of Houston has an estimated homeless population of thousands of people. The number in the past has varied around an average number of 4000 at any one time. They live in every imaginable condition from shelters created under bridges to tents and encampments in the less accessible areas of city parks, wooded green areas and open spaces. Despite ordinances and laws, the situation has always existed. And it is getting worse for any number of reasons including reduced homeless shelter spaces due to COVID distancing requirements, increased evictions and a worsening economy. Houston is not alone. Every city has them.
However, Houston has a program to address the challenge in a more humane way than all too often heartless enforcement. It is a program that works and has earned national recognition. Attendees at the January 19 ZOOM meeting of the Kingwood PIP (Positive Interaction Program) received an absorbing briefing about it from Sgt. Roger Espinoza, the Houston Police Department (HPD) Team Leader for the joint outreach program of the HPD and Harris Center for Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD).
“The HPD has a dedicated Homeless Outreach Team,” Espinoza said in his opening remarks. The team is a dedicated group comprised of one sergeant, six HPD officers, one Metro PD officer, one senior police service officer and three case managers from the IDD. It operates throughout the incorporated areas of the City of Houston but has its office and conducts much of its work in the downtown area where the homeless congregate the most.
“The program began as a pilot program in 2008-9, started by a bike officer who, while working, associated everyday with the homeless.” he said. As he got to know them, he decided the best way to help them was to understand them, work with them and guide them to help and give them a chance before strictly enforcing laws to make them disappear. Espinoza described the process as that of “the carrot and the stick” method where his team uses the “carrot” of help and encouragement and only when necessary uses the HPD “stick” of enforcement.
“We want to mitigate the problem and also see people live in a better way,” said Espinoza. He pointed out many, if not most, of the homeless suffer from any number of mental illness conditions and to different degrees of impairment. He pointed out the people you see on the street panhandling make anywhere from $80 a day to several hundred dollars on special days such as holiday travel times. While passers-by might be tempted to give a dollar or more to panhandlers, Espinoza pointed out the money almost always goes to support a drug or alcoholism habit rather than to obtain food and shelter. That is the tragedy and the challenge of dealing with the homeless.
“Some don’t want to go home. Some can’t go home and some don’t want a place to live,” he said.
Espinoza and the members of his team encourage people who have the urge to give a little donation to a homeless person on the street corner to instead put it aside, let it add up and then donate it to support service providers and partner organizations because those donations go further in terms of doing good. He emphasized the homeless have access to food and they know how to find it.
“There are hundreds and hundreds of programs and resources they can take advantage of,” Espinoza said and noted they do. “There are many organizations that serve meals and provide showers, mental health and substance abuse counseling which help the homeless transition to sheltered housing,” he said. Espinoza highlighted several organizations his team works with including the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Initiatives, Houston Coalition for the Homeless, SEARCH Homeless Services, Lord of the Streets, Bread of Life, Palmer Way Station, Star of Hope, The Salvation Army, Healthcare for the Homeless, US Vets, DeGeorge Veterans Housing, Main Street Ministries and Goodwill.
Espinoza closed his presentation with a summary of a court case recently settled in favor of the City of Houston due in part to the success of the Homeless Outreach Team. He explained three years ago a city ordinance made it illegal to set up tents or any other living structure (encampments) in a public place. The ordinance, which had been in effect in other cities as well, was soon challenged by an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of three homeless people. The plaintiffs initially won because the judges ruled that the Constitution does not allow prosecuting people for sleeping outdoors if there is no shelter available. However, on appeal the judgment was reversed in September 2020 because of the programs the City of Houston has in place to assist the homeless in finding available shelter.
“The City won the lawsuit because of things like the Homeless Outreach Team. Other Cities don’t have programs like Houston’s. Houston has it together,” Espinoza said.
The Kingwood PIP meets the 3rd Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m., normally at the Kingwood Church of Christ, 2901 Woodland Hills Drive, Kingwood TX 77339. The meetings will be held as Zoom teleconferences until HPD Covid19 directives allow otherwise. It is open to the public and all residents are welcome. Contact the Kingwood HPD to obtain instructions for joining the meeting.