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Life and Death in Houston’s Streets

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How hard is it to be homeless in Houston?

Very, very hard.

In April, Dateline Houston told you about a new city ordinance restricting food sharing with the homeless. (Look for the story of a group defying the ordinance in the September issue.) In subsequent months, local media have covered several disconnected stories about homelessness here. String them together, and they start to build a picture of life, and death, on the streets of Houston.

  • Early Saturday morning, a homeless man was walking a woman home from a bar in northeast Harris County. A car ran him over and kept driving. He died at the scene.
  • Just the day before, a homeless man in his 60s was also hit by a car. He had fallen asleep on a feeder road curb beside a construction site. The driver crushed both the man’s legs and kept driving. The man is hospitalized in serious but stable condition.
  • In July, a 16-year-old girl was certified to stand trial as an adult for her role in the April killing of a homeless man. She and three other teens “left Miguel Ramos, 32, to die in a dark, northwest Houston alley after shooting him and taking everything he had—a single torn dollar bill.”

A July report from the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County said that Houston’s homeless population declined 14 percent from 2011—but this came after a 25 percent increase between 2010 and 2011. That increase triggered the U.S. Department on Housing and Urban Development to name Houston a priority community. The current count is 7,356 homeless, which is a point-in-time count; in other words, it’s the number of homeless that could be located and counted on a single night in January.

But other numbers suggest that far more Houstonians struggle to keep a roof over their heads. This month, the Houston Housing Authority will start accepting applications for housing assistance for the first time in six years. They will accept applications for seven days, August 20 to August 26. As many as 100,000 people are expected to apply during that time, just for a spot in a lottery. The lottery will determine which 20,000 people get a slot on a list, their order determined at random. Of those, about 2,000 households per year will actually get a housing voucher.

With waits for government-assisted housing so lengthy and uncertain, one Houston man got innovative with his plan to find shelter and food. On July 19, Jason Tanner, who is 30 years old and homeless, put a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol in his pants and walked into the Harris County criminal courthouse.

He approached a deputy on duty and said, “I’m carrying concealed weapons and need to be arrested.” And he was.

He spent the rest of the night safely in the Harris County Jail.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.