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Houston proposes Metro site for ‘low-barrier’ homeless shelter

Some of Houston’s homeless are poised to move north of Buffalo Bayou, to a plot about the size of a small residential lot carved from a Metro bus depot, under a plan officials confirmed Monday is aimed at alleviating concerns about camps beneath downtown freeways.

City officials and outreach advocates said the goal was a productive step forward in efforts to transition more people off the streets, while addressing health and safety issues with homeless encampments, namely in Midtown and the central business district.

“No one wants this to be a long-term solution, but from the perspective of the partners working to solve homelessness every day, this is a better interim option,” said Marilyn Brown, CEO of the Coalition for the Homeless, which is working with the city on the shelter.

City officials said the site would be staffed 24-hours a day, and operated in consultation with the coalition. Services would be integrated into The Way Home, which seeks to move people from homelessness to permanent homes.

About 5,000 square feet at Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Buffalo Bayou bus depot, tucked along the bayou west of Elysian where the bayou takes a sharp bend, would serve as the location. The shelter, which officials said would open as a pilot program, would use one of eight metal overhangs at the depot that currently houses buses. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office also leases space from Metro on the other end of the property.

The spot is uphill and across a pair of railroad tracks from the bayou, outside most of the flood-prone area.

Officials said other details and specifics would be forthcoming, but were unable Monday to say how the program would address persistent challenges of serving the homeless, notably a reluctance to provide personal information or enter into long-term programs, as well as the housing and care of pets.

“The project is in the exploration phase,” said Alan Bernstein, spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Officials could not estimate how many people the small space could accommodate nightly.

Potential users of the space, meanwhile, said they would need more information before signing up.

“Sounds like they just want to sweep up the problem and put it somewhere else,” said Roderick Reynolds, 56, who has lived on Houston’s streets on and off since 2005.

Reynolds, who often lies down in Midtown near the Sears department story, said security and bathrooms would be a big draw to many homeless, but requirements to sign up for other programs could lead some to stay away.

MORE: Houston must try homeless shelter remedies that work in other cities

“I’m not bothering nobody,” Reynolds said of the required request for assistance. “Then leave me be with all that.”

Brown acknowledged some will refuse help, but advocates still must make the best efforts to connect.

“Knowing who is in the encampments is critical to knowing how to assist them,” she said. “Some are severely mentally ill or dealing with serious substance abuse issues and have trouble making decisions for themselves. Others are more newly homeless and come to the encampments because there is a feeling of safety in numbers.”

Providing a safe space is crucial to give them an alternative, Brown said.

“There are those who prey on the truly homeless and bring crime, drugs and other illegal activity into the area,” she said. “This is bad for the homeless and bad for the neighborhoods. Right now, no one is safe in or around the encampments.”

Houston has struggled to develop a solution to unsanitary camps cropping up under freeways, even as violence at some well-known spots has increased.

Twice this year, city workers have conducted a “deep cleansing” of a homeless camp in Midtown after the Houston Health Department declared the site a public health nuisance because of piles of trash and human waste. The second cleanup last month took more than two weeks after one homeless man refused to move his belongings, which included a treadmill, rug, a grill, a putting green and two dogs.

In May, Houston leaders passed an ordinance that restricted camping along public rights of way, aimed at preventing encampments beneath freeways, such as at Interstate 69 near Fannin in Midtown and I-69 near Commerce, on the border of Eado and the central business district.

The proposed shelter requires approval later this week from Metropolitan Transit Authority’s board of directors. A subcommittee of the board supported signing an agreement with the city Monday. The shelter would operate a six-month pilot with options to extend it.

Crews will fence off the shelter area, so the vehicles and building used by deputies would be off-limits to the homeless who choose to locate there.

Metro Chairwoman Carrin Patman, who discussed the idea with Turner, said the proposal provides a way for transit officials to “meaningfully contribute with minimal cost to the agency.”

Transit officials remain on the front line with some contact to the homeless. As city officials have grappled with how best to coordinate camps, Metro often contends with homeless riding the rail system to escape Houston’s heat. Transit police also have stepped up enforcement at the Wheeler and Burnett transit centers after complaints of aggressive panhandling and violence.

It will take numerous agencies across health, police, transit and workforce development circles to address the challenge, Patman said.

“The only solution is a holistic one,” she said.

That starts, Brown said, by providing a location where all those interests can come together.

“I believe that many of those in the encampments now will relocate,” she said. “And, as word spreads that the new location is safe and people are moving from there into permanent housing, more will agree to move to it.”

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