Researching Homelessness in Houston: A Week in Pictures

It was a good week.

Scratch that. It was a great week, accumulating interviews with homeless folks and homeless experts, surveying those on the streets, and gaining new insights into homelessness in ways (and of a volume) exceeding expectations.

So first, a special thank you goes out to the 20-some supporters who’ve chipped in to help make this journey possible. And as I write this from a pitstop on my return drive to Minneapolis, I look ahead to all that now needs to be done: analyzing the many surveys from Houston, Dallas, and Minneapolis; creating outlines for the stories to be featured in this documentary series (with the help of my writer friend David); and then editing all this footage into videos (with the help of my cousin & editor Krista and friend & video-producer Joe).

Each of these individuals are helping me for little to no compensation. But I would like to pay them whatever I can, as well afford myself more time to work on this project. So, if you so desire, please contribute to the creation of the documentary series here.

Now I’ll stop talking about what’s to come and instead share what I did this past week…


My first morning there, I drove to the location of a reported tent city—only to discover it had been disbanded by police. But there were yet a few hangers-on. So, I spoke to these guys and asked them to complete a survey:


These guys then directed me to where I found a larger group of homeless folks. This group was also willing to fill out surveys. One guy was even open to being interviewed about the difficulties facing this community.

Homeless homeless guy Houston.JPG
“A lot of them can’t read or write,” said this Houston man about his peers on the street.

A second man there took an interest in my work and asked to be interviewed as well. More than that, this man named Jim would tour me around to a couple of other places in the city to help me better understand the homeless situation there.

But first, he shared with me his story:

“It gets to the point where I don’t want to get my hopes up. That just crushes you even more,” said Jim. After losing his job and then his wife three years back, he ate away at his savings until penniless. Today he finds himself in a position where the pain of disappointment is too much to risk, he says. Best not to try at all.

After sharing his story, Jim took me to a small tent city in town:

Homeless Jim.JPG
“I guarantee people from the city have come through here with a clipboard,” said Jim, my Houston guide for the day. 

According to Jim, a sight like the one over his shoulder above isn’t so much about neglect from the city as it is about resistance from those who remain homeless.

“Hey, I’m out here on the street. I can take it,” said Jim, speaking for those who refuse help, which Houston has been ambitiously offering in recent years.

Also, he said, “If you’re getting help from the law, you might [seen as] a snitch.”

Even when offered housing, there seems to remain homelessness. The question with what to do about such people remains to be answered. This is a question Marilyn Brown, President of Houston’s Coalition for the Homeless is trying to solve. The following day I interviewed her at the Coalition’s downtown office:

Homeless Marilyn.JPG
“We have housed more than 15,000 people in the seven-year span since we began this work,” said Marilyn. “At the two-year mark, a good 85-90% of the people are in still in the housing–or have been able to move on and become self-sustaining.”

Since 2011, Houston has reduced homelessness by 50% through an ambitious, coordinated effort to provide permanent housing. Marilyn explained the benefits of their “housing first” model.

It promotes the idea that a homeless person isn’t practically able to build a life until he/she has the foundation of a secure home. So, Houston has been providing them to the chronic homeless—regardless of their criminal past, whether they are sober, etc. This idea is criticized by those who point out such a system rewards behaviors that lead to homelessness (addiction, irresponsibility, etc.) and can be exploited because of this. Bringing this up to Marilyn, she simply disagrees that such concerns (though present) outweigh the benefits.

“Housing first” is considered across America to be a Progressive approach to the homeless crisis. Yet the Coalition in Houston also has taken a more conservative stance in advocating for law enforcement to disband large tent cities. They were, in fact, a reason why the tent city I sought out my first morning was no longer there. The Coalition’s stance comes from the fact that residents in tent cities are at risk of the activity within them. Plus, residents are less likely to pursue the Coalition’s housing and service programs.

In all, I gathered that Houston has taken a pragmatic, carrot-and-stick approach: generous programs to help the homeless while steering such individuals into their system. This combination struck me in its sensibility—as well as how it contrasts the approach with which Minneapolis has addressed its tent city.

A recent fire at the Minneapolis tent city is, I believe, symptomatic of ineffective city policy.

I’ll be fleshing out such points in my documentary series.

Finally in Houston, I visited one of the new housing complexes built for the homeless. There I met Reginald, who opened up about the activity inside this building of dormitory-style apartment units.

Homeless Reginald.JPG
“If that person wants nothing out of life, he’s gonna come here and do nothing. If a person wants to succeed, he’s gonna, you know, grow and get better.”

Reginald, who had been homeless about three years, now lives rent-free in the building behind him. He said the quote above when asked how his fellow residents are using this new chance to build a life. Is it used as a stepping stone or a place for people to party and whatnot?

As he indicated, and as I’ve seen in Minneapolis, the results are mixed. Many here, according to Reginald and others I asked in Houston, do use their new home to build a life. At the same time, he said, “A few people have brought the street mentality indoors.” Some of whom “have been kicked out for fighting and drinking and things like that.”

This, I believe, is the crux of the issue of whether such initiatives are the best way forward. Thus, it’s one I’ll examine in detail in this documentary series on homelessness in America.

Next week, I’ll share the equally-productive two full days I spent in Dallas…

Until then, I’ll be returning home, returning to the Minneapolis tent city, and getting to work on all this material. If you’d like to support this project, you can contribute here.

thank you for caring,


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