In the shadowy spaces under downtown Houston freeway overpasses, a community comes to life in the early morning hours.
Residents of this slice of Houston’s homeless population emerge as another raw night gives way to the early light of morning, the roar of traffic and the rhythmic thud of cars passing mere feet overhead.
Their camps — strewn with pallets, blankets, bottles, cans, clothes and even animal and human waste — offer a stark contrast to the gleaming glass and steel skyscrapers just blocks away.
Many commuters overlook or avert their gaze from the homeless as they pass. But a special team of Houston Police Department officers does the opposite: They seek out and serve these invisible, and ignored Houstonians.
“Every person who lives on the street is broken in some way,” said Steve Wick, a sergeant with the HPD Homeless Outreach Team. “After slipping through the cracks of society, they become invisible to the system. We help shepherd them back through the system, so they can get the services they need, and get off the streets.”
City Savvy recently spent a day on the job with Wick and other homeless team officers Jaime Giraldo, Janice Terry, Sheldon Theragood and Colin Mansfield work with Cami West Puentes, Ashley Mullins and Deidre Kemble Charles, case managers from the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.
Launched as a pilot program in 2011, the team connects homeless people to local services — shelters, permanent housing, medical care, mental health treatment, employment referrals, valid IDs, transportation and donated medical equipment such as wheelchairs.
More than anything, they work to restore hope to those who have lost everything, Wick said. And in the past four years, the team has helped about 500 homeless Houstonians get off the streets.
Their work has received numerous awards, and media outlets have spotlighted their outreach. Videos such as the 26-minute documentary, “Shepherds in Blue,” and the shorter YouTube video, “This is what community oriented policing looks like,” created a buzz about their homeless advocacy efforts.
Developing relationships and earning trust from the homeless is key, Wick said.
A photo collage hangs above the desk in his office above the Houston Recovery Center. The collage’s centerpiece is a sign that reads, “Have you hugged your homeless today?” Wick recalls the names and stories of every individual in every photo, all of whom lived on the streets at one time.
On the morning of Jan. 27, team members went to James Bute Park, a popular settling groundspot for the downtown homeless community. At press time, Bute Park has been closed for construction, and the homeless have relocated to other parks. Wick prefers to ride his bicycle around downtown, but Giraldo, Mansfield and caseworker West West Puentes opted for the “Mule,” an all-terrain vehicle that allows them to navigate the unpaved freeway embankments.
That day, the team was helping HPD detectives follow up on the homicide of a homeless woman whose body was discovered near the park the previous day.
“We got the call to assist in the investigation because she was one of our people,” Giraldo said. “The Bute Park homeless people know us. Everybody knows Steve Wick. He’s known as the Mother Theresa of the Houston homeless. We can help in the investigation because these people will talk to us when they won’t talk to any other cops.”
The officers found the victim’s camp and were able to identify her by searching her possessions. By interviewing other park residents, the team identified a few possible leads, but the investigation is ongoing.
Human suffering is a daily sight for team members, but Giraldo says hope and compassion are the undercurrents that keep the officers and case managers working every day.
“Services are available in Houston, but for many homeless, their addictions or mental illnesses are stronger than their will or ability to be successful in those programs,” Giraldo said. “We give them the tools and the extra attention to get into the system and stay there. This is a different kind of police work. What we do is more compassionate and effective than law enforcement alone.
“We follow up with these folks every day,” Giraldo said. “We aren’t there to write tickets that they’ll never be able to pay, or move them away from street corners. Every day we ask them, ‘What do you need? How can we help you? Are you ready to get off the street today?’ We live for the days when they say yes.”
On the trip to Bute Park, Giraldo paused briefly to give water and pet a dog tied up near the overpass. The dog danced and squirmed happily at any sign of affection, and eagerly drank the water. A few feet away, Giraldo and West Puentes met William, a homeless man camping under the overpass next to the spot where the homicide victim had been found. They listened to his story and referred him to a job placement service and permanent supportive housing.
“I’m not into drugs or alcohol, all I need is a good, steady job,” William said. “I appreciate what these officers are trying to do for us. A lot of homeless folks don’t think that the police are here to help us. They’re afraid the cops will arrest you, and take your stuff, but I have respect for them. My brother is a cop.”
On the other side of the park, Giraldo and Mansfield checked on Cynthia, who was injured in a physical altercation with other homeless people the previous day. Cynthia praised the officers for their compassion.
“They are truly good guys,” Cynthia said of the officers. “They do so much to help us. I got roughed up yesterday, and some guys messed up my house. Officer Mansfield stayed with me all evening to take my statement.”
In a nearby camp, the officers came upon an emaciated woman, shivering and coughing convulsively under layers of blankets.
“LaTasha has been on the street for over 10 years,” Giraldo said. “She has advanced AIDS, and we have been trying to get her medical help for ages. Hopefully today is the day.”
And it was. At the officers’ insistence, LaTasha reluctantly agreed to get in an ambulance. Later that day, Giraldo and West Puentes went to St. Joseph hospital to check on her.
“She could die out here. We can get her into housing, get help with her medications and at least help stabilize her,” Giraldo said. “She may never get better or get off the streets, but today, at least she got in an ambulance.
“It’s a small victory, but a big step forward. In this job, every step forward counts,” he said.