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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Gimme Shelter, But Not At "Star of Hope" Houston (Updated)

July 21, 2013 - Today is my second full day in Houston, Texas. I landed at George Bush Airport (IAH) late Friday night, on a flight from Chicago's O'Hare Airport. In Chicago, I was homeless but not shelterless. In Houston, I am both homeless and without shelter.
Star of Hope shelter, Houston TX
Star of Hope, 1811 Ruiz Street, Houston TX
I phoned a nearby shelter yesterday, the Star of Hope Mission (see map). They said they had no more room last night and suggested that I stop in before 11:00 this morning, which I did. My hope was to get off the streets of downtown Houston and into their homeless shelter. That left me on the street last night.

I woke up this morning at 7:30 under some trees alongside a highway. Last night I met another homeless guy, named Jason, who was watching the bar crowds on Main Street last night. Jason worked for years as a waiter at one of Houston's best steakhouses. We conversed for hours. Jason asked if I had a place to stay. When I said no he invited me to crash at his "camp" at a secret location just outside of the downtown area. I watched him interact with other people, other homeless guys as well as bar regulars who know him, and grew to trust him.

What the hell, I thought, the guy is well known and liked on the street, not just some dude flying through town, and I sure as hell liked the idea of sleeping in a quiet, secluded place better than curling up in vestibule or behind shrubbery somewhere downtown. I won't say the exact location for fear of the local authorities sweeping it out, forcing my friend and me to find shelter elsewhere.

We each had our own padding, provided by Jason, that we placed on the ground. The night was warm and no blankets were needed. I slept like a rock, savoring the first time I was able to sleep fully horizontal after a week of sleeping in a sitting position. Jason was already gond when I got up. I rolled up my mat and eagerly set off to Star of Hope, pausing for a while on Main Street for a donut and Diet Coke.

After wolfing down the donut on Main Street, I sipped my soda while chatting up some other homeless people. I like to do that for two reasons: It's a way of gathering intelligence about whatever neighborhood you're in, and it can be downright entertaining. At 8:00 a.m. in downtown Houston, it seemed like most of the people on the street were homeless, so I had no trouble getting different bits of information.

Star of Hope is nearly a mile from Jason's camp. Located at 1811 Ruiz Street, the shelter is three and a half blocks northeast of Minute Maid Park. When I checked in at 10:55, I was asked for ID and filled out a very basic information sheet, including next of kin contact information. The man who checked me in is named Anthony. To my surprise, he just moved to Houston three months ago from Evanston, just north of Chicago, right next to my old stomping grounds of Rogers Park.

"Okay, you're in," Anthony said. "There's a church that serves free lunch up the road, a block from here. Go grab some food and be back here by two to check in and hit the showers." Since this is now my eighth day without a shower, that sounded awfully good. But I needed more than that donut, so I walked about 600 feet to a clearing beneath a highway overpass that crosses Runnels Street.

I counted around 160 people waiting for the free food being handed out by a church group from Sugar Land, a town 25 miles southwest of Houston. I got in line, one of maybe half a dozen white guys there. I sensed no attitude from my black homeless colleagues, however. The line moved quickly. We were served a plate with a baked potato, ham-and-macroni salad, Spanish rice, lettuce salad and a slice of white bread. Not exactly fine dining, but not bad either and very welcome.

I ate my meal under the cool shade of the overpass while conversing with a black man about my age. Turns out he currently resides at Star of Hope. Ah ha, I thought, a chance to gather information. What he told was a bit disturbing. In short, to sum up what he said, the Star of Hope has very restrictive rules for the "customers" who stay there. He said they wake you at 5:00 a.m., feed you breakfast, then kick you out for the day. You must return no later than 6:00 p.m. Or else. No smoking - get this - within a two block radius. You cannot use a computer in the facility. No cell phone usage. What the hell? I thought.

When I left, I detoured slightly to stop at a nearby Shell gas station. I got a water and struck up a conversation with a black guy named Matthew, late 30's, ex-con, trying to reset his life. We were talking about the weather, hot and muggy, and he told me that he starts a new job on Monday morning, July 22. I congratulated him, and then he said that he was happy about the job but the interview on Friday caused him to lose his housing. I asked what he meant.

"I was staying right over there," said Matthew, pointing directly at the large Star of Hope facility. "I came straight back there after my job interview but when I got back it was 7:30. They didn't even let past the front desk. First offense, and for being in a job interview, man. They told me to get my stuff from the lock up and leave immediately." Matthew echoed what my lunch partner told me about the tight controls and restrictions regarding cell phones, computers, in and out times, and much more. When you check in for the first time, your personal items are confiscated and locked in a secure room.

It was at that point that I decided to turn down Star of Hope. To be there, I realized, would be to effectively lock myself up. With no or very limited funds, I can't afford to take public transit to look for work. If I'm put out on the street everyday, I would not be able to use my computer at a wifi  coffee shop as I am doing right now. My computer would let me do that if Star of Hope allowed it. In addition I make a little scratch from ad revenue on my websites. Many shelters in Chicago have rules and regulations, naturally, but most have 10:00 p.m. as the time that you must return. That's not unreasonable. Six o'clock is just insane. The ban on cell phones and computer usage is megalomaniacal.

But don't just take it from me. Read this review by a guy who stayed there in 2011. It makes Star of Hope sound like a weird cult center run by power freaks.

Update: My instincts about Star of Hope were right. In an August 6 story at Fox News Houston, Isiah Carey reported that a check with the city of Houston's Health Department revealed that "the shelter has been cited several times over the past several years. The violations range from failure to maintain a clean environment in the cooking area to failure to minimize rodents and bugs."