Closure of 'tent cities' forcing homeless population into change

HOUSTON – Ceandra Johnson has been living in a "tent city," underneath the Southwest Freeway overpass at Cleburne Street, for the past two months. She's been homeless for a couple of years.

"Safety, it's not good, it's not safe for you out here," Johnson said.

She knows firsthand how dangerous it is: She has two black eyes to prove it. All this stemmed from a violent incident on Sunday at the very place she calls home.

"I was assaulted by my ex-boyfriend and his girlfriend. She pulled a gun on me, and his other friend jumped on me and they messed up my face," Johnson said.

According to her, they also fractured her arm and broke two of her fingers. Johnson is still using what strength she has left to pack up and move out. She said she's been in contact with Star of Hope.

"Just move forward with getting counseling, getting myself together and getting a job," Johnson said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner's homeless encampment ordinance will still go into effect on May 12. This is the beginning of the warning process, letting people living in "tent cities" know they have to take down their tents.

Marc Eichenbaum, the city's special assistant to the mayor for Homeless Initiatives, said enforcement is a process. For the past 30 days, outreach teams have been onsite at major encampment locations informing people of the upcoming ordinance and offering assistance to find shelter.

"There is currently emergency housing available. Outreach teams have and will continue to offer all individuals willing to go into shelter. Additionally, individuals may continue to stay and sleep at their current location, while abiding by the laws," Eichenbaum said in a written statement.

If individuals refuse to take down their tents, they could receive a series of tickets and potential jail time.

One of the goals is to house 500 chronic homeless people in six months, but the halt on that portion of the plan comes from not having enough funding to do so. Because the federal budget cut a HUD housing voucher program, Houston will need to find $2.1 million elsewhere.

"We're looking internally to try to find the additional dollars that we would need that $2.1 million to finish our goal," Mayor Turner said in a Wednesday morning press briefing.

Johnson, and others who spoke with Channel 2, hope the mayor makes good on his promises because from what they said they've experienced so far, their needs haven't been met.

"Like I told him (Turner) when he came down here: I believe he just wants (us) out of sight, out of mind," said a man who called himself "T."

"T" said he's been homeless for two years and struggles to get a job.

"I'm homeless by force. If I could go and get an apartment and get a job to take care of myself and my family, I would," he said. "(I've been to jail), I've got a case on my back, nobody wants to hire me like that."

Steve Clay, another homeless man living in a tent city, said he's tried the shelters, but he's had no luck there.

"They're all booked, full and those that ain't full are closing down," Clay said.

According to the Houston Coalition for the Homeless, shelters in the Houston area are 87 percent full on any given night. However, as a part of the new encampment ordinance, all shelters have agreed to accommodate those responding to the tent city ban. In some situations, that might mean a room or an extra cot on the floor.

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