'Deep clean' of two Houston homeless camps underway

By Lea Wilson - Digital News Editor , Ryan Korsgard - Reporter

HOUSTON - A citywide group of employees and environmental contractors will be deep cleaning two homeless encampments this week.

On Wednesday, environmental crews sanitized the concrete pillars under Highway 59 at Caroline near the Museum District and Midtown.

For months, this has been a homeless camp filled with crime, including three murders.

"One stabbing, two shootings, three drive-bys, I think. It's all related to them. 'Cause in the last shooting, the guy rode off on a bicycle,” said resident Brian Nguyen. "It's crazy. We're in the middle of downtown Houston, right? And you gotta live with that kind of stuff."

The cleaning was considered a “deep cleaning” as crews wearing hazmat suits, protective shoe covers and respirators scooped up contaminated soil.

The city said maggots, human waste and rotting food can spread disease.

"The public health authority declared this area as well as one other as being a public health nuisance. By state law, that means the city must take immediate action to clear out the public health risks that are here," said Marc Eichenbau, special assistant to the mayor.

The city of Houston said the camps have more than doubled in occupancy since August, when a temporary restraining order was put in place to block the city's anti-encampment ordinance.

Health, general services, police and fire representatives along with the members from Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office will first visit the encampments and offer to store all personal possessions before the cleanup, the city said.

According to the city, teams from the solid waste department and environmental contractors Wednesday will remove trash, debris and fecal matter in the areas deemed a public health nuisance near the Highway 59 underpass from Caroline Street to Almeda Road and Thursday in the Highway 59 underpass between Ruiz Street and Preston Street.

The city said personal items will not be touched; only trash will be hauled away.

The city is offering assistance to those who desire shelter, but no one will be forced to leave.

The city is focusing on these areas because it said they are home to the largest "tent cities" in Houston and have significantly increased in size.

"It doesn't make sense to allow our residents to live in squalor when we can provide a safer, cleaner area for our homeless population. We continue the fight to balance their rights, versus the rights of residents who live in the area to also have a safer, cleaner neighborhood," Turner said. "The work never ends. Homelessness is a complex issue, but we have seen a 57 percent reduction in overall homelessness in the last five years and have permanently housed 8,000 individuals and families since 2012."

The city said that together with numerous agencies, it has been focusing its efforts on the 59 underpass since October

2016 and had been making significant progress before the restraining order was put in place.

The Harris Center, Homeless Coalition of Houston/Harris County, SEARCH Homeless Services, Star of Hope, Salvation Army, Midtown Management District, U.S. Department for Veterans Affairs, Houston Recovery Center, HPD Homeless Outreach Team, Houston Area Community Services, Healthcare for the Homeless, Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Workforce Commission are assisting with the cleanup effort.

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