Homeless encampment at Tout Suite in Houston. Photo by Willie Jamaal Wright

Within the dining hall of Tout Suite one will witness the dichotomous usage of city spaces. On the east side of Chartres Street sits the café “where the cool kids are hanging out.” On the other side, U.S. Highway 59/Interstate 69 doubles as the roof of an active encampment. While having brunch one morning, I fixated on a woman as she steadied herself next to a pillar, pulled down her red gym shorts and urinated without hesitation. Throughout my meal I’d seen her pee, an interracial couple kiss outside of a two-person tent and an aide group deliver brown bag lunches.

According to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, such informal and intimate use of public space has become a semi-permanent fixture in American cities. The US-59/I-69 encampment is one of what was two major encampments within the city limits. The other, the Wheeler encampment, flanked the Fiesta Mart on San Jacinto Street in Midtown. While the city has eradicated this encampment and erected fencing to impede future settlements, it has not effectively relocated all of its residents, some of whom continue to stagger about the area. Their presence seems as indicative of Houston’s growth as the high-rise condominiums that populate its central districts. These encampments challenge city officials’ and area residents’ visions for how public spaces should look and how we should make use of them.

The city has engaged in various efforts to end encampments. In 2017 Mayor Sylvester Turner encouraged Houstonians not to give money directly to the city’s houseless1. His rationale was that many are addicts or suffer from mental illness and that offerings would only fuel their afflictions and “aggressive panhandling,” an offense the city plans to more rigorously enforce. These punitive actions are a follow-up to a 2014 ordinance which made it a citational offense for citizens to provide food to the city’s houseless without a food handler’s license. Research has shown that such punitive measures are inadequate at regulating panhandling and houselessness. And according to a lawsuit levied by the ACLU on behalf of three former residents of the Wheeler encampment, they are also unjust.

Marc Eichenbaum, Mayor Turner’s Special Assistant for Homeless Initiatives, declined to speak on the lawsuit, which is still in litigation. He did, however, taut the city’s renewed approach to ending “homelessness” through a discussion of The Way Home initiative, a public-private partnership of city stakeholders. The initiative has housed over 7,000 individuals since Mayor Turner’s inauguration in 2016 and has positioned Houston as a “global leader in reducing homelessness,” according to Eichenbaum. Regarding the growth of tent encampments, Eichenbaum says, “It’s important to note that typically we house people based on vulnerability, not visibility.” This is a stance on houselessness the city adopted prior to the rise of encampments and one it plans to continue.

As access to safe affordable housing continues to be an issue, one amplified by local communities’ unwillingness to accommodate mixed-income, let alone public housing complexes, it may be time to envision an alternative trajectory for public housing in Houston. Though an uncommon concept, the use of public space for housing may be a viable way to combat houselessness. Non-traditional residential developments are growing throughout the country, including Texas, at times, with the expressed support of city officials. Mayor Turner’s administration has a ways to go before it can actualize his plan of making Houston a city of complete communities. However, along the way to this goal Houston can become a model for safe and equitable housing, not just through metrics (which are of importance to Eichenbaum), but through imagination. An openness to imaginative housing models like Jackson, Mississippi’s Cooperative Community of New West Jackson and the soon to be completed Nesika Ilahee, a Portland-based public housing construct for tribal citizens, could reap unique residential respites for houseless Houstonians.

As Houston grows into “America’s next great global city,” it is imperative that city officials and area residents consider the social, economic and environmental costs of being a metropolis on the move. How might we plan for urban resilience and sustainability in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in a way that will not just benefit homeowners, but those in need of housing? Without approaching houselessness collectively and imaginatively, there is the potential for Houston to grow into an unequal global city, signs of which are present at an overpass near you.

A native of Houston, Willie J. Wright is Assistant Professor of Geography and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. You may direct comments to @gardenegro or wright.w@rutgers.edu.

1The use of “houseless” over “homeless” denotes that home is a place created through social relationships, not just with roofs.