Rescue Us: The Homeless Hustle

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Our town’s political leaders brag saying they want to spend $100 million dollars to end homelessness, and thanks to the American Rescue Plan the taxpayer money faucet is wide open! But should it be?

“These sons of bitches don’t respect the fact that some people on the streets are trying to save up their money,” said Houstonian Stone.

His name is Stone. And he’s our neighbor, but not a fan, claiming I ignored him decades ago while I was a reporter for Channel 13.

“And he wouldn’t even listen to me, and I think about that,” Stone said. “I know he’s half Jewish. I think his mother is Jewish, his dad is Italian. But I was really shocked at that.”

Stone is a fixture on the sidewalk outside the old Shepherd Square. In the 90s it was the heart of Houston’s party scene. It’s been shuttered for a long time.

During the day, you can see Stone often rambling out near the corner of Greenbriar and Richmond with his shopping carts loaded to the brim.

At night, he usually sleeps behind this wooden board in the shopping center hallway.

Stone says he’s been homeless for 11 years, and fashions himself an expert of sorts on Houston’s homeless population.

“Most of the homeless are protestant,” Stone said. “They come from Protestant, raggedy little protestant families. You don’t see that many Catholic Hispanics on the street. You don’t see that many Shintoist, Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Judaism Jews. Most of the people homeless are Protestant.”

“Housing is healthcare. Housing is a human right,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “And in Harris County, housing is a goal we fight for together, arm in arm, with our partners at the city, at the Coalition for the Homeless in the community. An army of agencies that will not rest until we end homelessness.”

“The real commitment comes when you are willing to put some money up,” said County Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

And Congress has done just that, in the name of COVID relief. Our politicians plan to spend 100 million dollars they say to end homelessness just in our area.

And you hear a lot of people bragging about just how many homeless people have found permanent housing with all the tax money you’ve been spending.

“City officials say that in 2011 the number of people experiencing homelessness was more than 8,000,” said FOX26 reporter Gabby Hart. “Today that number is just over 3,000.

Look, we certainly aren’t San Francisco or Los Angeles. But there’s still a ton of people homeless on our streets.

We began our American Rescue Plan investigation on the homeless front. How does anyone really know just how many homeless folks are really out there?

I see them on my way to work every single day. Has anyone asked if all this tax money is really the answer?

Every January, over just one weekend, volunteers try to find every single homeless person in thousands of square miles around the Houston area.

What about Marcus Miller? He’s been homeless 28 years.

“But nobody has ever come and said we’re counting the homeless, we want to count you?” asked reporter Brian Collister. “Nobody has ever did that,” said Marcus Miller.

“I’ve been right here in this spot for two years,” said another homeless man.

Stone said he’s been counted at least three time and has been offered housing assistance before. Sort of.

“They wouldn’t give me the clipboard with the thing on it, with the papers on it,” Stone said.

“The goal that I have set is to get us down to zero homeless in the city by the end of next year,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

That was last year and Mayor, clearly that’s not going to happen. In fact, if you look at those homeless numbers, there are more homeless today in our town than there were two years ago.

In 2021, 3,055 were counted. In 2023, 3,270 were counted.

“To say we did a three-night count and this is the number of people experiencing homelessness in Houston, you know that’s definitely taking the data for something that it isn’t,” said policy director Eric Tars.

Eric Tars is with the National Homelessness Law Center in Washington.

“Once you get outside of that downtown core area and volunteers are just out there driving, not even taking every road, and especially in a place like Harris County, you’re going to be missing a lot of people.

“Has anyone ever approached you and said we want to, we’re doing a count of the homeless and we want to count you?” Collister asked. “No, no, they don’t do it. They don’t do that. They don’t tell you anything man. They don’t care if you stay homeless or not.”

“We know it’s not a perfect count, we may miss some folks,” said Sara Martinez, Vice President of The Coalition for the Homeless. “Even if it’s not a perfect number, it’s imperfect in the same way year over year.”

That’s Sara Martinez, The Vice President of Communications at the Coalition for the Homeless, the folks who are spending so much of your money.

She avoided us for weeks when we started digging into what’s become a homeless gravy train with American Rescue Plan money, millions being spent to provide permanent housing.

So I finally called into a Houston Public Media radio show Martinez was on to confront her. You know us.

“On the line we have Wayne. Wayne, what’s on your mind today? Yeah hi guys, this is Wayne Dolcefino.”

Since August of 2020, the Coalition for the Homeless has been paid 5.8 million dollars just by Harris County.

There are just over 27 million dollars in contracts, deals that began just a few months after Lina Hidalgo got into office and Democrats took total control of Harris County’s piggy bank.

The money is supposed to be used mostly to provide permanent housing for the homeless, at least the homeless who really want homes.

“It looks like two-thirds of people that were signed up never went into an apartment,” Dolcefino said.

We discovered that as part of a several months long fight with Harris County to simply get straight answers on the homeless program.

After a threat of a criminal complaint, we finally got our hands on compliance reviews, by an outside contractor, done on the handling of all those millions by the coalition for the homeless.

“The program has not met the goal of housing 1200 homeless… as outlined in the contract.”

“The folks who are supposed to be watching our homeless tax money is the Harris County Community Services department. Their director wouldn’t talk with us. What a surprise,” Dolcefino said. “Their media person told me it was because I might ask gotcha questions. And you know what, she’s right.”

“We are glad to have people come and see what we are doing,” said Mike Nichols with the Coalition for the Homeless.

Mike Nichols wasn’t telling the truth in that interview with The Hill, because he refused to talk with us.

He became the head of Houston homeless coalition in 2019 just after Lina Hidalgo took office. And they have an interesting political history together.

“My name is Lina Hidalgo and I want to be your Harris County Judge.”

In 2017, before anyone had ever heard of Lina Hidalgo, Mike Nichols became the first Democrat to announce he was challenging Ed Emmett for the job as Harris County Judge.

But when medical interpreter Hidalgo surfaced, Nichols dropped out of the race almost right away.

Since then, Hidalgo has steered millions of dollars in contracts to his nonprofit. That helped pay his quarter of a million-dollar salary.

So let’s dig deeper into this homeless housing program. Shall we?

The first few million dollars came from the COVID CARES act, but I doubt any of you ever really looked at all the details.

The Coalition was paid 200 dollars for every single homeless person they found who signed up for permanent housing, but they couldn’t find the 2,300 people they said they would.

Instead, they found 1,425. Of those, the Coalition reported only 376 people actually found a house.

Through public records laws we actually got a list of the folks to see for ourselves.

A lot of folks never moved in even after they got federal housing vouchers that would pay their rent . Some exited the housing program on the day they moved in, or the next day or the next week.

That matters because under the county contract, the Coalition and its subcontractors were paid in advance 1,600 dollars for every apartment unit they had leased.

And then another 1,600 dollars to provide a move-in kit of some basic furniture and household goods.

All these fees added up 2.4 million dollars, and that doesn’t count the vouchers, the rent.

“But it was hardly a success. The Coalition reported they had only provided a third of the apartments they said they would provide. And they had explanations, or excuses,” Dolcefino said.

A tight housing market, delays at the Houston Housing authority on providing vouchers. What a shock.

Landlords were reluctant to let the homeless live in Houston’s nicer apartment complexes with government vouchers.

The response: let’s bribe the landlords, what Harris County calls incentive pay.

These are some of the companies and apartments who took the payoff. Nearly half a million dollars in just six months.

“I’m proud to announce that yesterday the Harris County Commissioners Court committed funds toward Phase 2,” Hidalgo said.

The second round of COVID relief money for the pandemic that’s been over for years actually started just last year.

And the Coalition claims they’ve now found homes for another 600 folks.

But this time, Harris County wouldn’t let us see the names to confirm, to see how many people signed up but never moved in, or are still living in those apartments.

It makes tracking the success of this program almost impossible, but maybe that’s the way Lina, Rodney, Adrian, and Leslie seem to like your government. A total lack of transparency.

“I value fairness and I value transparency,” Hidalgo said.

Why don’t you practice what you preach?

In January, a compliance follow-up by Witt O’Brien’s noted the Coalition did monitor two subrecipients of the money that auditors had some questions about, including the money spent by The Beacon, another non-profit helping the homeless.

“However, it should be noted that this monitoring was done after the program had already concluded.”

That’s not monitoring, that’s called CYA, and investigators said, “The Coalition should provide documents, reports, studies, etc.” to prove their excuses about why they didn’t reach their goals in the first place.

That January review was called the final review. But why?

Does the county even know how many of these homeless folks are still living in those apartments that cost taxpayers so many millions of dollars already?

Maybe Judge Lina should rewatch her campaign videos and all that transparency bull.

“We deserve better than that. Government should not be able to keep those kinds of secrets,” Hidalgo said.

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