Kenneth DeVon hands out bags of food and water to the homeless below US-59/I-69 near Commerce Street, in downtown Houston on August 17, 2018.
Photograph by Lauren Marek
It was a cold and cloudy morning in late February in Houston. Standing outside of a building in downtown, Sayyid Bullock was restless. He adjusted the straps of his backpack in between sips of coffee, his tall, erect frame swaying from side to side as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. At 44, he was hours away from receiving the gift of a second chance.
A man wearing a fluorescent green windbreaker and blue-rimmed glasses approached. Kenneth DeVon was running late to their appointment, but Bullock’s face instantly lit up when he saw him.
“Are you ready?” DeVon asked, patting Bullock’s back. Bullock nodded and betrayed a toothless smile. The men made their way towards DeVon’s white van, which bore the words “Love in Action” in red paint.
That day, February 26, Bullock became one of the first fifteen people to be housed by DeVon, the outreach case manager for the century-old Christian non-profit Star of Hope, in 2018. By the end of July, 65 homeless people had a roof over their heads thanks to DeVon. And it all started on a trip back to Houston.
DeVon, 30, grew up in Missouri City, the middle child in a family with five siblings. Going to church, saying grace before meals, and a commitment to serve the less fortunate factored prominently into his childhood—as did music. “When I was about seven, my mom heard me singing in the bathroom. She was so surprised that I could sing that she burst into tears,” DeVon said.
DeVon began to sing wherever he could: at home, in church, and, later, in his high school choir. He received a full scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where things really began to fall in place. “I sang, I learned the business of music. I was in the company of extremely talented and motivated students,” Devon said. His talent scored him gigs doing backup vocals for the likes of Alicia Keys and Stevie Wonder. When he graduated in 2010, he immediately scored a job in New York City working in music management. Everything seemed to be working out.
In October 2013, DeVon—afloat on a stream of endless possibilities—was in Houston visiting with friends and family. As he ambled towards his car after meeting friends at a downtown café, a bedraggled man’s sharp voice caught his ear.
“Kenneth! Kenneth!” the homeless man screamed. Although he was startled, DeVon made his way towards the man, whom he didn’t recognize at first. But when he drew close, DeVon found himself looking into the eyes of his brother Desmond, who he thought had been dead for ten years. “That encounter gave me an anxiety attack,” DeVon said. “My brother was crying, I hit the floor.”
DeVon recalled the conversation being emotional, if a bit awkward. There were ten years of lost brotherhood to face, which DeVon learned had been taken by Desmond’s drug addiction. “Crystal meth, crack cocaine, just name the drug and he was addicted to it. I knew I couldn’t turn a blind eye,” he said. He promised Desmond he would return.
When DeVon returned to New York, he immediately quit his job, packed up his apartment, and moved to Houston. Three months after their reunion, he took Desmond in. “I had no idea what I would do in Houston when I moved back. I took up odd jobs like teaching and relied on my savings. My brother became my focus,” DeVon said.
He didn’t immediately tell his parents that he was helping Desmond. “My brother had burned bridges with everyone by then. My parents would have been concerned about me and wanted to protect me from all the lying and stealing that they had to go through. So I didn’t want negativity or bitterness to come in the way of my helping him.”
DeVon spent an intense two years living with and caring for his brother, whose addictions still raged. He once got a call from the police, who told them that Desmond was in the middle of the road in nothing but boxers. Whenever Desmond left the house, DeVon was riddled with anxiety. Was he overdosing somewhere?
“I realized I couldn’t manage this by myself, however hard I tried,” DeVon said. Research led him to a faith-based intensive residential spiritual recovery program in Galveston run by the Strong Tower Ministries. Today, his brother leads workshops on rehabilitation at the center that healed him.
Still, DeVon’s experience helping rehabilitate his brother changed everything. “It made me realize I had a deeper passion and purpose for my life, one that I didn’t even know existed,” DeVon said. “He opened my heart and made me reimagine my life.”
When the Star of Hope, which focuses on providing services for homeless men and women, had an opening for an outreach manager in 2015, DeVon applied and got the job. Now, he drives the “Love in Action” van around the Houston area—downtown, the Third Ward, Montrose, Medical Center, and sometimes as far as Katy, his hometown of Missouri City, and Sugarland—and engages with the homeless. DeVon spends his days on the street distributing food and clothing, taking people to shelters if they are willing, and—most importantly—planting the seed in their minds that a permanent home is not inconceivable.
“It’s all about gaining trust and cultivating that relationship, as I did with my brother, before I even talk about the options they have. They have to know what my motive is,” DeVon said.
Kenneth DeVon outside of Star of Hope on August 17, 2018.
Photograph by Lauren Marek
Sayyid Bullock with Kenneth's Star of Hope Van on August 17, 2018.
Photograph by Lauren Marek
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development listed Houston as one of ten priority communities for addressing homelessness, alongside Atlanta, Boston, New York City, and New Orleans. At the time, 8,500 people were on the streets and in shelters, and the City of Houston and Harris County felt the urgent need to embrace a more holistic and regional approach to the issue, rather than the piecemeal efforts that had been underway until then.
“Instead of trying to treat the cause, we have begun to treat symptoms like income, hunger, and so on. The cause of being homeless is that you don’t have a home,” said Marc Eichenbaum, the City of Houston’s special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives.
Over one hundred organizations focusing on issues such as housing, food, health, and outreach came together, and the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, an organization founded in 1982, became the de facto umbrella agency. “We had days of conversations and eventually set our common goal to be that by 2020 nobody will have to be without permanent housing for longer than 30 days,” said Marilyn Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Coalition for the Homeless.
Houston’s Continuum of Care Program, a federal program designed to forward the goal of ending homelessness, was implemented by the Coalition for the Homeless. Under the program, more than 15,000 homeless individuals have been permanently housed since 2012, and 90 percent of those individuals remained housed at the end of two years.
Providers tackling specific facets of homelessness suddenly felt there was a sense of continuity. They were now confident that once a homeless person ended up in a shelter, that triggered a process ultimately ended in permanent housing. Various programs were there to help with rental assistance, life skills, education, and employment, reducing the opportunity for that person to slip through the cracks.
“It was about combining resources and funds, looking for doubled efforts and voids and closing the gaps,” Eichenbaum said. “Even today, each organization is operating on its own but they’re all operating in a system which helps maximize impact of housing the homeless.”
In June 2015, Houston announced that it had officially ended veteran homelessness, the largest city in the United States to do so. The first stage in the plan was complete, so focus turned to the chronically homeless. But that same year, the completion of the Buffalo Bayou Park renovation laid bare the severity of the problem. For years, the city’s homeless population was largely sequestered along Buffalo Bayou or in vacant plots in the east end of town. But the renovation, which gave the city a 2.3 mile green space, a skate park, a dog park, and a children’s play area, pushed homeless people out. Suddenly, they found themselves clumped together and exposed under freeways, and in the shadows of skyscrapers downtown.
“Someone who drives along these spaces will say ‘oh my God, we have so many homeless people’. But they were always there, we just didn’t see them. A city that’s booming and building has fewer hiding places for the homeless.” Brown said.
Perhaps in response to the increased visibility, in 2017 Houston amended its Code of Ordinances to prohibit “unauthorized use of . . . a tent or other temporary structure for living accommodation purposes or human habitation” in public. The city also prohibited aggressive panhandling. Taken together, those two ordinances effectively made it illegal to be homeless.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sued the city, claiming that the ban infringed on the rights of the homeless. City officials say that there are enough vacant beds in shelters on any given night, which the ACLU refutes. Coalition figures show that between the City of Houston and Harris and Montgomery counties, there are 37 facilities and 1,959 emergency shelter beds.
And the situation has worsened since the ACLU filed its lawsuit. In January, the Coalition—in consultation with the UTHealth School of Public Health—recorded 4,143 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people. This was an increase of about 15 percent from last year, which pointed directly to the ravages of Hurricane Harvey. The Houston Housing Authority reported damage to nearly 5,800 affordable housing units because of flooding. Almost one in five (17.9 percent) people who were unsheltered at the time of the count reported that they became homeless due to Harvey.
“There are no city-operated emergency homeless shelters,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney at the ACLU. “They came up only for Harvey and went down soon after.”
“Houston has been a leader nationally in reducing homelessness, so the city clearly know what works. They should focus on that instead of criminalizing the homeless population,” Trigilio said.
In January, a rare snowfall blanketed Houston. The immediate casualties of the cold were the unsheltered homeless, two of whom died.
One freezing, foggy morning, DeVon pulled over by an encampment at Congress and Hamilton below 59 North. Overhead was the thrum of a heaving city, and a few yards away the mint green roof of the Minute Maid Park was seen when the fog lifted. DeVon adjusted his cap, zipped his jacket and stepped out of his van. As though on cue, people emerged from their tents one after the other.
“I need a pair of socks, Kenneth.”
“A blanket, please, Kenneth?”
“A sweater for my baby, Kenneth?”
“Have you got some food, Kenneth?”
When DeVon drives to a homeless encampment, the inhabitants know who he is. He’s been given the moniker, “Jesus on the streets,” which he laughs off. “I am just a compass navigating the homeless in their journey to recovery,” DeVon said. “Showing up and being there, identifying their needs goes a long way in trust-building,” he added.
The last time Bullock had a roof over his head was five years ago in Baltimore, where he worked in the kitchens of various chain restaurants. He moved to Houston to be closer to his daughter, Nya, and her mother. “I took up odd jobs but was constantly battling addictions. My daughter’s mother was supportive but eventually got fed up,” he said. Bullock ended up with a tent at the James Bute Park.
On that cold February morning, Bullock entered the apartment complex of New Hope Housing, on Sakowitz Street, and absorbed his new environs: a clean and welcoming entrance, a lush green lawn. “This is like a convalescent home, it’s beautiful,” he laughed. “This is where I will get better.”
With keys in his hand, Bullock led the way to his new studio apartment. Two men had just laid a mattress on the bed, and were dressing it with spotless white sheets. “This is going to make such a big difference to my life, just in being grounded and getting back on track,” Bullock said. He was presented with a cart full of home supplies.
Bullock was now ready to go one last time to his old camp. Trappings accumulated over the years had to be brought back to his new home, and goodbyes had to be said. DeVon was with him the whole way. On the drive back, he used DeVon’s cell phone to make two calls. The first call, to his daughter, went unanswered. But the second one got the response he was looking for. “Wow,” the voice on the other end squealed. “Now I can visit you,” his ex-partner and the mother of his daughter said teasingly.
At the park, the van came to a halt, the two men stepped out and hugged. “All the best, man,” DeVon said. Bullock grinned, turned his back and walked towards the park, occasionally glancing at the sky. The midday sun was now out. DeVon looked on for a few moments, jumped in the van and drove away. He had more work to do.