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Houston homeless on edge on heels of fourth killing

September 17, 2018

The homeless encampment under Interstate 59 was quieter than usual Sunday afternoon. Some people were lingering and walking to the Fiesta Mart on San Jacinto, but most residents sat outside their tents listening to the sound of a preacher’s voice echoing under the concrete overpass.

A day after the fourth homicide in barely a year at a sprawling Midtown homeless encampment, residents were on edge even as activists called for an uptick in patrols.

“There’s low spirits around here,” said Adrian, 30, a resident of the encampment who didn’t give his last name. “They’re already at the edge. Any little thing could set them off.”

The small tent city has been at the center of a legal battle over an ordinance banning temporary living structures in public, but activist Shere Dore said that now the biggest problem at the site is the apparent uptick in Kush sales there in recent months and the lack of police response.

“My biggest concern is the drug element out there — we have dealers that are coming into the encampment,” said Dore, a long-time advocate for the city’s homeless. “They prey on our homeless community.”

It’s not clear whether that reported increase in drug use and drug-related violence had anything to do with the latest killing, and Sunday afternoon, information about the incident was still sparse. Gunfire broke out sometime around 4 p.m. a day earlier, near the intersection of Wheeler and San Jacinto. Police have not yet identified the victim or released a shooter description, and it’s not clear what may have motivated the crime.

The city’s best-known encampment sprang up in mid-2016 and quickly became a source of tension with local residents. The site - home to a long line of beat-up tents under the overpass - has also been the scene of a number of violent crimes, including a string of stabbings and fatal shootings.

Last August, a 67-year-old homeless man was shot in the leg by a gunman on the balcony of a nearby townhome.

In mid-October, a homeless man was stabbed in the chest, but police at the time said there were no known witnesses.

A couple weeks later, 47-year-old Anthony Ross was found face-down after he’d been shot. Again, witnesses were sparse and police only collected “sketchy” information in the immediate aftermath of the slaying.

Then in November, Brent Tapp, the same 67-year-old man shot in August was killed in another shooting. Jamin Stocker was arrested a few months later and eventually charged with aggravated assault for the earlier crime and capital murder for the later killing. He’s still being held in the Harris County jail without bail.

Even before the string of violence, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the City Council in April 2017 approved an ordinance aimed at controlling the encampments with a measure barring the unauthorized use of temporary structures for “human habitation” and empowering police officers to arrest violators if they refuse medical treatment or social services.

But the ACLU of Texas sued the city to block the ordinance, and a federal judge blocked Houston from enforcing its new rules in August 2017. That injunction was lifted last December, and city officials said they would seek to balance civil liberties with public health in enforcing the measure.

Now, on the heels of another killing, advocate Rebecca Lavergne questioned whether police could do more to mitigate the violence there.

“It needs to be patrolled more,” she said. “I don’t see that many police around there.”

It’s an absence the encampment’s residents feel every day. They try to look out for each other like family instead.

“We feel remorse for the guy,” said Cory, 32, who lives at the encampment. “It’s going to get worse unless the city does something.”

Cory said residents would like a water fountain, portable restrooms and a recycling bin to keep the area clean.

“The state of Texas, they just push us to the side,” Cory said. “Like ‘Oh well, they’ll just destroy each other in due time. Let it happen.’ No, this is people’s lives that they’re playing with.”

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