Allison Zapata, courtesy Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, Harris County
Allison Zapata, courtesy Coalition for the Homeless of Houston, Harris County

Marc Scott spent his Wednesday morning packing up his belongings into plastic bags.

As he stowed away his vintage vinyl records, he reflected on the moment.

It was bittersweet.

“I feel a lot, it’s hard to put it in words, it really is,” Scott said. “Like, I’m happy. I’m sad. I’m a lot right now.”

He had spent the last few months at an encampment along Chartres Street near Minute Maid Park after losing everything in two separate house fires.

However, by Friday morning, Scott was one of 38 people who moved into the city’s new housing navigation center after a week-long effort to close one of the city’s largest homeless encampments.

The effort was spearheaded by the Coalition for the Homeless, the lead organization operating the region’s homeless response system.

According to Eric Johnson, the lead of the Coalition’s outreach team, the process began months in advance, when the Coalition’s outreach team started to build trust and rapport with the residents of the encampment.

“We want to start working with the clients to see about the documents that they’ll need to get into housing,” Johnson said. “Things get stolen and things get lost, so we have to help them kind of rebuild that paper trail of their lives and that takes a while.”

After months of preparation, the Houston Police Department issued closure notices throughout the encampment on Monday. Soon after, the coalition’s outreach team began the process of transitioning people living along a stretch of Chartres Street into housing or into the city’s newly-opened housing navigation center, where they could more comfortably continue the housing process.

Of the 56 people who stayed at the encampment, six were placed in housing or are currently in the process of being housed and 12 left the area voluntarily — the Coalition says they’ll continue to engage them for housing.

The rest went to the city’s housing navigation center, which recently opened its doors at 2903 Jensen Drive in Fifth Ward. The city-owned facility is run by Harmony House, a local nonprofit, and provides people with three meals a day, transportation, job training classes, health care, one-on-one intensive case management and more.

At the encampment Wednesday morning, Marc Eichenbaum, the mayor’s special assistant for homeless initiatives, watched as people slowly migrated from the area. Many packed their bags into METRO vans and hitched a ride to the navigation center, which Eichenbaum called a low-barrier “pitstop on the road to being housed.”

“We’re not going to put tons of conditions that typically keep people experiencing homelessness away from engaging with services or engaging with housing,” Eichenbaum said. “We want to make it a friendly, welcoming environment.”

Johnson with the Coalition’s outreach team added that the navigation center would also help expedite the housing process by providing a central location where case managers can meet with their clients.

“A lot of the problem on the streets is it’s very fluid out here and we sometimes lose contact with clients,” Johnson said. “If you don’t find them, then the housing process stalls. By having them in one location, we can bring services to them.”

The Coalition has housed more than 25,000 people since 2012 — an effort that’s led to national recognition. Eichenbaum said the new navigation center would allow the city and its partners to increase the scale of its effort against homelessness.

“We still have hundreds of encampments throughout the region. It’s not a question of if we will get to them, it’s just a question of when,” Eichenbaum said. “To decommission these encampments holistically through housing, the right way that doesn’t create further issues, it’s a Herculean, methodical effort.”

By Wednesday morning, Marc Scott had caught a glimpse of his new temporary home. A few people had visited earlier in the week to enroll in the program.

“It’s awesome,” he said.

He took a break from packing to chat with others as he prepared for the next chapter of his life.

“I keep waiting, like to wake up, but it’s not a dream. It’s real,” Scott said. “I can’t wait to watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. That’s gonna be fantastic.”