N THE SMALL PATCH of a front yard outside the Houston Institute for the Protection of Youth, a drop-in center for homeless youth ages 13 to 23, a group of clients is trying to kill another day. They sit on the concrete steps verbally assaulting the traffic, cursing the johns who turn to look, anybody who looks, trying to identify undercover vice cars. Driveway-painted Camaros and pickups peel put, the HIPY clients running after them, hopping in to turn a trick, stepping in front of moving cars, daring them not to stop. Ex-clients, aged out or banned for disrespecting staff members or for coming up positive on a TB test and refusing treatment, loiter outside. Others are checking beepers, trying to arrange deals on the inside phone, fielding calls from tricks, boyfriends and parents, talking about going to Astroworld stoned to ride the rides with a head.
They’re going in and out the door for cups of soda and smashing the empties on the spiked fence outside, fingers too greasy to open another bag of chips; sitting in on HIPY meetings for the free pizza; teasing the staff members that maybe this time they’ll actually go to a counseling session. They’re calling each other bitch, faggot, punk amid threats of “You better pay me my money” and the casual racism of “Why you talkin’ like a nigger?” Girls talk about losing weight on that Ultra Slim Fast diet (i.e., crack), saying, “Shit, you pay me for this pussy.” Boys say things like “Damn right, I’ll suck dick, “ looking to the crowd for a high-five. Teenagers cruise by, asking if “Snowman” is around, and the archetypal trick — a middle-aged man with a stomach, knee-length shorts and drooping sweat socks — teeters on the edges of the property, asking after a young girl.
They’re saying they need some weed, X, acid; going into the surrounding inner-city wards for crack; reciting Slayer lyrics; talking about recent bruises from a Pantera concert, and how they could taste the crystal meth on their partner’s tongue. Bored out of their minds, they Mace one another, urinate on the grounds and play Monopoly with staff members, conspicuously cheating for attention.
HIPY is on Westheimer Road, in Houston’s Montrose section, an area comprising about four square miles of unzoned development and the largest gay community in the city. In Houston, population 1.6 million, there are an estimated 1,500 homeless youths on the streets on any given night, and many of them end up here, where, in addition to HIPY and a branch of Covenant House, there is a hustling scene, a drug trade and some semblance of an alternative culture.
Although over time the squats, the sex trade and the main cruising strip have surrendered to gentrification and a police crackdown that began in the mid-’80s, young people still come to the Montrose looking for what one researcher calls the “symbolic center of homelessness.”
The kids walk up and down Westheimer past Blockbuster Video and the Walgreen’s, past the fast-food franchises, the tattoo shops and head shops, past the outdoor cafes and the really nice restaurants. They travel a circuit of three or four music clubs, step into honky-tonk gay trick bars to try to hustle $40 for a motel room, sit in bus shelters as that Camaro drives by again, making a U-turn into the gravel parking lot. The driver, in his Megadeth concert T-shirt, shoulder-length hair and work boots, gets out, asking, “You guys want to buy any acid?” They stop by Covenant House on Lovett Street for a sack lunch and hang outside Cocaine Anonymous meetings talking about what gauge needle to use to pierce a clitoral hood; the relative effects of Prozac, Zoloft, Haldol; how to cook powder into crack; sleeping in the graveyard; getting stopped by police and looking for something to do.
Jim Mount, an attorney with the Houston district attorney’s office who is prosecuting the recent kidnapping and torture of a 17-year-old runaway named Rudy Meinecke, says: “There’s a ton of drugs down there. There’s a lot of crack down there, there’s a lot of speed, there’s a ton of marijuana down there.... This is an area where a lot of bad stuff happens.
‘Some of those kids that you’re out there talking to are just fried,” says Mount. “They’re done.”
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