By Peter Henderson
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Justin Jones moved out of Houston's convention center on Thursday evening after nearly a week sheltering there with thousands of others displaced by the havoc of Hurricane Harvey.
But instead of going back home or to a federally-subsidized apartment, Jones - one of the roughly 3,600 people who were already among Houston' homeless before the storm hit - was headed back onto the streets with more challenges than ever of getting off them.
"You could hear the frustration in voices rising," said Jones, 28, describing the mood in the convention center. He has applied for federal aid, but nearly everyone else in the shelter was a step up the economic ladder and had a better chance of getting federal housing funds.
Harvey has spread misery across a wide swath of coastal Texas, causing billions of dollars in damage to property, killing more than 45 people, and displacing as many as a million. For those who were already homeless when the storm struck, Harvey has put up new obstacles to a better life.
In the wake of the storm, competition for undamaged housing is expected to surge along with rents. And, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, federal assistance to acquire housing for storm victims will prioritize those who had houses beforehand.
"If an individual was homeless pre-disaster, they may not be considered for Housing Assistance and Other Needs Assistance, which both require successful verification of pre-disaster occupancy," a spokeswoman said by email.
That doesn't sit well with people who have been working to fight homelessness in America's fourth largest city.
"People from above moving down into the apartments we were using to move up," could be an issue, said Marilyn Brown, chief executive of the Coalition for the Homeless, which uses donations to help homeless people find apartments.
Houston has found housing for 11,000 homeless people in the last five years, the coalition says, and supporters across the nation have given the non-profit more than $400,000 for homeless due to the storm, mostly through its web site. (https://www.homelesshouston.org/take-action/donate/)
'NONE OF THEM FIT'
Like many longtime residents of Houston streets, Jones didn't seek shelter when the storm arrived. He spent the first night wrestling for control of the blue tarp that was his roof and walls. When dawn came he was still holding the tarp - and ready to move to a safer space.
To survive, Jones sells cold water from a cooler on Congress Avenue, underneath Interstate 69 on the edge of downtown.
Maricela Martinez, 40, who lives a couple of streets down, beneath the highway, has not registered for federal help.
She hunkered down in her 'bedroom' - a mattress with an umbrella - through Harvey's lightning and thunder. When the storm inundated her bedding and clothes, she found some replacements at the convention center during afternoon visits.
Success was limited. She got "Shirt, jeans, socks and shoes. None of them fit," she said.
Adam, a 26-year-old lying on a cot and Red Cross blankets under the overpass, had an apartment with city aid, but the storm left his home uninhabitable. "I'm back where I started," said the young man, who declined to give his last name.
Mike Williams, 38, wishes the convention center would just stay open. He pushed a wheelchair of belongings to the shelter early on Sunday morning, after the rain drove him out from under the bridge near a bayou where he lives.
On Wednesday walking down the street he exulted in the sun's return. "The rain's over with!" he said, raising his hands in victory.
But he enjoyed the protection of the convention center and wanted to prolong the stay as long as possible. "I just wait till everybody leaves," he said.
(Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Mary Milliken)