Tuesday, October 6, 2024

Pimp This Bum: It's not what you think

Left: Tim Edwards works to bring more attention to PimpThisBum.com
Right: Tim and his friend Bobby, also once homeless, have redefined 'success'

How a local website has changed the face of the fight against homelessness

By Andrea Afra

"I'm back in the fight. I'm tired of laying down. I'm tired of giving up. This life, it's worth fighting for. It's worth fighting for."

After starting an internet marketing company, Ascendgence, Kevin and Sean Dolan, a father and son team, decided to prove their effectiveness by creating a campaign to show that they could successfully drive attention to wherever they targeted. Their new project: PimpThisBum.com. They knew the name would induce visions of bum fights or worse, and either piss people off or make them laugh, but either way, it would stay in their minds.

"We knew that the same campaign with a sincere appeal, and a website like 'helpthehomeless.com' would be ignored. We knew that if we insulted people’s sensitivity or appealed to their humor on a subject as sensitive as this, we would get their attention," says Kevin Dolan, the father portion of the team.

Growing up as an Eagle Scout, his son Sean had always been active in the charitable sense, and while they were initially going to use a local Katy business as their case study, Sean had a different idea. And within a few months it was a success with 2.5 million visitors to the site. Their first recruit was a man named Tim Edwards. I watched the documentary style video on the homepage and saw a man who was humorous yet poignant, with a full beard, kind eyes, and a soft matter of fact voice, who seemed to be wanting nothing more than a chance to change his circumstances. In a losing battle against depression and alcoholism, he had found himself homeless and begging for money, a life he had lived for five years before PimpThisBum.com found him. After gaining news coverage, both locally and nationally, Tim has a new lease on life. Through the site they soon raised over $50,000 and the Sunray Treatment Center in Washington allowed Tim to enter their recovery program free of charge.

It's the night before he leaves for therapy. Tim is sitting on the bed of a motel room, looking into a red heart-shaped compact mirror while he shaves off his long overgrown beard. Over the buzz of the electric razor he says with determination, ""I'm back in the fight. I'm tired of laying down. I'm tired of giving up. This life, it's worth fighting for. It's worth fighting for."

After he is freshly shaved, head and all, the Dolans read a letter to Tim from a man who had seen the news coverage and thought he might be his long lost cousin. Tim's mother and father had split up when he was just a small boy and though he lived with his mother, they too found themselves homeless for some time. She passed away several years ago, before he became homeless, and with all of his family gone, there was no one left to let down. The letter said his father had passed away a few years back, but there was still a big family left in Missouri and Tennessee and they all missed him. There is footage of his reunion with his father's family, including an uncle and aunt and a brood of little cousins. He also met his father's best friend who gave him his father's old harmonica.

"Bandmaster De Luxe Chromatic," he says with a sad smile holding it up for the camera.

After six weeks in rehab he returned to Houston and started hosting a nightly live web chat show online and on his 38th birthday the PTB chatroom folks bought him a new laptop. There is footage of this too and it is by far one of the most touching moments hearing him say that it was his best birthday ever.

I spoke with Sean, who lives with Tim at an extended stay motel. Tim now has job working as a machinist and carpenter and recently completed a project building scale models for an oil industry trade show. He is receiving life coaching courtesy of Balance Health and Wellness Center and with help from the donations, one of Tim's homeless friends, Bobby, has also taken control of his own life and found a job as a barista at a local cafe. They are celebrating their first paychecks together with a party at Cafe Cafe on the west side.

The last shot in the video is of Tim sitting at his newly found cousin Deb's house in Nashville, where he stayed for three months after his stint in rehab. He is sitting on a bench outside of a garden home. It is a beautiful day with flowers in bloom and birds chirping noisily over his low voice.
He looks healthy and handsome, with a jaw that looks strong enough to crush rocks. Wearing a crisp button down and slacks, he is speaking directly to other homeless people like him, but his advice is sage enough for anyone to heed.

"Don't give up. God made the way, but I had to actually do the work. I had to get up and start walkin'. Now I get to walk into the sunset and face new challenges."
And he is no longer alone as he meets new challenges, as he now has a cheer section of millions of friends and fans across the nation.

Meet Tim and Sean live and join the conversation Monday-Friday at 8pm central and Saturdays at 12pm at www.PimpThisBum.com

For more information and how you can be a part of this success story please visit
visit PimpThisBum.com, a non-profit charity

Tuesday, May 6, 2024

What’s so ‘Green’ about Discovery Green?

I poop on this park
By Omar Afra

Granted, the name for Discovery Green, Houston new ‘park’ that sits just in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center, was part of a public contest and was not picked by some municipal boogie man. But, I gotta ask the question.
After hearing the non-stop hoopla about the 122 million dollar city project, I decided to check it out several days after the initial wave of inaugural attendants were left and gone. I decided to leave my cynicism behind and try to see this park as objectively as possible. Nonetheless, I called a good friend to join me on my excursion. He was not available so I called 6 more friends. Neither were they so I summoned the Sith-lord that is Alex Wukman. Our trek did not start of well. First and foremost, parking is a whopping 10 dollars. That seems rather steep for a public park. After strangling a passerby and stealing his wallet, we made our way to the underground parking lot. This is undoubtedly the 1st time I parked my vehicle underground to go to a park. Hmmm. Despite this, we carried on into the 12 acre park to be initially greeted by hordes of Kingwood children splashy-splashing their way through the glorified water hose that the city dubs ‘interactive water features’. It is basically several holes in the ground in a 50-foot by 50-foot area that spray water. No shit. Just open for 6 days, the summer-tastic smell of children’s urine and dog scheizzer was just pungent enough to penetrate the inviting smell of the 2 restaurants on site. Which brings me to my next complaint. Discovery Green hosts two places to eat that are ostensibly privately owned yet operate on public grounds. You got your choice of highbrow-overpriced-pretentious spot ‘The Grove’ or a gussied up Mickey Dees called ‘The Lake House’. Why the fuck is it called the ‘Lake House’. Me thinks it is the dirty, brown moat the city calls a ‘lake’ that is built adjacent to the eateries which hosts model boat racing rental and brave kids dipping their feet into the putrid waters. This is the kind of pond folks used to dump dookie and carcasses into a hundred years ago. (Do I sound like an asshole? I hope not because I am severely understating my case.) Anyways, the whole park is lined with children’s playgrounds surrounded by smoking parents surrounded by pooping dogs. The grass in the whole facility is poorly planted and calling it a park is a stretch in itself. I did not see a glimmer of anything that either promoted or encouraged environmental responsibility. Missing were any receptacles for attendants to consciously dispose of their trash discerningly via ‘paper’ and ‘plastic’ bins. There are few trees, no natural beauty, and the place is no very jogger, bicycler, or even walker friendly. And of course, here is the clincher, skateboards are not allowed. Way to alienate a whole shit-ton of the youth population! This place would more aptly be referred to as a ‘private yet free entertainment facility that happens to be outdoors.’ Now, of course with massive city projects always come celebrity corporation namings, endowments, and sponsorships. Make your way from the ‘Waste Management’ Gardens to the ‘Anheuser Busch Amphitheater’. Also, our dear mayor and his wife even got their own ‘promenade’!

Too bad, because all I ultimately saw in this park is a bonafied Temple of Impermanence and Poorly-used City Funds on a par with the Kemah Boardwalk. I love parks and was frankly excited at the prospect at the city having something like a Central Park of sorts. Fat chance. Well, 122 Million Bucks is a lot of money. I have this strange feeling the city could have more wisely utilized the resources. Hmm, how about the following:

1. Revamp and maintain the hundreds of smaller neighborhood parks that desperately need funds

2. Address the ever growing homelessness problem in Houston whether via expanded meal programs, housing, job training

3. Created a municipal arts endowment that funds ‘street-level’ artists to do public works

4. Start at ‘micro-credit’ bureau that gives loans to faltering mom-pop businesses in neighborhoods that are falling apart

5. At least fix that one massive-fucking pothole on Westheimer just east of Montrose in the right hand lane-heading west…

The list goes on, and on, and on, and…………..

Monday, January 14, 2024

Response from Sarah Ward to 'Worst of Houston': 'Overdosing'

Free Houston Press,

I was alerted by a friend to go to your website and read your "Worst of Houston" article in which it is stated that the "Worst Trend in Montrose is Overdosing". While the blurb was short, it was long enough to open wounds and offend those who knew and loved the "town idiot(s)".

I'm the sister of Hunter Ward. Hunter was a resident in Montrose the last year before his passing on June 30, 2024. But long before Hunter lived in the area, he was well known amongst Montrose residents/regulars for being a musician for a popular punk band.

Hunter is deeply missed by the family and friends (all over Houston) that he left behind. Every person whose life he touched is fully aware that how he died was tragic.

However, if your paper was really concerned about the overdose problem, and not just sensationalism, the blurb about being a “town idiot” or “mixing cocaine and heroin will make you die…duh” would not have been posted/printed in the tasteless manner that it was. Not to mention, you don't know for certain that this is how these young people died.

The gossip and sensationalism over the word “heroin” needs to stop. More awareness needs to be put on what so many people are overdosing from. Simple, easy to get, everyday medications mixed with alcohol is an even bigger problem than that of the word we gasp over, heroin. Recreational drug usage is on the rise and there is no boundary on the levels of society that it touches.

You are more than welcome to post/print my response. It is my hope that public streams of media such as yours will take their reach to the public to offer means of help. Just bear in mind, the very people who have a secret addiction that often lead to overdose, are the very people who will retreat even further should they read things or hear things that cause them to feel further shame or judgement.

God bless,
Sarah Ward

Friday, December 7, 2024

A S.O.B. Story

The women of sexually oriented businesses and how we effectively pimp them

by Andrea Afra


Houston has found the prostitution industry so profitable that you could say we’ve perfected the art of pimping the pimps. Conveniently dismissing the statistics and facts that show that prostitution is far from being a victimless crime, Houston, as well as numerous other cities and private businesses, has been stuffing its coffers with revenues generated by local sexually oriented businesses that are widely staffed with victims of sex-trafficking. The lack of action on the government’s part to dismantle the prostitution industry is a glaring clue to the underlying motives of the parties involved on both sides of the law: Money.

In alliance with the traffickers, pimps, and business owners that operate fronts for off-street prostitution, the government has constructed an elaborate, high stakes, low risk game, rigged with loopholes and gray areas and rules written in invisible ink. The pawns are the prostitutes, who this society envisions to be wily entrepreneurs of the sex-trade, thanks in part to the hooker-Cinderella story, Pretty Women, and also to the mass media who portray them as such through print ads in the back of free newspapers and on the silver screen. The public’s acceptance of this fallacy is detrimental to the success of the government in its quest for financial gain through the sex-industry. Reality suggests otherwise when the facts are revealed. Let us look at our ‘victimless’ sex-workers, our career-driven women of the night.

In a study conducted by Richard J. Estes, Ph.D., and Neil Alan Weiner, Ph.D., it was found that the average age of entry into prostitution was 12 to 14 years old ("Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S. Canada and Mexico," University of Pennsylvania, September 18, 2024). Under the same study they found that 162,000, or 70%, of homeless youth are victims of commercial sexual exploitation in the United States. Fifty percent of street prostitutes are under 18 years old, and 55% of minors in prostitution are African-American. One third of “off-street” prostitutes are minors working in the massage parlors, men’s spas, modeling studios, some strip clubs, and escort services, all which are licensed by the city. According to client interviews, Portland’s Council for Prostitution Alternatives reports that 85% of prostitutes were sexually abused in childhood and 70% reported incest. An American Journal of Health study of inner city prostitutes reported that fifty percent of prostitutes were raped before entering the business and up to 75% are raped by customers and pimps. The Council also estimates that female prostitutes are raped approximately once a week. They are physically assaulted, raped at knife and gunpoint, beaten and psychologically tortured into submission on a regular basis. In a five country study of prostitutes throughout South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Zambia, 84% were homeless, 75% had drug problems and 92% said they wanted to escape prostitution immediately. (Farley, Baral, Kiremire, Sezgin, "Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder", 1998) Of those in the USA who tried to escape, 52% were threatened, stalked, abused, and forcibly returned.

Prostitution and sex tourism fan the flame of demand for the trafficking industry through the need for a steady supply sex-slaves. Of the estimated 1.2 million victims of human-trafficking worldwide, 80% percent of human trafficking victims are women and children who are sold and resold for sexual exploitation. Of the 80%, half are children, who are the caviar of the trafficking world. Their appraisal values are sometimes triple that of an adult.

The U.S. State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research states that approximately 45,000-50,000 women and children are smuggled by traffickers into the U.S. annually and based on Estes and Weiner’s studies sexually exploited children, more than a third, or 17,000, are children under 17, of which at “at least half eventually become victims of commercial sexual exploitation as part of their trafficking experience.” Sometimes they are forced to work in brothels to pay off ‘smuggling’ fees, usually tens of thousands of dollars, and some of them earn their freedom eventually. However many are not even offered a debt-bondage, they are simply held as human slaves. In Houston, the nationalities of the trafficked victims in brothels are predominately Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, South Korean, and from south of the border.

These statistics among many others all point to the blatant fact that most prostitutes are certainly not in the industry by choice. It doesn’t even feel right calling them prostitutes, as they are forced into being prostituted. While there may be a handful of consensual, sound minded prostitutes who truly enjoy their career, the vast majority are victims of bad circumstances or victims of sex-traffickers who either coerce or force them into commercialized sexual exploitation, and we in turn exploit them as well.

“Nothing”, was Houston City Councilmember Ada Edwards’ response when I asked her what the city was doing to monitor and protect the sex-workers within the legally licensed sexually oriented businesses in Houston. We were at the September press conference for Human Trafficking Awareness Week outside of City Hall.
Eyes shielded behind dark Jackie O sunglasses, she smiled wearily and shook her head, in visible disappointment that the city’s lack of action forced her to say ‘nothing’. There is no database keeping track of those employed in these businesses, no required registration to verify age or willingness to be working in the trade. The Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission recently passed a law that makes establishments that sell alcohol post signs featuring the human trafficking hotline if they don’t hold a food and beverage permit however there are many places that don’t fall under TABC’s jurisdiction. She went on to say that we need to focus on slowing the demand for prostitution, but she ladled no burden on the city to monitor or inspect the businesses that are well known by all to be fronts for prostitution. Less than 20% of prostitution is ‘street-level’, where the workers are physically walking the streets. The majority of prostitution is ‘off-street’, and takes place behind the very doors of the sexually oriented businesses we allow the city to license for operation.

Yet, as with the drug war, when the law is more focused on financial gain than quelling the problem, preventative efforts would be counteractive to those gains. There are a number of ways that the government makes money from prostitution and a number of ways it could be using that money to sensibly abrogate the problem, yet for some reason (money) nothing is really being done.

In return for a portion of the revenues and tax dollars, the city allows these businesses to operate knowing full well what takes place behind their doors. The licensing fees for sexually oriented businesses range from the initial $475 fee and a $225 annual renewal fee. While legitimate massage parlors are licensed under the masseuse category, men’s parlors are labeled ‘modeling studios’. Supposedly, each ‘entertainer’ must apply for a $29 permit as well, however, those women who are bought by brothel owners from sex-traffickers, or forced into the business by pimps, are probably not registered with the city. Yet we have no way of knowing this as we’ve failed to implement a system that would monitor the individuals that work in these conditions.

While not openly discussed for obvious reasons, brothel owners have been known to use cash bribes to keep the law at bay. However, this is not necessary, as the rules of the game are outlined to allow the businesses to remain open and profitable to parties on both sides of the law. Thanks to the loopholes and gray areas of the law/game, most brothels are allowed to remain open for business, even after they’ve been raided and busted for prostitution. Police vice squads regularly raid businesses yet they aren’t there to close the place down or arrest the owners. They are there to collect. When a vice squad raids a place, on top of arresting and ticketing the prostitutes, they are allowed to seize all valuables on the property and sometimes even the property itself. Cash, jewelry, electronics, automobiles, are all seized and handed over to the Feds where the items are auctioned off and the profits divided. The city gets a piece, the vice squads get a piece and the rest goes back in the government’s cookie jar. Vice squads and task forces are expected and required to generate a portion of their operation costs, which ultimately will line the pockets of the agents involved in the sting. It’s a great incentive, and they will take extreme measures to make a case.

In one case in Hays county, Texas, an officer went so far as to let the women he was busting put her mouth on his penis before giving the signal to raid the place. This was probably after a long, sensual massage by a naked woman, complete with a table shower if he was lucky. He withheld the information during the trial until he was forced to confess that he was ashamed because he was married.

Thanks to HPD Chief Harold Hurtt, undercover cops in Houston are allowed to get naked in order to solicit an offer of prostitution from the women on site. This is despite the fact that in 2024, while he was chief of the Phoenix Police Department, more than sixty prostitution cases were dismissed because the local sheriff’s investigators not only disrobed, but engaged in sexual activities with the women they were trying to bust.

We have seen the grainy videos of half dressed women in the rooms of motels and brothels, where undercover cops try to negotiate prices for offers of sex. However it is extremely rare for an owner of a sexually oriented business to be charged with operating a front for prostitution.

Although it certainly takes two to Tango in this industry, women tend to be the target of most vice operations. In Chicago, police district 14 accounted for the highest number of prostitution arrests in 2024, in which over 89% of the arrests were prostitutes (mainly women), 10% were ‘johns’, and less than 1% were pimps or brothel owners. In 2024, the FBI estimated 89, 891 people were arrested for prostitution and commercialized vice combined. Commercialized vice is the term used to classify pimping, soliciting sex, operating a brothel or transporting humans for sexual exploitation. Of the total arrests made 21,056 were male and 41,607 were female. (FBI Crime in the United States 2024, Estimated Arrests, Tables 29, 39, and 40.) However those two totals do not add up to the total number of arrests. The difference of 27, 228 is made up of the number of people arrested more than once, as the previous figure consists of total arrests, not how many individuals were arrested. Most of this remainder can be attributed to the fact that a high percentage of prostitutes have been arrested more than once. Typically, they are bailed out by their pimps and put right back to work. Fines and charges range from $2,000 and 180 days in jail. It creates a revolving door effect where tax-payers pay the inmates overhead, and the city jail gets repeat customers. Currently, 70% of female inmates in America were initially arrested as prostitutes.

Our reputation as a city of high profits and low risk for the pimps and brothel owners insure the proliferation of the sex-industry in Houston. If there was more focus on salvaging what little self-esteem is left in these women, or rescuing those who are their against their will, prostitution would begin to phase itself out. But, since the government, and in turn the people, have become dependent on the commercial sexual exploitation industry to increase our budgets, we must be weaned from that source of revenue.

Prostitution benefits the local economy as well. The budgets of companies in the private sector have also become dependent on the bought and sold rape of women. Landlords that lease the space for brothels and motels that rent hourly rooms for paid sexual encounters are on the receiving end of the funds that are procured through prostitution. Media owners, typically free, weekly publications that aren’t ‘family oriented’, profit from the promotion of such businesses through print ads for massage parlors, modeling studios, escort services and even ‘indie’ call girls. The National Organization for Women recently threatened to protest New York Magazine and the new owners of the New York Press for gaining from the human sex-trafficking industry if they didn’t stop accepting sex ads, accusing them of being a “marketing arm of the organized crime world of prostitution and human trafficking”. The protests were canceled when the publications announced that they would indeed stop printing sex ads.

On the NOW.org website, they claim that ‘adult’ advertisements generate 35% of newspaper gross revenue on a weekly basis. Many papers report that they would be unprofitable or unable to publish if not for these advertisements.”

Also on the NOW site: Village Voice Media, owner of several weekly publications around the country, (including the Houston Press, to whom we owe our congratulations, as they have recently added full color to their ream of classifieds, but just for the top-shelf “2 for 1 New Young Asian girls” ads), “generates an average of $80,000 a month on the adult ads that line its back pages, according to the classified ad sales department.” The spa owners can afford it too—they tend to run consecutive ads and get a discount for doing so. Backpage.com is also owned by Village Voice Media, and while the majority of classified ad postings are free on the site, the only ones that are fee based are sexually related and extremely graphic. It illustrates clearly how untouchable the owners of the advertised business feel. Need a sexy eight month pregnant model to blow your mind? No? Then, here’s a good one: Spinners are us at Relax Spa-- New Young Asian Girls. Backpage.com also hosts a forum for client reviews of local brothels including addresses and names of the girls they bought sex from.

In the process of trying to figure out why sexually oriented businesses are allowed such leniency in their operations, the answer always comes back to money. It is not an argument of legalizing something that we are already prospering along with. We are not ready to legalize it because there is no way to monitor it for involuntary workers. The issue is that we aren’t doing anything to protect the victims that we essentially pimp ourselves, and even a real pimp does that much. And the men who pay for sex have no desire to know that the woman under them is there against her will. They pay for consenting sex and that’s what they fantasize it to be. It is a lucrative industry in which the demand for a product of penetrable, obedient flesh is for sale. And as long as there is money to be made from the prostitution industry, the violence and despair and corruption behind the neon lights, and tinted windows will remain a dark secret.

"Operation Weekly Shame"

Orlando Weekly staffers busted for assisting prostitutes through advertising


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Wednesday, November 7, 2024

Light Rail, Heavy Burden

By Alex Wukman

The ballroom at the Greenway Holiday Inn is packed with engineers, business owners and community members. The occasion? An “Open House”. The board of Greater Houston's Metropolitan Transit Authority has just released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for it's controversial University Corridor light-rail project, and it's time to start selling it to the public. The DEIS is a federally required survey of the effect the construction of light rail will have on Richmond and the surrounding area. Weighing in at over 300 very dense pages, hardly anyone is actually going to read the thing....a fact that Metro is counting on.

The crowd here, in contrast to the early and contentious public meetings, is pretty solidly pro-rail. Two middle aged men in suits flip through the DEIS. Nearby, a couple of Galleria area business owners trace their fingers over a table long map showing proposed light rail routes. An elderly man who identifies himself as a Memorial area home owner studies the poster size charts showing the summaries of which properties might need to be acquired for right of way when an engineer from Turner, Collie and Braden walks up and asks if he needs any help.

The din of conversation is all about how the construction of light rail will benefit the surrounding area and how light rail needs to go on Richmond, because that’s where people want to go... until Daphne Scarbrough walks through the door sporting red cowboy boots, tan pants and an armful of anti rail on Richmond flyers. She starts explaining that the anti-rail groups weren’t allowed to put up any signs in front of the hotel. As word spreads throughout the room that she’s here the conversation around the room changes to whispers and the glances become side-long as people find out. “That's right....that lady over there--she’s the one suing Metro.”

* * *

“We’re suing Metro because they violated a contract with the voters by moving the line off Westpark where the 2024 referendum said it was going to go,” Daphne explains a few days later at her shop, The Brass Maiden, which has been designated a Backyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. She mutes the Gene Autry western on TV, opens the door on the cast iron stove to check the biscuits she’s baking and sits down at her kitchen table to talk about the University Corridor DEIS.

“We turned in almost 5,000 letters disagreeing with the project, and only one was mentioned in the statement,” she says as she takes a sip from her glass of water, “it reads like there was only one person who had problems with the fact that voters approved Metro constructing light rail on Westpark, not BRT on Richmond.”

BRT is Bus Rapid Transit, which can be described as buses running in a walled off lane along Richmond. Metro believes that a small-print disclaimer in the ballot language provides the flexibility for moving the line off Westpark and changing it from light rail to BRT. The paragraph reads “Note: Final Scope, length of rail segments or lines and other details, together with implementation schedule, will be based upon demand and completion of the project development process, including community input.”

No one at Metro was available to explain how where a train goes and whether or not it actually is a train qualify as “details”. However, the Houston Chronicle reported in 2024 that “Metro President and CEO Frank Wilson said the route can not run solely on Westpark, an area he described as a “desert.” The Chronicle then went on to state that “Wilson also told residents Metro could put a station in their neighborhood [Afton Oaks]…and buy any homes that have to be razed or lose access to Richmond because of the rails.”

Metro has since decided to avoid putting the line through Afton Oaks altogether and has switched back to light rail from BRT. On October 18th, the Metro Board of directors formalized what has for some time been a foregone conclusion: the University Line will run on Richmond Avenue from Wheeler Station to Greenway Plaza. This segment of the corridor will include seven proposed stations, each of which will grant Metro the right of eminent domain for 1,500 feet around that station.

This “right” is the consequence of state legislation passed in the early 1970s that specifically targets rail stations built by municipal transit authorities and gives Metro the legal authority to condemn anything for approximately 4.5 city blocks around any of it's rail stations. This means that 50 percent of downtown property can, in theory, be seized by Metro any time it wants. Multiple Metro employees have gone on record saying that they take their power of eminent domain very seriously and they have repeatedly stated that it won’t be used carelessly. Case in point: a February 2024 board meeting where Metro Spokeswoman Sandra Salazar assured reporters that properties acquired for what were then going to be BRT lines would be for “transit use only” and that they would be “friendly acquisitions.”

In contrast to this community-oriented official stance are numerous rumored and substantiated instances of intimidation by Metro. In one instance Metro agents were rumored to have approached tenants at an apartment complex on Wheeler and told them that if they break their lease and move to another apartment in a different area of town Metro will pay their rent for three years. Unfortunately no one at Metro would corroborate this and no one in the community would talk out of fear of reprisal.

A better-documented instance of Metro intimidation can be found in the case of one Sam Akers. Mr. Akers is the proprietor of ametal finishing business on Richmond Avenue who spoke out against Metro's plans for the University Line at a meeting sponsored by city councilor Anne Clutterbuck. “Shortly after I spoke at Anne Clutterbuck’s meeting, city inspectors showed up at my shop checking for occupancy permits. I felt that it as an extreme coincidence they came right then.”

Mr. Akers has operated his business on Richmond Avenue for 28 years. Metro's current plans will result in the seizure of three-quarters of his parking lot and essentially make his property commercially unusable.

He shows the painted stripes in front of his door, “All this is what Metro will need for easement.” He walks back inside and explains that “the City of Houston City Council is rewriting the Setback Ordinance for Metro.” The setback ordinance defines the distance a building can be set back from the street. Mr. Akers then explains that “Under the current setback ordinance if Metro took that much of my property they would have to pay for the whole property because I couldn’t use what’s left. Under the new ordinance they would only have to pay for what they take, even though I won’t have any parking when they done.”

Metro’s real estate desires frighten residents and business owners along the University line more than anything else, and they should. In 2024 Metro hired Todd Mason, a real estate consultant, to put together possible real estate deals. Since his hiring, Metro has partnered on a few real estate deals including a shopping center on U.S. 290 and a mixed use development in the Medical Center. It is also rumored that Metro has their eye on the Audi dealership at the corner of Kirby and Richmond, because of the parking garage.

As much interest as Metro has in real estate they don’t seem to have any desire to know about what’s inside, outside or under the buildings. Chapter 4 of the University Corridor DEIS is entitled “Environmental Effect”-- yet it contains not one data point on buildings that will be affected by construction that contain asbestos. Possibly there are none.....but it seems unlikely, given the number of aging commercial structures along the route.

There is, however, data on the amount of hazardous and regulated material sites that will be affected by the construction. The picture it paints is more than a little disturbing: in the five miles between Hillcroft and the University of Houston there are 540 different Hazmat sites that Metro’s construction will possibly affect.

Those sites range from gas stations with leaky petroleum storage tanks to landfills to at least one “Brownfield”— the EPA's term for former industrial sites that can't be used for anything. Except for legally-mandated mentions in the DEIS, Metro has been reluctant to these hazardous material sites under wraps-- even in discussions with property owners who live and work near them.

“I had no idea about those sites,” claims Robert McClain, founder and director of the McClain Gallery, “which drives home the whole fact that everyone has underestimated the negative impact this will have on the community and that Metro has engaged in a stealth campaign to keep people uninformed.” Mr. McClain’s is obviously worn out from last night’s opening when interviewed early one Saturday afternoon. He’s sitting across the street from his Richmond Avenue gallery, which was designed by award winning architect Marshall Reid and brings internationally recognized artists to the city of Houston-- most recently Alejandro Garmendia, a Basque artist whose work has been described as having the effect of looking at the first stage of a crisis.

“Due to Metro’s deficit they are cutting bus service to areas that need it. In fact, the original understanding was that this train was going to go to the East End to serve the Hispanic community and to the North Side to serve the African American community. But the developers don’t want it to go there, they want to go where the affluent live the west and the southwest.”

The reality of bus routes being cut hits hard in Third Ward where there aren’t too many people with a car. In January of this year Metro devastated the residents of the Cuney Homes public housing complex by cutting the 68 line. This forced many elderly riders to have to make two if not three transfers to get to their doctor appointments at the Medical Center, before all they used to do was hop on the 68 and go straight there.

“Metro is always making adjustments to the schedule or the routes in order to force people to ride the light rail,” Eddy Moreno a resident of the near north side said via e-mail. Metro said routes are cut because of cost and rescheduled to provide better service; they also said the same thing about three lines they cut in 2024.

When Metro cut the 55, 284 and 210 line they claimed they were too expensive to operate. Riders of the 55 line felt that Metro hadn’t given it a chance; the route had only been operational six months before it got the ax. Metro’s response was that it was the third highest subsidized line in the city. According to Metro’s own figures, the 55 required $22.55 taxpayer subsidy per passenger per day and it had 541 daily boardings. Conversely the 284 had 236 daily boardings and required $18.03 per passenger per day and the 210 had 238 boardings and required $14.77 per passenger per day.

How Metro defines a “boarding” is an interesting enough process in and of itself. The simple idea is that when a person gets on a bus or train that is a “boarding”. If you have to transfer, that is another boarding. This is what makes things difficult; even if the trip takes longer and is less convenient, it is counted as “increased” service.

Self described “transit wonk” Barry Klein sees things differently. “Metro’s losing $1 million a day due to forced transfers,” Mr. Klein says sitting in the cluttered office of his north side home. A home that is filled with the remnants of 25 years of municipal activism, he coughs a little and continues. “Metro’s market share is down 3 percent since the start of light rail,” he says. “They picked up some ridership briefly due to the Katrina refugees but overall it’s been down for the last three years. Metro keeps wanting more money because people confuse rail with transit.”

Mr. Klein reaches into a box and pulls out a copy of a heavily Xeroxed flyer that shows Metro’s condemnation zone for the area. “My house is right in the middle of the Inter-Modal Terminal,” he says, referring to a massive facility planned for Houston's Near North Side. “None of the people who live here want it; it’ll destroy the neighborhood.”

Miles to the south, on the other side of downtown, this sentiment is echoed by residents of Houston's Third Ward. The University Line does not ends at Wheeler Station. It continues onward along Wheeler Avenue toward University of Houston, thus earning its name.

Particularly concerned is Lizette Cobb. Ms. Cobb is a portrait of old third ward. She’s a third generation Houstonian who has lived her whole life in the same house. Before she was born it was her grandfather’s house, then it was her father’s and now it’s hers. Understandably she doesn’t want to leave. Especially since her father was Arnette Cobb, a jazz tenor saxophonist who was Houston jazz royalty.

“This is a family heirloom we’re talking about,” she says sitting in her neighbor James Chastanet’s living room, “how do you put a dollar sign on that?” It’s a fair question considering that 1950s and 60s soul and R&B singer Jackie Wilson gave Ms. Cobb her first swing set. Or that Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Redd Foxx all hung out at her dad’s house.

“Increased property value only works if you are selling, otherwise it’s just a tax,” Mr. Chastanet says, “and we don’t want to sell.” Ms. Cobb goes on to explain that she has already seen her family’s property become a victim of development once.

“You know that song Take Paradise and make it into a parking lot,” Ms. Cobb asks, “well that was about The Ebony Café which was my dad’s club. And they bulldozed it.” She stops and thinks for a moment and then says, “I guess it’s kind of ironic. My dad started the Texas Jazz Archives in 1986. He gave the city some of his records, photos and oral histories for the sesquicentennial and twenty years later the city wants to tear down his house.”

Ms. Cobb has to hold back a tear as she says, “This is…is government dollars. Money from the people they are talking about here. What are they going to use it for?”

* * *

According to Metro’s website they are using at least part of the money for IPOD downloads and coffee service. Study of Metro’s procurement contracts reveal that this past June, six months after they cut the 68 bus line through third ward because it was too costly, Metro spent $60,000 to convert the entire system map for an IPOD download. We were unable to reach anyone at Metro before press time to discuss what percentage of Metro riders own or regularly use an IPOD. Further study of the procurement contracts revealed that in August Metro spent $96, 677.40 on “coffee services.” Again we could not reach anyone at Metro to determine just how much coffee Metro purchased and why coffee and IPOD downloads were greater necessities than bus routes from the projects to the Med Center.

Perhaps the strangest line item on Metro's budget occurred in March of this year. Metro spent $448,344 for “bus shelter cleaning in downtown”. What is truly surprising about this contract, aside from the astronomically high amount of money spent on cleaning bus shelters in a very small area, is who the money was paid to.

$136, 305.00 of the expenditure went to a company called “BJ’s Enterprise”, located in Webster, Texas. Several attempts were made to contact anyone from BJ’s Enterprise to discuss the terms of the contract; however the company is not listed in the city of Webster phone book or any phone book in the Houston-Galveston area. They have no website, their only address is a post office box and all mail sent was returned.

The remaining $312,039 of the cleaning bill was paid out to the Houston Downtown Management District. The Houston Downtown Management District, or HDMD, is a taxing entity whose services are, according to the their website, “financed by assessing all downtown property owners, based upon their value determined by the 2024 certified tax rolls of the Harris County Appraisal District, and by a rate determined annually by the Board.” Also on the HDMD website is a statement that their “primary focus is to leverage public funds with private resources to improve facilities and services.” Taken at face value, these statements would seem to indicate that Metro is paying out over $300,000 for services to an organization that is already collecting public money for performing the same services.

Perhaps the best explanation for why Metro would pay almost half a million dollars for the cleaning of bus shelters can be found on the boards of HDMD and Metro.

Burt Ballanfant, a Metro board member, works for Shell Oil as does Jeri A. Ballard, the Chair of Operations for Houston Downtown Management District. Another Houston Downtown Management District board member, George Gonzalez, works for Bracewell-Giuliani (yes, that Giuliani) which, in turn, is the law firm representing Metro in the suit brought against it by Daphne Scarbrough.

The Metro board is rife with real and apparent conflicts of interest. Metro Chairman David S. Wolff heavily contributed to Bill White’s first mayoral campaign and was thereafter appointed by the mayor to the Metro board. Another board member, Rafael Ortega, was a senior member of Turner, Collie and Braden, which was the engineering firm hired by Metro to conduct the study that produced the University Corridor Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Nothing about this sort of cronyism is particularly surprising to anyone who has watched Houston politics for any length of time. Things start to kick up a notch, though, when scrutiny passes from Metro's board to the senior management team—specifically, Metro CEO and President Frank Wilson.

A recent immigrant from the land of Tony Soprano, Frank Wilson was hired in 1996 by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, NJDOT, to create a public/private partnership, (something he specializes in) to finance the state of New Jersey’s E-Z Pass system. It was later revealed that Frank Wilson was receiving at the time job offers from some of the vendors who were involved in the bidding process.

Mr. Wilson resigned his position with NJDOT in November of 1996 to take a job with the design, technology and management firm Daniel, Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall, DMJM. DMJM is a member of the AECOM corporate family. So is the previously-mentioned engineering firm of Turner, Collie and Braden. Yet another AECOM company, Frederic R. Harris Inc., was part of the team that eventually won the New Jersey E-Z Pass contract.

In 1997 Mr. Wilson agreed to pay the State of New Jersey a $1,200 fine for possible violations of NJDOT’s ethics code and the state’s conflict of interest laws. An audit released that year indicated that one of the firms offering Mr. Wilson a job had received a consulting contract in violation of state purchasing rules, to the end result (as reported in the New York Times) of New Jersey taxpayers being overbilled by some $300,000-- if that figure sounds familiar, it should. It's about how much Metro is paying the Downtown Management District for apparently redundant cleaning services.

* * *

Monday, October 22, 2024

The Cost of Sanctuary

New law to deny emergency funds to sanctuary cities that harbor illegal immigrants

By Andrea Afra

There is no sanctuary so holy that money cannot profane it, no fortress so strong that money cannot take it by storm--Cicero

Everyday in the U.S. a countless number of crimes go unreported by illegal residents and legal residents of immigrant communities who fear deportation just for calling on the police for help. Many local police departments around the country have invoked a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell policy’ they promote to illegal residents in hopes they will come to them when victimized or as witnesses to crime. To the detriment of this progress, new laws are being passed that use financial gains and penalties to pressure local law enforcement to take on the role of federal immigration officers. According to these laws, police officers may soon be encouraged to arrest and ascertain the legal status of anyone they come in contact with, be it a victim of crime, a witness, or you if you happen to look ‘foreign’ enough. Without some sort of protection by the law, from the law, in the form of amnesty or leniency, fewer immigrants will report crimes and fewer criminals will be taken off the streets.

Section 287(g) was passed as an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act. Approved by Congress, it states that local police officers may act as federal officials and interrogate and detain immigrants whether or not they have committed a crime in order to determine their legal status. Police departments are encouraged to participate in these programs and receive federal funding to train their officers to become honorary Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, agents. ICE was established in March 2024 as an extension of the Department of Homeland Security.

The new law that will change the way police officers respond to situations involving foreigners was sponsored by Republican presidential candidate and voracious immigration opponent Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and is also supported by former Massachusetts Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The U.S. House approved his plan this past June which now only awaits Bush’s signature. To complement 287(g), and still abiding by the ‘with us or against us’ mentality, Tancredo has proposed that federal emergency funding through the Homeland Security Department should be denied to so called ‘sanctuary cities’ whose law departments don’t arrest and report all encounters with possible ‘illegal’ residents.

It is already standard procedure for most local law officials to check the identifications of anyone involved in a criminal matter, whether they’re a suspect, a witness, or a victim. If their status is revealed as illegal then under the new law enforcing 287(g) the police must arrest them and turn them over to the INS. In the end, the victim gets punished and the criminal gets away. Free to move on to their next prey, the criminal often targets another immigrant that will more than likely avoid contacting the police.

To avoid this lack of trust from our large immigrant community, and well before 287(g) was in place, the 1992 Houston Police Chief Sam Nuchia followed suit of other cities around the country and issued an order stating that officers were not allowed to check the immigration status of those that were not under arrest, and the order still stands.

After 9/11, even more intense pressure was put on local police chiefs to crack down on illegal immigration in their communities. However, not all were on board to do so and several chiefs went on record as to why.

[Noting that the mission of police is to prevent and solve crimes] "It would be virtually impossible to do that effectively if witnesses and victims, no matter what their residency status, had some reluctance to come forward for fear of being deported." Tom Needham, Former General Counsel & Chief of Staff Chicago Police Department, Illinois. Chicago Tribune, 4/14/02

"We've been trying to get the immigrants in our town to believe that we're not like many of the governments in their old countries, governments that were corrupt and wanted to railroad them, not serve them." Sgt. Robert Francaviglia, Hillsdale Police Department, New Jersey. Bergen Record, 4/22/02

"We can't and won't throw our scarce resources at quasi-political, vaguely criminal, constitutionally questionable, nor any other evolving issues or unfunded mandates that aren't high priorities with our citizenry." Chief Theron Bowman, Arlington Police Department, Texas. (Dallas Morning News, 4/5/02)

A change in this same stance once held by HPD was fueled by the shooting death of Officer Rodney Johnson who was killed by an illegal immigrant the 21st of last September. Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt decried that a change was in the air and his force would begin working more closely with ICE. In a 2024 interview with CNN’s Lou Dobbs, Hurtt described the process.

“Anybody that we come across that is going to be booked into our jail or either the county jail, Harris County Jail, and they've been arrested by the Houston police department, we're going to be asking them, were you born in the U.S. and are you a U.S. citizen? Depending on their response, we'll put that into the booking blotter and now ICE, that is Immigration Custom Enforcement (sic), have full access to the Houston police department, county jail, city jail, and they'll be able to go in, look at those booking slips and take whatever action they deem necessary with those individuals.”

Opponents of illegal immigration, such as the Minutemen and former Houston city councilman Mark Ellis (who was rear-ended in early 2024 by an illegal immigrant and furious that the cop wouldn’t arrest him at once) define this lack of scrutiny as the actions of a sanctuary city. Later that year, Ellis tried to get city council to force the hand of HPD to overturn the unwritten ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy regarding immigrants. A whopping dozen people showed up in support of his motion. Whipping out his ever trusty 9//11 card in a publicity stunt/interview with Channel 11 News’ Doug Miller, he stated:

“"We've had some rapists here in the city of Houston that were illegal immigrants," says City Council Member Mark Ellis. "We know that some of the terrorists that attacked New York back on September 11, 2024, we know that they were illegal immigrants. And so, when do we say enough is enough?"

Chief Hurtt’s stance on not training local officers to become ICE agents is that he doesn’t have the authority or the resources and isn’t getting paid enough to do the Feds’ job for them.

“I can only concentrate on what's happening here in the city limits of Houston and do the very best we possible can here. Those issues that are based upon national efforts and international efforts, those are, as someone said, above my pay grade.”

It hardly sounds like he is concerned with maintaining the fragile trust bridged between the law and immigrant communities as long as the price is right.

And with the new law threatening to deny emergency funding to ‘sanctuary cities’, the ante has been upped, for Houston will soon have to choose between making or losing money based on HPD’s attitude towards working with ICE. There could be a change of heart among the local officials who would feel the pinch if the city lost funding, especially those who already feel they are underpaid. We will see more aggressive background checks by police officers to determine the legal status of anyone in contact with the law, including victims and witnesses and possibly random pedestrians who just look suspiciously dark-skinned. Next stop, checkpoints.

Undocumented citizens get carjacked, burglarized, domestically abused, forced into servitude, raped, and murdered, yet they have nowhere to turn to for help without risking the loss of what they’ve established here. A simple amendment to our laws should be instated providing amnesty from arrest or deportation due to status to anyone reporting a crime. This should also apply to legal citizens that have an arrest warrant out for a petty offense, such as missing a court date or owing traffic fines. This would give a voice back to those who must choose between arrest and/or deportation or remaining silent when faced with crime.

Without an extension of a compassionate law protecting those we call illegal, the cycle of crime will continue to grow until it reaches our own doorsteps. There are no perfect crimes except for the ones that are never reported.

Here is the plan in action:

Wednesday, August 1, 2024

Hidden Houston History 2: Race, Riots and Good Ol’ Texas Racism

By Alex Wukman

I’ve been thinking of writing a book on the fight for racial equality in Houston. To do the subject justice it would take at least 2-and-a-half years of research to produce book of no less than 700 pages. It’ll feature things like the Camp Logan Mutiny in 1918. This is one of the more interesting events in local history, what happened was that a black soldier stationed at an emergency training facility just east of what would become Memorial Park stopped two white cops after they used excessive force in arresting a black woman.

The cops pistol whipped the soldier and took him in as well, a second black soldier tried to stop the cops and he was arrested too. When word got back to the rest of the garrison at Camp Logan the soldiers deliberated for a while, some reports say they debated for a few minutes while others say they debated until almost midnight. In the end approximately 100 troops stormed the armory, armed themselves with rifles and marched on the police station to try and get their comrades back.

The soldiers were met by a phalanx of off-duty police, national guardsmen and armed citizens. The ensuing gun battle lasted into the next day and left 12 whites dead and 14 injured. Out of the black troops one was killed and 4 injured. The amount of public outcry this created caused all black troops to be taken out of Texas and a suspension of the enlistment all black troops in general. After the public outcry died down and the army had chance to investigate, there were three separate courts martial trying the soldiers for mutiny. Since it was during war time the sentences for the crime was very harsh. 110 were tried, 110 found guilty, 19 sentenced to death and many of the rest were sentenced to life in prison.

The book will also mention the TSU shootout in the early seventies—HPD heard that the Black Panthers were recruiting on the TSU campus and showed up in force, a ‘firefight’ ensued and quite a few unarmed college students were killed. It’ll mention that while the panthers were there they were teaching students how to screen for sickle cell anemia, hypertension, anemia and diabetes. It’ll go from there to the persistent rumors in the black community of a raid on a Black Panther safe house, this one located across the street from Emancipation Park and how that HPD raid supposedly ended with the structure burning to the ground.

It’ll then move into the part of the story that while intriguing just can’t be substantiated and doesn’t stand up to scrutiny—that after the fire the city wouldn’t let anyone build on the land and renamed the park Emancipation Park to quiet public outcry.

It’ll include the fact that the Menil family wanted to donate the statue “Broken Obelisk,” the one that is installed in front of the Rothko Chapel, to the city for use in a Martin Luther King memorial in 1968 but City Council refused. I was told to mention how the Menil’s even offered to pay to build the park but again Mayor Louis B. Welch and City Council refused.

The book won’t just deal with the black experience it’ll mention the death of Jose Campos Torres—a Hispanic Vietnam veteran killed in 1973 by HPD officers. He was walking home from a bar when two uniformed HPD officers stopped him, handcuffed him and threw him into a bayou.

He drowned, HPD denied any involvement. A few days later the body was fished out of the bayou and the handcuffs had HPD stamped on them. This led to the Moody Park Riots.

And the end of the book will deal with the Klan, how they were marching in Houston up into the ‘80s and how a coalition of like minded citizens was able to prevent those marches by turning out thousands of people and forcing the city to pass an ordinance making it too expensive for the Klan to hold a rally here in town. The Klan now has to carry a $1 million insurance policy and hire off duty cops for security if they want to march in Houston.

Yea it’ll be a great book; sadly I doubt I’ll get around to it. There are just too many beers to drink and too many pretty girls to talk to.