As some Houstonians pay $1K for World Series steat, homeless residents earn $5 an hour to park their cars
As Astros fans shelled out nearly $1,000 just for a seat at the World Series, a homeless man named Tony Smith parked their cars for $5 an hour before heading back under the U.S. 59 overpass to sleep in his tent.
Smith, 48, has lived under U.S. 59 for a month. It's not his first time homeless. Smith, the self-appointed "Big Kahuna" of parking, has hustled through the American League Championship Series for a lot that's better described as an open field behind Tout Suite along Chartres Street.
The tents under U.S. 59, spread out about five city blocks, are a reminder of Houston's inequalities even without the World Series being played right next to it. Cars drive by services for the homeless to park at Tout Suite, a café offering $9.95 avocado toast and floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a clear view of people sleeping on the sidewalks. But as Astros fans poured into Minute Maid Park for an average of $950 per seat, many walking by people sleeping in tents, the contrast was stark.
"It's totally weird to be in my position and to be flagging cars into a $50 parking lot," said Liz Stovall, who flagged cars during the games against the New York Yankees. "It's a $50 per car parking lot, the guy's paying me $5 an hour to do this, and I'm living in a f------ tent."
Stovall is one of dozens sleeping under U.S. 59. Despite the visuals, Houston's unsheltered homeless population has overall declined in the last five years, with a bump up after Hurricane Harvey. While Houston has an anti-camping ordinance and has cleared out homeless camps in the past, local law enforcement has said the Texas Department of Transportation has responsibility for instituting clean-ups.
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At the camp under U.S. 59 most of the flaggers are men. Flagging - like most aspects of surviving on the streets - brings additional hazards for women.
Stovall, 46, has lived at the intersection of U.S. 59 and Commerce Street for three weeks. She hitchhiked her way up from Galveston, fleeing an abusive boyfriend, and got robbed in Third Ward after she was dropped off. Without an ID, she said, there's not much she can do.
The last time she flagged, she said, one of the men told her to make herself more presentable before reaching for her sweatshirt and unzipping it.
If she does it again, she'll try a lot she heard about closer to Minute Maid that's run by an old man. She figures he'd be less trouble. Despite her experience, she wants to try it again. It's part of the constant hustle of living on the streets. Flagging means money, and the $15 she could make means food, a train pass to get a new identification, or savings to get out.
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Smith, though, has flagging down to an art form. He stood out in his orange vest over an orange T-shirt which, for the first hour of his time under the overpass, was layered over a grey-and-black shirt in a pattern reminiscent of a jockey's cap.
He braced his feet on the pavement in the middle of the street and twirled his two neon-orange flags. He put himself in front of a rival parking lot flagger across 59. And although he was one of five flaggers for the $40-per-car lot spread under the overpass across Texas Street, it was Smith's "Let's GO-OO, it's the Big Kahuna special" that echoed.
Flagging isn't a risk-free job. Shari Wilson, who's been homeless for five years, worked the same lot as Smith up until Sunday. Sometimes, she said, it's run by a man they call Fat Mike, distinguishable by his size and silver-and-gold grill that looks like fencing. But Fat Mike - who isn't homeless - took her and a friend downtown to work a lot on Saturday that, it turns out, he didn't have the rights to run. He ditched her and the friend before security showed up. It took them an hour to walk back home.
"If a homeless person wants to work, they work hard," she said. "They just take advantage."
Wilson is a lifelong Houstonian. She's rooting hard for the Astros. She loves watching the fans go by. She tracks the Astros score by the Minute Maid Park train that moves when the home team scores and the fans cheer. It's harder to track the opposing team.
Charles "CJ" Jenkins lives in a tent behind Wilson's. For Jenkins, Minute Maid Park reinforces one of the mantras that's kept him centered during his six months homeless: Don't get comfortable.
"That's a billion-dollar industry," he said, nodding over to the stadium. "What's the likelihood of us being allowed to stay here?"
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