This article was published in the Houston Chronicle on May 26th.
Through decades of neglect, Houston’s leaders have failed the Northside. Poor public services, inadequate infrastructure and a growing homeless population have created challenges for this historic neighborhood just north of Houston’s downtown.
Last week, the consequences of these collective failures became painfully and devastatingly clear when 11-year-old Josue Flores was murdered as he walked the seven blocks from Marshall Middle School to his Northside home. While the assailant remains unknown and at large, we’re left to wonder why anyone would do harm to an innocent little boy. Beyond that, we’re left to reflect on our neighborhood’s unmet promise and why, years after our residents launched an ambitious community improvement effort, our streets are still unsafe for our children.
Homeless men urinate on the street by Ketelsen Elementary. People drink alcohol and abuse drugs at bus stops and light rail platforms in broad daylight. Mothers are harassed by aggressive panhandlers as they walk their children home from school. An environment of lawlessness permeates our community. We shouldn’t have to live this way.
Houston’s Northside, much like young Josue, is a humble, hard-working community with big dreams. It is a community of caring residents who take pride in their neighborhood and celebrate its rich history and cultural diversity.
In 2009, the Northside was selected by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation of Greater Houston as one of two pilot Great Opportunities neighborhoods. Through the GO pilot, and with the support of Avenue Community Development Corp., community leaders developed a plan – our “Quality of Life Agreement” – to achieve our vision for a safe, diverse, vibrant and connected community. Among the challenges we identified to address in this plan were a lack of quality affordable housing, inadequate infrastructure, homelessness and crime.
We created a safety leadership team to proactively address crime reduction. Since the launch of this effort, we have completed 50 projects to reduce crime, including safety audits, neighborhood clean-ups, partnerships with law enforcement and initiatives with civic clubs. Thanks to the work of community leaders and police, crime in the Northside has declined more rapidly than the citywide average; between 2010 and 2014, the Northside experienced a 22 percent decrease in crime, compared to the citywide decline of 10 percent. However, despite the community’s efforts, the violent crime rate in Northside remains above the city average. Josue’s brutal murder is a reminder of the urgent need for change.
The worsening homelessness crisis is seen as a chief cause of our neighborhood’s crime problem. We are told that there has been a decline in homelessness in Houston; this has not been our neighborhood’s experience. We believe that homeless individuals are being pushed out of downtown into low-income neighborhoods like ours. We believe that a Salvation Army shelter and numerous boarding houses in our midst attract homeless men and troubled individuals to the neighborhood, where we don’t have adequate services to meet their needs or a way to hold these individuals accountable for their sometimes-destructive behavior. We are frustrated by inadequate police enforcement around Metro’s new light rail line. We are concerned about illegal drug use and the consequences of untreated mental illness among those who are homeless, as well as those who are housed.
In our updated 2015 Quality of Life Agreement, Northside leaders again laid out strategies to improve safety in our neighborhood. We are working to strengthen the relationship between our community and law enforcement. We are working to obtain better lighting and improvements to neighborhood locations perceived to be unsafe. We are implementing initiatives to reduce illegal dumping, littering and other nuisance activities. We are seeking to partner with homeless-services organizations to develop housing and employment programs to reduce our homeless population.
Now we ask Houston’s leaders to do their part to improve safety in our community. We need an increased police presence on our streets and better coordination between police agencies. We need more protection against nuisance loitering on our streets and sidewalks. We need strict enforcement of laws against illicit drug and alcohol use. We need effective treatment options for those who are mentally ill. We need justice for Josue: His murderer must be found.
Throughout the Northside, there are countless children like Josue filled with promise and hope for a better tomorrow. Josue was shy but beloved by his classmates for his good nature. He won the first-place trophy last year at his elementary school for solving math word problems at the annual Math Rumble. His classmates and family were ecstatic for him, a young man who dreamed of becoming a doctor and helping his family and community. Now, one year later, Josue’s dreams have come to an abrupt, brutal end. His family and our community are left in mourning, but we are even more determined to continue our fight and to press city leaders to help us improve the quality of life for our community, our children, our future.
Treviño and Pfeifer are Northside residents and members of the Northside Great Opportunities Neighborhoods Leadership and Advocacy Team.