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Texans Helping Texans: Harris Co. offers homeless residents opportunity to earn money while cleaning the community of graffiti and trash

“We may be homeless, but we’re not hopeless,” said Leroy Allen. "Give us something to do and somewhere to go."

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — Graffiti is getting painted over in Harris County. Over the next six months, a pilot program aims to clean the community of gang signs and vulgar messages while giving the local homeless population an opportunity to gain a fresh start.

Sharon Maxey, a 62-year old grandmother, is hoping to wipe the slate clean. It’s why she reported to work early Tuesday morning as the sun and heat hovered over the pedestrian bridge along I-10 at Crockett Street in Channelview.  

“I feel alive,” said Maxey as she bent over to roll a paint brush over some letters spray-painted on the bridge as traffic whizzed by.

“We may be homeless, but we’re not hopeless,” said Leroy Eric Allen as he painted over graffiti along the ramp leading up to the bridge. “Give us something to do and somewhere to go.”

Allen and Maxey were among a group of nine homeless Harris County residents painting over graffiti along the bridge. Each person wore a neon safety vest. Each person volunteered to work as part of the pilot community clean-up program.

It’s what opportunity can look like: People earning an honest wage while doing a community service.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia is using money allocated for his precinct to pay for program. If at least 10 members of the county’s homeless population are able to grow from the program by finding employment and gaining permanent housing, the program could continue.

Harris County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Rick Medina is supervising participants as they clean up graffiti. There are plans to expand the work opportunities to trash pickup and cleaning illegal dumpsites.

Each person will earn $10 an hour.

“$10 an hour, so I’ll paint Houston. Crosby. They could put me on the moon, I’d paint that, too,” joked Allen before he explained what earning $10 an hour actually means to him. “I can eat. I can go anywhere I want. I can buy what I need. I can buy my food. I can feed myself. I can even put myself in a room for a night.”

Career and Recovery Resources is partnering with Harris County to help motivate program participants while also helping people find the jobs and housing needed to get off the streets. Nkechi Agwuenu says participants don’t need prior experience or need to complete a background check to start painting over the graffiti. Harris County also provides a ride to and from each job site and two meals, breakfast and lunch, are provided.

“Oh, I know without a shadow of a doubt that this is going to work,” Agwuenu said.

She says at least one member of the county’s homeless population has already used the graffiti abatement program to get himself out of homelessness.

“With just with a little support, we can get Houston back up and running," she said.

A before and after worth fighting for.

“I do hope they see me trying. I miss my grandchildren, my daughter. I only have one daughter,” said Maxey as she wiped tears from her cheeks. “So I’m just hoping that they see that I am trying to change.”

If participants are successful, they’ll receive a letter of recommendation from Harris County. Deputy Medina is ready to write.

“The first day, we had two volunteers. Now we’re up to eight," Medina said.

“This is a great opportunity to get back into society, where I need to be,” Allen said. “And it makes you feel that, you can again.”

On a hot June day, Allen is quick on his feet and has hope in his heart, as a pilot program aims to clear a path.

“It’s giving us an opportunity to come back and start over,” as many times as that takes, he says.