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Saturday, December 15, 2018

Columns

Houston cares more about flashy lights than homeless neighbors


Courtesy of Jona Garcia

The iconic bridges on Highway 59 that once lit immense stretches of the road briefly went dark. These bridges — and their colorful lights — have become synonymous with the ingenuity and unity of our city and quintessential support for #HoustonStrong, and their brief darkness caused quite the stir.

These colorful and useless bridges obviously mean a lot to Houston and their disappearance led to an outpouring of support and donations from citizens that got them turned back on, but such an immense and expeditious response for something as trivial as lights is ridiculous when Houston is home to another oft bridge-dwelling population: homeless people.

More than 6,300 homeless people live in Houston, and this ongoing issue has only been exacerbated in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

The lights shut off due to a legal dispute between the Montrose Management District, which runs the bridge lights, and its residents — the district could not collect taxes or pay any utility bills. Outrage ensued from those for whom the arching lights had defined and improved many rides home.

Local philanthropists, residents and many businesses in the area donated to get the lights back on as soon as possible, including the mayor of Houston, Sylvester Turner, who offered to pay the bills out of his campaign fund. All of this shows the unity and perseverance of Houston, but at the end of the day, these are just lights.

The same mayor who extended his immediate assistance to this issue has been known to turn his back to the issues of homelessness. Turner’s office has been working to, essentially, hide Houston’s  homeless, attempting to ban homeless encampments because they are supposedly a threat to public safety and discouraging commuters from offering panhandlers money under his “Meaningful Change -Not Spare Change” campaign.

The many Houston citizens who found themselves on the streets and in shelters after Hurricane Harvey aggrandized the situation and brought more attention to the homeless population. This attention did not persist though.

The city’s backwards response to this ever-growing issue is immensely discouraging. As a commuter, I pass by entire communities of homeless individuals every day, and it’s heartbreaking to see their struggles. Donating food, money and clothing feels like a small gesture in the wake of this problem.

In the absence of one night of illumination, dozens of donations came flowing in effort to change this. Our city has faced the issue of homelessness for years, and those same donors never found it to be troublesome.

The responsibility does not lie entirely on Turner. It does not lie at the feet of one particular sector or business enterprise. It is up to the people of Houston to decide whether we can rechannel the awareness we give to decoration around our city to the citizens of it. This sentiment doesn’t have to be accompanied by a financial benefit; caring itself is a gateway to change.

It is so easy to overlook these people, and we’re encouraged to do so. Our privileged and luxurious lives desensitize us from the reality that our city, and many cities, face. Ironically, as students, this risk encroaches upon us more rapidly and begs for our attention, as there are thousands of homeless college students across the U.S. and Houston.

It becomes more difficult to neglect this problem when it follows us from the streets to our schools.

Homelessness is not invisible to us — not when we see it in plain sight every day in Houston. We see these people stripped of the most basic dignities, mendicants on street sides and under highways, risking their lives to cross a street to fetch a couple of dollars that can bring them a step closer to survival.

As a city, we stood united through a hurricane, through a World Series win, and through the dimming of the Montrose bridge lights. Yet we refuse to confront the problem that has plagued our city for years that is a testament to the quality of life here.

It’s time we take the compassion and generosity we have for those vivid lights and redirect it to the thousands of homeless sleeping underneath them.

Opinion Editor Anusheh Siddique is a finance freshman and can be reached at [email protected]

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