Cars and trucks zoom up and down Washington Street past many new and established businesses, signs of economic prosperity roaring back to life just a few months after closures related to the COVID-19 emergency turned the downtown area into a ghost town.
But below street level, beneath a concrete overpass that spans the Poesta Creek between Blake Fulenwider Ford and Alamo Lumber Co. exists a hidden reality that few know exists – an unseen world that is the opposite of the one that exists just feet above.
To those aware of its existence, the place is where litter discarded on the street or thrown from vehicles often winds up. But to as many as 12 adults, the shadowy world beneath the underpass is home.
“We’re not here to mess with people or hurt people,” Fabian Salazar said. “This is our shelter. This is our home.”
It is through various bad circumstances that those encamped along the creek bed have come to that place. Salazar said he became homeless after a back injury prevented him from working at his job in a local Mexican restaurant. Gavin Tippens, who is hoping to soon start working again as a roofer, recently found his life spinning out of control due to personal tragedies.
“I lost my mom and my uncle in December, I was staying with them,” he said. “I lost my wife last month and I got to the bottom”
Tippens and some of the others living under the underpass say they are eager to do whatever odd jobs they can to earn a few dollars each day. Belinda Garcia, who once owned a successful landscaping business, said any money made by members of the group is used to purchase food for all of them. In addition to collecting scrap metal and taking it to a local recycler, some concerned area residents have been paying them for each bag of trash they remove from beneath the overpass.
Garcia acknowledges that some of the city’s homeless have a more difficult time due to addiction. Both she and Tippens admit to being users of synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as K2.
“It helps me sleep,” Tippens said. “That’s why we’re coming together because we want to help each other stop.”
Garcia said, “I smoke less when I’m down here.”
Those living under the bridge have become a family, even to the point of helping to comfort each other at night when they cannot sleep and protecting each other. Salazar carries an aluminum bat and a gray pitbull puppy named Lady that recently befriended Tippens stands guard.
“A friend of mine offered me a place the other day but I told them I can’t leave this group,” he said. “ ... We all have to get out of here at the same time.”
Among those concerned with the plight of those living under the underpass is Chief Robert Bridge of the Beeville Police Department. While they have received some help via those who bring them meals or blankets, the chief and City Manager John Benson have enlisted the help of nonprofit, clergy, volunteers, community leaders, the county’s justices of the peace and Municipal Court Judge Anna Marie Silvas in finding a permanent solution instead of simply pushing the problem off on another city.
“If I go down there and roust them out from under the bridge, where are they going to go?” Bridge asked.
The ultimate goal, he said is to establish a coalition of local leaders to rectify the situation. Bridge said Benson is researching possible grant funding. The chief invites anyone else who might have some ideas to get involved.
“The Bible talks about we’re always going to have the poor with us, so help us if you can,” Bridge said.
In the short term, police are working to identify anyone who is an occasional or consistent fixture under the bridge so that officials have an accurate idea of the size of the problem.
“We want to identify them mainly, for having an accurate count of the situation, to give them an identity, to know who they are,” Bridge said.
Garcia said she would like to see city and county officials come together on a solution, which she thinks could include a homeless shelter and the city possibly offering money to vagrants to pickup trash on the streets.
Still, she craves a life that is peaceful and consistent, with steady work and a warm, dry place to sleep every night.
“I’d like to have my own little place, serene, with nobody messing with me, so I can go to work and do my thing for myself and that’s all,” Garcia said. “I just want things to be back to normal. I want it to be a home, not a house.”