Walking, running and cycling outside are popular activities in the Heights, where one of the most popular spots for getting such exercise is a scenic trail in the southeast part of the neighborhood.
The pedestrian bridge along the MKT/Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail, which crosses White Oak Bayou, is in a wooded part of an otherwise urban, developed area. The bridge provides an overhead view of the bayou and surrounding green space, and trail users heading south get a good look at the Downtown Houston skyline on a clear day.
For the foreseeable future, though, that part of the trail is off limits. The bridge is closed until further notice after it was damaged by a fire on the morning of Aug. 19.
“It’s infuriating to me,” said Emily Guyre, executive director of the Houston Heights Association. “So many people use it to commute and to exercise. It’s a major artery.”
According to the Houston Parks Board, damage to the bridge is still being assessed, so it is unclear what it will take to repair the bridge and when it will be reopened. And on Tuesday, nearly a week after a blaze broke out in a grassy area underneath the bridge, a spokesperson for the Houston Fire Department said the cause had yet to be determined by arson investigators.
At least two people had been living under the bridge, according to a crime advisory sent to Heights residents by the office of Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen. The advisory said a constable’s office investigator was familiar with the two homeless people and contacted them via Facebook Messenger to see if they were OK, and the investigator was subsequently “advised that a known suspect had started the fire for unknown reasons.”
A spokesperson for the constable’s office said the suspect is not one of the two people who had been living under the bridge. When asked if the suspect also is homeless, the spokesperson said in a text message, “Can’t confirm that.”
“The Precinct 1 investigator contacted HFD Arson investigators and advised them of the information,” the Aug. 21 advisory to residents reads. “Both individuals whom had been living under the bridge have been interviewed by (Precinct) 1 and HFD investigators. This incident is not being investigated by (Precinct) 1 and all information was turned over to arson investigators with HFD.”
HFD has not reported any civilian injuries related to the fire, but said one of its firefighters and an arson investigator were transported to hospitals due to dehydration and becoming overheated at the scene. They were later released, according to an HFD spokesperson.
The Houston Parks Board said it was aware of people living under the bridge but could not say how long they had been there and whether the same people had been there, adding, “The homeless population is very transient and moves locations regularly.” The parks board also said it does not have the authority to take any actions to ensure people are not living under bridges, but reports such issues to the City of Houston, which owns the land where the pedestrian bridge is located.
Neither a spokesperson for the Houston Parks and Recreation department nor Marc Eichenbaum, Special Assistant to the Mayor for Homeless Initiatives, responded to voicemails and emails seeking comment. The Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that provides services to the estimated 4,000 homeless people in the Houston region, did not immediately respond to questions submitted by email.
Gary Mosley, a Heights restaurateur who lives in a house near the trail, said a homeless encampment has developed underneath the pedestrian bridge in the last few years. He said trash collects in the area, which he considers a health hazard.
“It’s just gotten worse and worse every year,” he said.
The Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that provides services to the estimated 4,000 homeless people in the Houston region, said “encampments are not a safe or suitable living environment, neither for people experiencing homelessness nor for nearby residents.” The coalition said members of the public can email firstname.lastname@example.org if they see a homeless person in need, and the coalition will direct outreach teams to the location.
“It’s important to keep in mind that it does take time for outreach teams to build trust with people experiencing homelessness, so results don’t always happen overnight,” the coalition said.
The parks board said it was “so disheartening” to see the fire damage the bridge, which it had recently repaired on behalf of the city. Work was completed in July to remove two timber piles that supported the bridge and replace them with steel columns, with the idea of ensuring long-term structure stability.
Now the bridge must again be repaired. And in the meantime, trail users must take a detour in order to cross White Oak Bayou and Interstate 10 to access Sawyer Yards or downtown.
Instead of proceeding southeast across the bridge, trail users must go northwest to Heights Boulevard, take the Paul Carr Jogging Trail south across Interstate 10, and then head northeast along the White Oak Bayou Greenway until it connects to the other side of the bridge, just northwest of Studemont Street.
“The is such an active area along White Oak Bayou,” the parks board said, “and we know it was disappointing to many trail users.”