How to Survive on the Streets
Homelessness is risky. It takes time to learn the skills for living on the streets.

Written by Sarah Smith
Photography by Godofredo A. Vásquez

Rotate device for best experience

Certain she was going to get killed, Melissa Fay cussed the whole way down to the corner the first time she washed windows.

What if a driver came out of the car at her? What if they pulled a gun? And besides that — how would she make money?

But it worked. Now she and her husband live where they work: under an overpass, washing windows to make money.

Fay, 40, and her husband have been living on the streets of Houston since Hurricane Harvey. It’s risky to be homeless, and making it on the streets is a learning curve. Each one of Harris County’s 3,567 homeless people — especially the 1,515 unsheltered — has to learn the survival skills Fay cultivated.

“It's about survival. It's about having money out here. It's about having to carry this to protect myself,” she said, holding up her pocket knife. “I shouldn't have to.”

Fay and her husband, Michael Phillips, 34, live at the intersection of Beechnut and the Sam Houston Tollway in organized chaos. They used to live in a two-bedroom house in Brazoria. Phillips worked for an energy company; Fay did online multilevel marketing. Now they store their possessions in suitcases and shopping carts and have a makeshift bed of crates stacked against the concrete barrier.

Fay keeps it neat. Each morning, she folds her pillowcases. It’s an old habit: She was raised by a military father in Virginia.

And she keeps herself clean.

To bathe, she fills a bucket with hot water from a coffee machine at the convenience store and takes it into the woods. She dries her hair under the bathroom hand dryers at the Valero (The hand dryers at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, she said, are no good.). To straighten her hair, she brings a brush.

“I refuse to stink out here,” she said.

After two years on the streets, Fay is friendly with almost everyone. She knows the deputies from the Harris County Precinct 5 Constable’s office and the Houston police who come around. She’s gotten friendly with the non-homeless community. One person dropped off gloves to get through the winter. A teacher stops by often with food and supplies.

It’s dangerous to be homeless and alone. Fay says hi to almost everyone — friends like Uncle Reid, who lives on Beechnut Street near her.

She keeps snack bags and $1 doughnut boxes for other homeless. Anyone’s welcome.

“If you smoke crack, if you smoke weed, you’re still human and you still have to eat,” she said. “I was a drug addict. I try not to look at these people any different.”

The art of hitting windows is summed up in one mantra: “Don’t take any ‘no.’”

When cars stop at the light, Fay approaches, squeegee in hand. She looks straight ahead or has shades on or earbuds in. There’s no music playing, but the point is, she can’t hear or see someone saying “no.”

If a driver puts on the wipers, she’ll go to the back. If the car pulls up once, she’ll wash the back window where there aren’t wipers. If it pulls up again, she leaves it alone.

If someone rolls down the window to yell at her, Fay says, “God bless you, have a wonderful day.” She knows she’ll probably see that person again.

“You’re disrespecting them from the get-go,” she said. “You tell them ‘God bless you’ and listen and walk away, tomorrow they come through the light and have a dollar.”

Usually, she works the corner where she lives. But when it’s slow, she makes her way over to Corporate Drive. Sometimes she and Phillips split off to work different corners. It’s why they paid $100 to turn their phones back on, putting them further behind on their apartment savings. She worries about losing touch with him during the day.

Fay has a knife and mace on her at all times. Her husband carries a pocketknife. She used to just have mace, but once when she pepper-sprayed a man who was charging her he kept coming.

“I hate that I have to carry this,” she said. “If I ever have to use it, that’s still somebody’s brother, mother, daughter, uncle.”

With the money they make window washing, Fay and Phillips buy their own food at the Dollar Store or H-E-B. If the other window washers put money in, they eat too. On nice days they lay out a blanket and cook food on a small grill on the grass by the bank across from the intersection.

She likes strawberry-lemonade vodka and won’t say no to a good Jell-O shot. Sometimes a shot or two of liquor keeps her warm at night.

But when Fay is sick, she prefers an ice pop.

On nights when their phones and power banks run out of juice, Fay and Phillips sleep outside a Boost Mobile store. The owner knows them, they said, and leaves a power cord out so they can charge overnight.

Fay and Phillips are ready with layers of blankets for the winter. But they hope they won’t need it. They’re saving to go into a motel that will accept them and their dogs, and then, they hope, to an apartment.

“If an apartment would just give me the chance,” Fay said, “I could pay for it.”