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Baquee Sabur's life changed when he had to spend a night sleeping under a Houston overpass.
"It was horrible," Sabur said. "Every car that pounces on there, you hear it. It's a dark place. You want to fall asleep, but you don't know if anyone's going to approach you. It's dirty, and you're hanging out where bugs and rats are."
For Sabur, the path to homelessness started in 1991 when he was released from prison after serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Reentering public life was challenging, but by 1993, he'd finally secured steady work in the building trades, hanging drywall. Then, one day on the job, he fell head-first off an 11-foot fence.
The accident left him temporarily disabled and unable to work, which brought him to his night under the overpass.
Determined not to sleep under a bridge another night, Sabur went to Star of Hope Homeless Mission, a shelter and nonprofit that describes itself as a "Christ-centered community dedicated to meeting the needs of Houston's homeless men, women, and their children."
But when Sabur, who is Muslim, knocked on the door looking for a safe place to sleep, he said they tried to turn him away—because of his faith.
Sabur thought: "OK, Christian homeless shelters apparently only housed Christians."
Star of Hope Vice President of Communications Vivian Winslow told Scalawag that Star of Hope is indeed a Christ-centered community dedicated to meeting the needs of all homeless men, women, and children, but they welcome all. "We do not turn people away based on their religious beliefs, and I am not aware of that ever having been a practice," Winslow said.
But Sabur said he told them: "Look, you made your decision, and I'll make mine. I'm not leaving this chair. Call the police because I'd rather be in jail than sleep under a bridge."
Eventually, they let him in—under the condition, he said, that he follow the Christian program. He stayed for a few months, but as a newly converted Muslim, attending Bible readings was uncomfortable. Winslow said that the Star of Hope's long-term recovery program is Bible-based and focused on helping residents understand and overcome issues of homelessness. However, he said it's a resident's choice whether to participate.
Sabur remembered things differently. "I couldn't stay quiet. I had to participate. And I had to be very careful on how I expressed myself," he said. He thought about other Muslims in similar circumstances, having to make the choice to either silence their faith to get support or return to the street.
This was the moment that he realized there needed to be a better way to help Muslims leaving prison. He dreamt of starting a transitional home himself—one where Muslims could practice their religion freely.
Transitional housing can provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness or serve as a halfway house. Many of these facilities operate specifically for people who have recently been incarcerated. Sabur knew right away he would call his transitional housing project Huma-Faith, an ode to his faith that influenced his understanding of how to serve all humanity. But establishing such a program proved difficult. Life wasn't easy at the time. Sabur went back to prison in the early 2000s for another six months. It would be nearly a decade before he could start working to establish Huma-Faith.
Job insecurity, housing discrimination, and disability affect many people returning home from prison. Add to that being a Muslim in the Bible Belt, and the challenges become even more difficult.
The exact number of Muslim transitional houses in Texas is somewhat disputed, but as of publication of this story, there are at least four operating in the state. That includes houses run by Sabur's Huma-Faith, which he first opened in April 2010; and Houston's Halal House Project, run by Joseph Clark, a friend of Sabur.
Both Clark and Sabur converted to Islam while they were in prison. Both were held at the Beaumont Federal Correctional Complex. Sabur was in the George Beto Unit, and Clark was in various different units across several bids. Although their time incarcerated overlapped, and they walked similar paths, they wouldn't meet until 2019.
"We first met while brother Baquee [Sabur] was promoting Malcolm X's event," said Clark. The annual event honoring the life and legacy of the Muslim human rights activist is hosted in Houston by the Black Dawah Network, an Islamic organization that focuses on inner-city outreach.
They discussed how brotherhood and faith were crucial to making it through the trials of incarceration. And how, after struggling to survive reentry to the free world, they now do what they can to help other Muslims facing the same hardships. They talked about their transitional homes and how Clark was in the beginning stages of opening Halal House.
Sabur shared how, when he was getting Huma-Faith off the ground, he first went around to various mosques presenting his ideas and asking for funds. They all declined.
"When you come to Islam in prison, it's a micro-society. You become attached to your Muslim brothers. When you are released, you expect to have that similar experience in a free society of being close to your brothers. And then you experience this culture shock," Sabur said. "Like you're trying to inject yourself in the community, but you are being shunned."
Finally, he convinced the restaurant managers of the Furr's restaurant in Dallas to allow him to hold a meeting there. They provided food. "I invited a couple of homeowners who I was soliciting to be board members," Sabur said. The homeowners who he met with weren't Muslim. He was nervous but determined.
"I laid out the written product, and thank God, I walked out of that meeting with the keys to two homes," Sabur said.
After one brief setback that temporarily shuttered the house, Huma-Faith reopened in 2012, and now boasts three houses.
These lessons helped Clark plan his own house. Since 2019, Clark has run Halal House out of a small brick house with a closed-in porch. After entering through a green front door, there's a living room and dining room. The house is modest: three bedrooms for attendees and two bathrooms. Here, Muslim men leaving prison have a safe place to call home—or at least something like it.
Having a haven like Halal House means the world to Clark, as he struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction for years. During that time, he was in and out of prison, beginning when he was only 19 years old. His last stint in prison was in 2007 at Larry Gist State Jail when he was 39. By then, he'd converted to Islam and found great solace in the religion's concept of brotherhood.
When Clark got out, he stayed at the Salvation Army, an evangelical organization. He was still struggling with addiction and meeting with a Muslim psychiatrist at the time. One day, he was complaining to him about having to read the Bible in the shelter. In response, the psychiatrist gave him some hard advice: "Brother, don't worry about that right now. You have to put religion on the shelf. You reek of alcoholism and crack, and you talk about practicing the religion?"
In a statement from the Salvation Army, a spokesperson said that the organization sincerely apologizes if Clark felt pressured to read the Bible during his stay. While religious services are available in many Salvation Army locations, the organization, like any faith-based nonprofit that receives money from the federal government, is not allowed to make religious participation mandatory for residents.
Clark was able to start Halal House, in part, through a connection made by a different Christian center, St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church. Clark established a relationship with the church while feeding the homeless community together every week. Someone from St. Mark told Clark that a house across the street from the center was going to be foreclosed within a week. "So I made a decision to make a payment on the house," Clark said. "And I used it to build the Halal [House] Project."
Every month, Clark puts $1,500 of his own money into the transitional home. He also gets donations from the community for everyday items like beds, blankets, and pillows, to name a few.
A typical day of running the home begins at 7 a.m. when residents spend 15 to 20 minutes in spiritual reflection.
"We have a session of devotion, where we choose a spiritual topic that we all can digest respectfully before breakfast," Clark said. Residents have two to three group sessions where they talk about issues surrounding their emotions, behavior, and family. Afterward, some residents go off to work, while others stay at the home doing chores, including cleaning, cooking, and laundry. They are also required to do drug and alcohol tests.
Clark explained there's a reason for everything he and his residents do at Halal House. For example, having residents work in the house to earn money provides structure. Similarly, learning to control anger and how to work with others are valuable life skills. To help residents through their struggles and remind them that they aren't alone, Clark reads passages of the Quran and stories of the prophets.
The result is a unique, meaningful experience that allows Muslims to receive vital services without being pressured by another faith tradition, and instead, able to freely practice their own.
Incarcerated Muslims in Florida celebrated Eid with limited accommodations
During the month of Ramadan, Muslims worldwide participate in ritual fasting and communal celebrations. The 10,000 Muslims incarcerated in Florida's prisons struggle to do so under discriminatory accommodations.
Now also the Assistant Imam at the 5th Ward Islamic Center for Human Development, where Halal House is located, Clark stressed the strong sense of brotherly love and camaraderie: "We all identify that what matters is our faith. We all struggle with the same issues that brought us to this point."
Both Sabur and Clark welcome all types of faith groups into their transitional home, but the majority of residents are Muslim. Since Clark formed Halal House, 50 people have stayed there: 30 were Muslims and 20 were Christian. Now, there are two Christians and one Muslim staying in the house. Sabur said when he lets non-Muslims stay at Huma-Faith, he explains to them "that they will be housed with Muslims; there are certain guidelines that we use to make sure we could co-exist."
In his effort to end the cycle of homelessness and imprisonment, Clark said he is working to ensure that no one else looking to rebuild their life will have to "put their religion on a shelf."
Finding housing in Texas if you are formerly incarcerated can be next to impossible, even without religion as a factor. When you leave prison, it's largely up to you to figure out where to sleep, where to eat, how to secure a job, and how to find transportation to that job. All this while experiencing the stigma of being formerly incarcerated.
Leah Metzler is the Chief of Staff at Second Look Texas, a Christian organization that works with incarcerated people, particularly teens, during reentry. Metzler said a story that really sticks with her is how one person who left prison revealed feeling "like a fly buzzing around the inside of a car on a hot day, and you open the window, and the fly is sucked out."
For those who are being released on parole or under mandatory supervision, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice must approve their housing plan and record their address on file. Upon release, people may choose to stay with family and friends. Others end up at a homeless shelter or in transitional housing.
Opportunities to be placed within a halfway house, an umbrella term that includes transitional housing facilities, are hard to come by. The parole division section of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website merely states: "Inmates who have no other resources will be placed into a halfway house as bed space is available." According to a 2019 report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, there are only 1,950 state-funded halfway house beds, while nearly 37,000 people complete their sentences every year.
Waiting lists are often overseen by social service agencies, according to Patrick Howard, CEO of the Housing Authority of Travis County. He said it could take up to two to three years to be placed, and sometimes, agencies stop adding people to the waiting list because of the large volume of requests for transitional housing.
For those who are released after serving their full sentence, the justice system has no mandate to ensure housing. No agency is tasked to monitor where those people go when they leave prison. Many are released directly into homelessness. With multiple state legal aid services, the nonprofit Beacon Law publishes an annual report, "Locked Out: a Texas Legal Guide to Reentry," which claims that people not on parole are often released "with nothing more than with their personal belongings, $100, and a bus ticket."
For many people who leave prison or jail after serving a full sentence, there is a likely chance that they are going to be homeless. A 2022 report from the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law & Public Affairs found that annually, nearly 50,000 people across the country entering any homeless shelter have recently been released from prison and jails.
The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness said that there are tens of thousands of people across the country "caught in a revolving door between the streets, shelter and jails."
That revolving door is oiled by legislation that further criminalizes homelessness, like H.B. 1925 that makes camping in Texas a Class C misdemeanor. In 2017, an audit from the city of Austin found that between fiscal years 2014 and 2016, law enforcement issued 18,000 citations for panhandling, camping, and sitting or lying in unauthorized areas.
Homelessness and eviction have always been public health crises. The pandemic made them even more deadly.
"On top of everything else, now you've got to find a place where no one will bother you for existing."
"If the state is responsible for releasing you, they have to know where you are going," said Lauren Johnson, Criminal Justice Outreach Coordinator and Policy & Advocacy Strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
In 2009, the state passed H.B. 3226, or the Temporary Housing Assistance Program. The program was formed to provide temporary housing to those who are approved for parole and approaching mandatory release date. But, the program isn't provided to people who complete their full sentences.
This leaves non-paroled releases—the people who've served their full time—without support.
Under the Fair Housing Act, discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexuality is illegal. But, it doesn't say anything about having a criminal record.
The truth is that landlords can discriminate against someone due to their criminal record without legal repercussions. While the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) states that blanket refusals to house all people with criminal records is discriminatory, many formerly incarcerated individuals' rental applications are consistently denied. Add to that the racial disparities embedded in all housing practices, the difficulties are hard to surmount.
"Nobody is willing to work with these types of people and that's the issue," Sabur said.
A 2015 study by the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center in New Orleans found that housing providers use criminal background screening services "as a tool for racial discrimination." The organization conducted the investigation by comparing the experiences of a group of Black and white prospective renters with similar criminal backgrounds who inquired about renting property.
"Some Black renters said that they told them that if they had any arrests or conviction at all they won't be able to live here," said Cashauna Hill, the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center Executive Director. "And then a white renter would be told, 'Well, as long as it isn't a felony, we'll allow you to live here.'"
In 2016, the HUD issued guidelines for housing providers to help them determine when the use of someone's criminal record is potentially discriminatory. The department considers "disparate treatment" the practice of intentional discrimination that occurs when "a housing provider treats individuals with comparable criminal history differently because of their race, national origin, or other protected characteristic."
However, housing providers aren't barred from considering criminal records when assessing potential renters.
In 2015, Texas passed House Bill 1510, which offers landlords some legal protection if they rent to someone with a criminal record.
"What we heard over and over again is landlords being weary of renting to people with criminal records because of liability and with the bill being passed, we thought this would open the door for more flexibility," said Johnson of ACLU Texas. Still, she hears of landlords who are afraid of being held legally accountable for crimes on their property if they rent to someone with a criminal record. Police departments stoke that fear by actively deterring landlords from doing so.
In 2007, The Houston Police Department, in collaboration with the Houston Apartment Association, started the Blue Star Program which markets itself as a course to help property management staff prevent crime. A Blue Star Lease Addendum allows managers to quickly terminate a lease in case of resident involvement in "illegal or dangerous activity." Police often work in tandem with landlords, as so-called crime-free housing officers exist in several states.
In the case of the men that Sabur works with, most are just looking for stable employment, decent accommodations, and a faith community that will keep them accountable.
Still, transitional houses aren't free for residents. Both Sabur and Clark charge to stay at their homes. Baquee charges $11 to $14 a day and Clark charges $600 a month. For those who don't have a job, Clark hires them to work at the home which will cover their stay. This is comparable to rooms in recovery residences that charge between $450 and $750 a month on average.
Johnson from the Texas ACLU said it is very common for transitional homes to charge rent. The cost differs. Sometimes there are contracts that specify that a person can't pay the rent or any fees until they have a job. For example, Magnificat Houses offers a program fee that is $450 to $600 to stay in their homes, according to Shane M. Maberry, the house's Director of Operations.
When asked what keeps him motivated to keep building Halal House, Clark smiled with a sense of pride and determination and said, "The more successful that I become, the more I invest into establishing a community and program like this in order to help brothers and sisters. That was the purpose of me establishing this center—for brothers to come home and feel OK in this new way of thinking. What we are able to do is share our experiences, our strength, and our hopes on how we overcome."
"I'm transcendent of all or most of the issues that exist in the populations I serve. When people ask why I do what I do," Sabur said, "I always respond by saying, 'I never forget where I come from.'"
He's come a long way since his night under a bridge.