The Bender Difference

A former corporate downsizer takes a hard-nosed approach to helping the homeless

The irony of his second career isn't lost on Richard Bender.
"Until recently, a lot of firms would use outside resources when they had to downsize," Bender explains. "I went into companies that were in trouble and had hired my consulting firm. Basically, what I would do is line the employees against the wall, shoot every third one and convince the survivors to do 50 percent more work."

The 67-year-old Bender was good at his job and was compensated accordingly, and by the time he retired three years ago he had accumulated a sizable nest egg. But Bender didn't choose to live out his golden years golfing in Florida or Arizona. Instead, he's put his retirement savings to work funding an innovative, and by all appearances successful, social service agency that takes a dignified but hard-nosed approach to combating one of the more extreme results of the unemployment Bender once helped create -- homelessness.

Bender's first up-close brush with the homeless came when he volunteered at a soup kitchen run by the Catholic Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "This," he explains dryly, "helped me lose my fear of people from a different economic strata."

That experience proved useful when, almost on a whim, he bought a warehouse in an isolated nook near downtown Houston. Many of the firms that Bender downsized were in Houston; the freeway exit into downtown that he had used overlooked a triangle of trees surrounding a lone warehouse a few hundred feet behind the main U.S. Post Office on Franklin Street.

"After I noticed it for the first time, it just intrigued me, this warehouse setting among all these trees right next to downtown," he recalls. "And about the time I retired, I noticed a big For Sale sign."

Just finding the route to the warehouse proved an ordeal. Dart Street is an inconspicuous First Ward artery -- by the time one reaches the warehouse, it's more of a capillary -- running east from Houston Avenue. Bender bounced down the dirt ruts that twist and turn under freeway overpasses, passing an elephant's graveyard of massive concrete beams apparently destined to support still more overpasses, and found that Dart ends at the gate of the warehouse. Thinking that the isolation might somehow prove to be a disguised asset, and learning that the price for the property was within reason, Bender bought the triangular lot. "Then, it was, 'Now what do I do?' " he laughs.

His stint as a soup-kitchen volunteer eventually supplied the answer. As Bender studied the phenomenon of homelessness, he came to believe that most programs treat the effects without addressing the causes. After spending nights at the Star of Hope and Salvation Army shelters on the east side of downtown, Bender -- whose previously preferred place of lodging was the Hyatt Regency -- began to consider turning his warehouse into a shelter that would be, as he puts it, "not as depressing and demeaning for someone who wound up homeless."

A little more than a year ago, Bender opened his Dart Street building as Harmony House, which might best be described as an upscale homeless shelter with a select clientele. Compared to the Star of Hope, Harmony House is downright cheery. Admission is limited to "marginally homeless working men." To get one of the 84 bunks in the two "dorms" -- a better term might be barracks -- a potential resident must have a job. Some are intersection newspaper vendors; others rise early and take Metro to the labor pools on the other side of downtown.

Those are not lucrative jobs, admittedly, but they do enable the residents to come up with at least $7 a day, the rate for a bunk at Harmony House. It makes enforcement of the work requirement easy -- those who don't pay don't stay. It's a policy that's a point of pride for Bender's private-sector sensibilities: Harmony House is not dependent on local, state or federal funding. The "rent" paid by the clients nets the facility almost $600 a day, a level of self-generated funding that sets Harmony House far ahead of most area nonprofit organizations.

Concrete worker Tom Hinton, who says it's been two years since he had a place of his own, has been at Harmony House for almost nine months. Before that, he had crashed on relatives' sofas, gone out of town on construction jobs and stayed at both the Salvation Army and the Star of Hope shelters.

"The whole attitude is different here," Hinton says. "The staff is more courteous; they don't let in people they can tell are going to cause trouble. There's no curfews here, so you're not out on the street if you're working late hours or night hours. There's just a big difference between here and downtown."

Another difference is Bender's decidedly unromanticized take on homelessness, one that seems shaped as much by his experience in the corporate world as by any lingering guilt he might harbor over his work as a downsizing consultant. He's not your average bleeding heart.

"I have unpopular views," Bender cheerfully admits. "Most places and people that deal with the homeless do too much in the wrong direction. It's wrong to make them comfortable -- that only enables further homelessness. The thing we have to do is get them off their dead butts, accept that they are on drugs, and that they are hungry because they spend their money on drugs, not food. I'm just not in favor of giving unless the person you're giving to is ready to receive help."

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