The Bender Difference

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

While Bender acknowledges that he doesn't know what to do for the one-third of the homeless he estimates are mentally unstable, he's certain of one way not to help the rest.

"You have people who live to be fed by the do-gooders who pull up in their chariots and feed the people on the sidewalks," he says. "If I had my druthers, my law would be 'no feeding on the street,' just like the open bottle law."

Bender's business experience and considerable skill at networking came in handy when assembling Harmony House's board of directors. One of the early members of the board, long before the shelter opened, was Bill Hopkins, who heads Local 455 of the United Food and Commercial Worker's Union. The union, with around 12,000 members locally, has proven an invaluable ally of Harmony House. "After we toured the site, our reps began soliciting donations from union groceries like Rice and Kroger," explains Hopkins, who today is the board president. "We hand out fliers downtown and do a big meal for the homeless toward the end of each month, when the need is greatest."

The union's involvement also resulted in a rather unusual benefit for Harmony House's residents -- after several weeks' residency, they're eligible for free dental and optical care under the union's collective-bargaining insurance plan.

"It was very impressive," Bender recalls. "I was talking to Bill, and I mentioned how frustrating it was for guys that were missing teeth, had obvious dental problems, to deal with job interviews. He said he'd get back to me, and he did, the same day. Said the guys were covered under the union's dental plan, plus optical care, which has been a blessing for men who need glasses."

Other board members include architect John Rogers, who has volunteered a plan to rehabilitate the historic Hynes Bakery building on Houston Avenue, which Harmony House purchased last October to the delight of local preservationists and Councilman Felix Fraga. Like Hopkins, Fraga has been involved with Harmony House almost from its beginning. At one point, the Post Office was considering blocking the pedestrian route linking the shelter to the north side of downtown. Bender credits a timely phone call from Fraga with persuading the postal service to adopt a more neighborly attitude. Fraga, for his part, is low-key about his involvement. "It just struck me as a great idea. Mostly what I've done is put him in touch with community groups. He's got unusually good relations with the neighborhood."

As observers of neighborhood politics in the Inner Loop can attest, a homeless shelter that is not vigorously opposed by nearby residents is a novelty. Granted, Harmony House is well-isolated by trees and distance from the heavily occupied parts of the First Ward, but Houston has no shortage of neighborhoods that fight tooth and nail any social service anywhere in their vicinity. Bender seems to have avoided such conflict by working with neighborhood leaders and by strict enforcement of the shelter's rules, which, in addition to the "don't work, don't stay" requirement, prohibit drinking, drug use and returning to the shelter intoxicated.

Keeping the neighborhood informed of his plans seems to have minimized opposition to Bender's transformation of the Hynes Bakery into the Bakery Lofts. Unlike the last-house-on-a-long-street setting of Harmony House, the 1920s-era bakery/apartment building sits on a well-traveled thoroughfare north of the police station and municipal courts complex. The five upstairs apartments -- which offer a superlative view of the downtown skyline from their back porches -- are currently occupied by long-term Harmony House residents who have used the shelter's 12-step meetings to arrive at a point that Bender describes as "in serious recovery, ready for the next step up."

Plans for the building that might have generated considerable opposition in other neighborhoods are in the works. When the rehab is complete, the five existing apartments and five more planned apartments in the now-gutted downstairs bakery will make up the only housing facility in Houston reserved for military veterans who are infected with the HIV virus. For the bakery project, Bender will be accepting public money in the form of a $460,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that will subsidize rents for the next ten years.

"Because of the grant, the vets will only have to come up with about $100 a month in rent," Bender explains. "We're planning to do the renovation without any government funding. Harmony House will provide the seed money, and then we'll solicit matching funds."

Steve Blumenthal, the director of the Houston chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, says Bender will definitely be meeting a need in providing low-cost housing for vets with AIDS.

"The figures that I have indicate about 40 percent of the chronically homeless nationwide are vets," says Blumenthal, "and we think about 10 percent of the homeless vets have HIV. Say a homeless vet with AIDS gets bad sick on the street and winds up at the VA hospital, where they pump him full of antibiotics and get him to where he doesn't need to be in the hospital anymore, so he goes back on the street and two weeks later he's dying again. Bakery Lofts is a more dignified approach than anything we have at the moment."

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