The Bender Difference

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

Bender is now seeking to export the dignified approach of his bakery project further west. Donna Kristaponis, the former head of Houston's Planning and Development Department who now has a similar position in Las Vegas, enlisted him to start an emergency shelter last winter for the Nevada city's burgeoning homeless population.

"We had 244 beds," says Bender, "and over the course of the winter, the shelter provided something like 11,000 bed-nights. We'll be doing that again this winter, and there's a couple of other things." One of those is a referral service based on Houston's SEARCH day shelter, which Bender calls "the premier provider of social services for the homeless."

"They take guys right off the street, give them a meal, a shower, and route them to the appropriate social service," Bender explains. "They [SEARCH] are damn good. We're setting something along the same lines in Nevada, as well as something called the North Las Vegas Educational Campus, which will combine residency with retraining. Unlike Houston, we've found a space that has room for both families and marginally homeless men."

Although Bender maintains his home in Santa Fe, he spends most of his time shuttling between Las Vegas and Houston, where he keeps a small apartment at Harmony House and drives a beat-up pickup that still bears New Mexico plates. Despite the downsizing of his lifestyle and the altruistic nature of his current endeavors, the no-nonsense corporate pragmatist lurks not too far beneath Bender's affable surface.

"One of two things happen to the guys who come here," he observes. "Either they stay here for a while, go to the meetings and get better -- or they leave and go straight to the bottom." With personal responsibility and a disdain for "feel-good programs" figuring so prominently in his philosophy, Bender doesn't waste any sympathy on the losses.

"Firing people is what Richard did, and did well," muses Harmony House board member and architect John Rogers. "Now he's using his savings to do something totally different, the complete opposite. Maybe he will inspire some corporate ladder-climbers to do something else, more productive and spiritually rewarding, with their lives.

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