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."

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."

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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