Bum Deal?

Politics plays an uncertain backup to this "Gimme Shelter"

As restaurateur Irma Galvan rose to address the Houston City Council committee on economic and community development last week, most everyone in the audience figured they knew her script in advance. After all, the owner of Irma's, a lunchtime feeding trough for politicians and the downtown crowd, had been one of the most outspoken critics of a plan to relocate the Star of Hope homeless shelter to a site across the street from her business.

Irma's public profile got a boost when she appeared in pro-Prop One ads pitching the November 1996 referendum in which voters narrowly gave approval for the construction of new baseball and football stadiums. The petite Galvan demonstrated to committee members that she can also throw a mean political curve ball, as she reversed her stated opposition to the shelter and informed members she was prepared to co-exist with her new neighbors.

"Since they are already going to build the property, the best thing to do is work together," said Galvan after the committee voted 42 to reapprove a city grant to Star of Hope to help build the new shelter. Councilmembers John Castillo and Rob Todd were the only dissenting votes.

"That was exactly the feeling I had, walking in there," explained Galvan. "Since that was a done deal, if [Star of Hope] didn't get the $1.5 million, they were going to cut down on security and things like that. So actually the best thing for us to do is work with them and work together and make the thing go."

In truth, the savvy businesswoman had been caught between opposing political forces, and chose to go with the one that keeps her cash register ringing. Downtown interests pushing the new stadium and related nearby redevelopment projects wanted to move Star of Hope from its current location on La Branch, but not so far that it could not provide a convenient depository for the impoverished, largely black population of homeless men that roams the area alternately seeking crack cocaine, food and shelter. Irma has been adopted by the downtown redevelopers as their poster girl, and has commercially benefited from those connections.

"Star of Hope went in there with a brokered deal, and I think it was brokered by the downtown management district at the behest of the sports authority," claims Castillo, who has taken the lead role in trying to stop the move. "They found 'em that location, got a good deal from Union Pacific, who had a useless piece of land that they owned. They did not consult the community, they went in there with the attitude 'Take it or leave it.' "

Another relocation opponent, state Senator Mario Gallegos, says he and Castillo are defending the interests of Second Ward residents who have traditionally had to swallow unpopular and sometimes neighborhood-damaging social and industrial projects that political representatives from affluent areas shoved their way.

"Who at Star of Hope or City Council said that all the homeless and all the bus barns and everything else should be placed in or right at the doorstep of Senate [District] 6," asks Gallegos angrily. "Our people haven't had a voice in the past, but we got one now, and I'm letting 'em know this isn't finished."

Galvan had initially sided with the Hispanic politicians, but when it came down to crunch time, she went with the crowd that fills her restaurant at noontime every weekday and may do so in the future at night, in the glow of the Ballpark at Union Station.

"Jack Rains and I, we talked about it," says Irma of her dealings with the chairman of the sports authority, who had vowed to personally negotiate the Star of Hope out of the impasse. "I think he was for the Star of Hope, but he didn't want to say."

Also changing his position in favor of the shelter move was Councilman Felix Fraga, the representative of District H, where it will be located. He cited assurances from Mayor Lee Brown, a Star of Hope board member, that a police task force would be set up to make sure that the new shelter did not attract a swarm of loitering homeless men to the neighborhood around Ruiz and Hamilton, six blocks northeast of the shelter's current location.

After the vote, Castillo was bitter about Fraga and Galvan's change of position.

"I think Irma's deal is that she doesn't like confrontation, and she walked into that meeting and saw all those people from Star of Hope there and thought, 'I don't want all those people to get mad at me.' " According to Castillo, "I told her I hoped she wasn't expecting that the Star of Hope executives are going to come eat her high-priced food, because that's not going to happen."

Castillo reserved his harshest assessment for colleague Fraga, who has complained in the past about the negative impact of a Salvation Army shelter in his district on nearby residents. "He's the representative there, and in my opinion is greatly misrepresenting his constituents. I have to stand up and speak for them, even if he won't."

Nobody is claiming a shelter for homeless men, many of them crack addicts, would be a boon for a redeveloping inner-city business district. But then again, if the property in question is a pie-shaped former rail yard bracketed by a web of freeways just northeast of downtown, it's not exactly a guaranteed urban blight, either.

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