Bum Deal?

Politics plays an uncertain backup to this "Gimme Shelter"

The issue has been simmering since July, when committee members Castillo and Todd began questioning Star of Hope's plans.

Castillo's concerns are close to home, since his District I covers the heavily Hispanic east side. Todd, who represents mostly white and affluent Clear Lake and Kingwood, couched his opposition in terms of championing downtown redevelopment. It's an odd position, since the redevelopers themselves are backing the Star of Hope. With his usual gift for gab, the councilman managed to inflame the debate by comparing Star of Hope's homeless clients to stray animals.

The impending shelter move also draws fire from parks enthusiasts such as artist Kirk Farris, who has spent years working to beautify the bayou area around the McKee Street bridge and James Bute Park, and now figures the area could turn into a campground for derelicts attracted by the Star of Hope.

How the shelter became a political flash point is still something of a mystery to Kathy Tabor, the development director for Star of Hope. She sees the agency's presence as irrelevant to the continuing debate.

Until the city deals with the problem of street people, contends Tabor, attacking the location of the new shelter doesn't solve anything, since it doesn't address the root issue. If the Star of Hope didn't shelter 5,000 or so street people every year, Tabor argues they would still be around and even more of a blight on downtown and the east side.

The underlying shelter controversy dates back to 1993, when Star of Hope launched a capital campaign to build a new transitional living center for women and children and upgrade the men's shelter at its current location on La Branch. Star of Hope raised $12 million and built an apartment residential facility on Ardmore in southeast Houston. Additional property downtown was purchased to expand the men's shelter. City Council voted to contribute $1.5 million to renovate and expand the men's facility, and the agency banked it for future use.

That fall, as the agency prepared to break ground on the downtown expansion, Prop One passed, and the shelter suddenly found itself located across the street from the new stadium site. Then-mayor Bob Lanier called Star of Hope's honorary board chairman, Carlos Morris, and tactfully suggested that rather than expand, Star of Hope should consider moving its facility away from the future stadium. Since the location automatically pumped up the value of Star of Hope's downtown holdings, Tabor says the board decided to begin looking for an alternative location.

Light-industrial zones, away from residential areas and schools, had the highest priority in the search. Because other services for the homeless are located downtown, one criterion was to remain within walking distance of the central business district.

"Panhandlers congregate where there's a public," says Tabor. "The stadium's going to draw them as much as someone who gives them ID cards or feeds them."

Tabor says the Union Pacific property at Ruiz and Hamilton seemed to fit the bill. The railroad offered the three-acre site for $250,000 plus a tax-deductible donation. Other than nearby Irma's, the land was surrounded by freeways, with more ramps slated to be built in coming years.

"We were going to be this little island sandwiched in between an on-ramp at [U.S.] 59 and an off-ramp at [Interstate] 10," says Tabor, who laughs in retrospect at her political naivete. "We thought, who else would want it? Who would object?"

The Star of Hope board approved the purchase, while officials signed a contract to sell its 40,000-square-foot downtown property to an unnamed developer for approximately $1.3 million. Tabor says the sale of the property plus private donations and the city's $1.5 million will cover the $6.2 million tab for the new shelter. Groundbreaking is scheduled for sometime next month.

The sudden emergence of opposition to the move at the Council committee meeting in July caught Star of Hope officials off guard. "We were absolutely, totally surprised," recalls Tabor. "We had been told the meeting was a formality."

A follow-up meeting with eastside representatives at Irma's to discuss the plans for the new building likewise seemed to go well, and lulled the agency officials into thinking a consensus could be reached with area residents. "They were concerned," says Tabor, "but we felt when we left the meeting we had comforted them that the new facility wasn't going to be the same as the La Branch facility." Follow-up meetings, including a neighborhood gathering of Second Ward residents at Austin High School, conveyed an entirely different message. No one wanted a shelter that would be a magnet for street people.

An unannounced visit to the La Branch location last week found a few men loitering on the sidewalk outside, but most were crowded inside in a chapel area awaiting lunch. Shelter director Gary Brown says the design of the new building, which internalizes most of the activities, will prevent many of the problems associated with the downtown location. Even the sidewalks outside will be narrowed to make it more difficult for street people to hang out or sleep on them. Although Brown didn't mention it, it will also make it easier for police to arrest offenders under the already existing law prohibiting the blocking of a public sidewalk.

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