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.

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.

"This building was built in 1954 with a different society, a different culture in mind," says Brown. "Things have changed in 45 years. The nine- and ten-foot sidewalks outside are eliminated in the new facility. It's designed not to allow loitering on the outside, but rather to provide services on the inside." According to Brown, roughly 70 percent of the center's clientele are crack cocaine users and an equal percentage are black.

The director says the new facility will include a number of programs aimed at street people, including a 30-bed detox clinic, a dispatcher and a two-man van unit called Operation Bigfoot, which will operate throughout the area to pick up drug-addicted or drunk street people and transport them to the clinic.

Councilman Castillo is unimpressed with Star of Hope's grand plans. He accuses officials of trying to mislead city officials and residents into believing that its residential facility for women and children in southeast Houston is the model of what will be built near downtown.

"Of course it looks beautiful," retorts Castillo, "but that's not the reality of what we have now on La Branch or what we will have over where they're going to be." He notes that the Star of Hope's graphics for its presentation to the Council committee "didn't show one street person sleeping on the sidewalk; it didn't show anybody sleeping under tarps and cardboard boxes."

As for plans to run a van patrol to pick up transients, Castillo points out that there's no law to force cooperation by street people. "Most of them won't, unless they're going for a meal and a blanket," scoffs the councilman. "And once they get that, they're not going to go inside of that facility."

Told that Mayor Brown had promised to institute a police task force, former constable Castillo has a good laugh and offers an observation based on experience.

"Constables and cops in general don't like to deal with street people and winos," observes Castillo, who might have added councilmembers to the list. "You know why? Because they puke in your back seat, and you don't want to spend the rest of the night cleaning it out. And you don't want to haul them in, because they're out of jail before you can do the paperwork."

Castillo plans to continue trying to cut off city funding for the shelter, despite the defection of several of its former critics. The full Council must still vote on the allocation, and Brown's position on the Star of Hope board will probably force him to sit out the debate.

"I've got news for them," says Castillo of those who've dropped their opposition to the shelter. "I don't think Irma or Councilman Fraga realize the Trojan horse that they've dragged into our community."

If the street people stay hidden as promised inside that Trojan horse, neither Irma nor the downtown redevelopers will have any complaints.

Are your hard-core news tips homeless? Call The Insider at (713) 280-2483, fax him at (713) 280-2496 or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.

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