Home from the War
Rufus Browning lives in a six-story apartment building a few blocks from Minute Maid Park. The DeGeorge at Union Station houses about 90 military veterans, all of them previously homeless.
Browning speaks with the passion of the recently converted, giving no indication of his troubled past. He was an expert machine gunner who served in Vietnam, where he had "four kills."
Firing machine guns was not all he learned in the army. Browning spent too much time in the jungle shooting heroin, a cheap and plentiful escape from the horrors of Southeast Asia.
He brought a chestful of medals and a nasty little addiction back home to Houston. Drugs ran his life for 30 years, eventually earning him prison time on a possession charge. When he was granted parole in 2001, Browning had nowhere to parole to.
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Prison officials sent him to Houston's Ben Reed facility, a halfway house in a prison setting. Browning had to get out. "I made up my mind I didn't want drugs in my life anymore," he says. "At Ben Reed, I was surrounded by active drug addiction and drug activity."
Another veteran at Ben Reed told Browning about the DeGeorge. He moved there in September 2001. The DeGeorge is operated by the United States Veterans Initiative (US Vets), a nonprofit group funded by private and federal money. It acquires run-down properties and turns them into affordable housing.
But US Vets' next renovation project has brought fierce resistance from Midtown civic groups, who don't want it in the neighborhood.
The Days Inn at 4640 Main Street has 280 rooms nestled near the U.S. 59 overpass. The 37-year-old building has been called an eyesore, though there's nothing better-looking around it.
But it's a prime location -- halfway between downtown and the Texas Medical Center -- mere yards from the new light rail line. However, the motel will probably be closed when the rail system begins running in ten months. A company representing US Vets has contracted to buy the Days Inn and turn it into a housing project similar to the DeGeorge.
City Councilmember Carol Alvarado, whose district includes a large portion of Midtown, says the project would be bad for Main Street's image. She vows to oppose city permits if the plans move forward. "They always say it's going to be nice," she says. As do other critics of the plan, Alvarado says Midtown already has too many social service agencies, and that US Vets should locate elsewhere.
However, Councilmember Ada Edwards, whose district includes the Days Inn, calls the project worthwhile and says it would be better than what's there now.
Some opponents took up the offer to tour the DeGeorge and now support the project. Dan Lasell doesn't.
He says the clustering of social service agencies -- there are more than 40 in Midtown -- attracts vagrants, increases crime and drives down property values. The 55-year-old property manager moved to Midtown in 1971.
Browning arrived in that community in 1959, when he was eight years old. "When you talk about Midtown, you're talking about my neighborhood," he says. "When I hear Midtown associations protesting against US Vets acquiring the property, I feel like when I returned from Vietnam."
When he returned from the war in 1972, he encountered a lot of hostility. "I had a lot of doors closed," he says. He contends that his stay at the DeGeorge has led to "a new appreciation, a new respect and a new love for the fact that I am a veteran."
Visitors to the DeGeorge find a pristine lobby, much like that of any decent hotel or secured apartment complex, except there are seven flags (representing the United States, Texas and the five military branches) and plastic bags crammed full of urine-testing kits behind the front desk.
The veterans who arrive there typically have substance abuse problems, and they usually come straight from a Veterans Administration treatment program. Anthony Love, site director for the project, says, "There's no boozing, no drugging. Once it is determined that an individual is using, they're going to go back to the VA."
Browning says the veterans are self-policing. "It's going to be controlled by the residents themselves. Take a look around here. We know right from wrong."
The primary goal of US Vets is employment, and the Days Inn, like the DeGeorge, would have a career center. Tim Cantwell, a managing partner of US Vets, says, "The best possible therapy for this population is to get them working. We're cranking out taxpayers."
He says all US Vets projects are financially self-supporting. The rent at the DeGeorge is $343 a month, although some veterans, depending on their income, pay as little as $50. Other social service agencies make up the difference.
Cantwell says there is a waiting list of several hundred to get into the DeGeorge, and that he has "sober, stable, rent-paying veterans" ready to move into the Days Inn tomorrow.
Browning is one of those. While working at a Midtown car wash, he took courses at Houston Community College and became a certified phlebotomist -- he draws blood from patients. He has been working at Twelve Oaks Hospital for nine months.
The situation for Browning hasn't swayed Lasell or other opponents like Edna Ramos, director of the Downtown and Midtown Residents Association, and Alan Hood, vice president of the Midtown Civic Club.
Hood began investigating the Days Inn sale last month after being "tipped off" by an unnamed source. He warned of "a double-occupancy drug and alcohol treatment center. This would also double as a homeless shelter." Hood says US Vets would not be paying property taxes, and that another group wanted to buy the Days Inn and turn it into a "boutique hotel." He termed the veterans' project "a disaster."
In a mid-February document with a bright red title, "THIS IS THE ORIGINAL CALL FOR THE FIRST ALARM," Hood claimed the deal would be done by month's end. Although US Vets says some of the information in his call to arms was wrong, Hood's warnings led several Midtown organizations to oppose the project.
Cantwell is in charge of acquiring property for US Vets. He saw the Days Inn six years ago and thought, "It's perfect for us." He says the property sale would close in May and that the ownership arrangement means the motel would be taxed like any other property. In fact, taxes would increase after the planned $4 million renovation of the site.
Love says the place won't be taking veterans in off the streets or offering treatment. "It's long-term affordable housing with formerly homeless veterans there paying rent," he says. "It will be safe and secure -- run like a quality apartment complex," albeit one with urine-testing written into the lease.
Similar US Vets projects were opposed in Long Beach, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. All those city councils have since voted unanimously for expansion of the facilities. The group has earned praise from state and federal officials. "People love what we're doing," Cantwell says.
David Mandell, president of the Houston Coalition for the Homeless, says, "I think it's very difficult for anyone to speak against an initiative that would provide permanent housing for disabled veterans as our country is approaching wartime. I believe it to be very unpatriotic."
Hood says he supports assisted housing for veterans, just not in Midtown. "We have done our share but that doesn't mean that we want our neighborhood to be a dumping ground for those who would not dare place their facilities in West University or Sugar Land. This is not NIMBY thinking. They're already in our backyard; this is the front yard."
Hood criticized US Vets for "acting in bad faith to secretly go about establishing a facility like this" but he could not identify the group that might turn the Days Inn into a boutique hotel. Cantwell, whose business is hotel acquisition, laughs at that idea, saying, "The Days Inn will never be a boutique hotel."
Some 70 years ago, the DeGeorge was a boutique hotel. Ten years ago it was boarded up.
Mandell says, "The DeGeorge was a haven for drug-trafficking. That whole area was very dilapidated." Now it shows how groups like US Vets can clean up a bad neighborhood, promoting development, Mandell says.
At least one former opponent has changed his mind. Developer John Tuschman is the managing partner of Fidelity Management Company. His company is involved in a joint venture to build 44 condos on a small vacant lot adjacent to the Days Inn.
Tuschman says his condo project is now in a "wait and see" mode, but he and his partners withdrew their objections because they feel the US Vets project is worthwhile. "That was not a good economic decision on our end," says Tuschman, "but we decided that if we oppose the project, we can't live with our own consciences."
The irony of moving back home this summer into a community that now contains a large Vietnamese population is not lost on Rufus Browning. But he doesn't get why he's not exactly welcome there. "I can go to the Days Inn [neighborhood] right now and score some drugs," he contends. "If US Vets moves in there, that will stop."
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