Bob Eury leads the downtown Houston business association and is gung-ho about solving homelessness. What would it be like to have a downtown area free of homeless people? How did your group contribute financially and in other ways to the solution? What lessons did you learn along the way? The questions may sound dry, but Bob Eury is an entertaining guy!
Bob Eury: Our organization is involved in the revitalization of the central city and its downtown. We have several different entities here and we care for the public environment, we design it, we plan it, we build it. We’ve actually built homeless housing, a number of years ago. Some SRO (single room occupancy) housing. That gave us a chance to begin to get familiar with the whole situation with homelessness.
I think I’m personally compelled to it because I’m an architect by training, so shelter and homes means something to me. Because I’m a builder at heart.
The homeless community and the downtown community have a relationship that goes on forever. We’ve always wanted to really resolve the situation and end homelessness if we could – if such a thing is possible. I think that’s been why we’ve taken a very committed and a very deep role in trying to work with our homeless community, and frankly, end homelessness in Houston.
Tony: As a downtown business organization, I understand you’re putting some of your own money in to the issues. How does that work?
Bob Eury: We’re pretty committed to this. What we realized is that you can try to legislate yourself out of homelessness, but you can. You’ve really go to solve the problem. And the only way to really solve the problem is to have appropriate housing for those that have been homeless. We also realize that while there are federal funding programs available, which we have used, and will continue to use, what also realized is that there is a need for private philanthropic funding as well. So we have not only put funding it it, but we’re in the process of raising funds right now to build more permanent supportive housing as party of The Way Home program here in Houston.
We also have put money into rapid re-housing in years past. We actually had several very good episodes with that all the way back into the 1990s where we found that helping individuals get off the street into housing could really launch a wholly different life then trying to work day to day at street level. Even right now, we’re trying to care for conditions for homeless that are actually on the street, under bridges, and what I would hope is a temporary situation as we gain more housing.
Tony: What kind of money are you talking about?
Bob Eury: Real money! The thing that is really impressive is that now with The Way Home, we’re raising around $15 million for what we call a capital gap that results when you try to build housing. Through the various federal funding sources, we’re about to fund operating costs. We’re also about to raise a certain amount of money that can be used at a bank for a loan to construct housing. And then we also have federal money to help pay for wrap around services. But you can’t get a project done unless you have some cash equity to make it work, so that’s why we’re actively out raising the $15 million.
Tony: How do you raise this money?
Bob Eury: We raise it by going to foundations both locally and nationally. We have a very compelling case that could be made. The Way Home program is really reorganizing our whole system here for working with the homeless such that our goal really is to help people move from the street to permanent housing with the services that they need. The numbers are very impressive. It’s about $665 million worth of resources that are committed, but our little $15 million is part of that, a very key part of that. When you do that, it’s really easy to get the attention of funders because they realize that their gifts and their commitments is really just a small part of making something really big happen.
To many people, when we talk about ending homelessness… I’ve had any number of people in the business community say “no, you just can’t be right. You can’t do that.” I really truly believe that we can. And I’m not gonna give up on that. I feel really strongly about that!
Tony: How do you counter when you’re building a building in a neighborhood and resident say “no, we don’t want poverty in our neighborhood or people that are homeless to come in here”… what are some of the ways you can counter that?
Bob Eury: I think we’ve had the good fortune, because we’ve certainly felt that in some situations. A couple things help. Let me just set the stage a little bit. We don’t have zoning here, so in many cases we have a lot of neighborhoods that are pretty mixed in terms of incomes and types of people and age of housing, especially in the central city. But we are also really blessed with some very good housing providers that do a spectacular job building quite nice residential communities which I think would be accepted in any community. They’re extremely well managed. People who live there are like everyone else in the community. They’ve been able to set a model that others in other parts of the city can look at and say “golly, this really works. I would accept that in my community.” We couldn’t go out tomorrow and not immediately run into backlash from a given community where we’re proposing a project.
Tony: With the people I’m talking to, I’m seeing that Houston is definitely, that you’re proud of your city and also optimistic. It’s gonna work.
Bob Eury: There’s a very enterprise oriented mindset in this city. There is this mindset that anybody that sets their mind to it can get good things done. That has helped us, but we’ve had plenty of experience with neighborhoods that don’t want homeless housing. I’m not going to sit here and just say that it was really easy. It is something that has taken some time. Especially to build a record that can now be used and seen by people in other neighborhoods.
Tony: We haven’t seen too much homelessness here. Have you noticed a difference since you’ve implemented all these programs?
Bob Eury: I remember mid-2000s where our counts were running in the 12,000 range, then it kinda came down to about 10,000. When we started The Way Home, we were at about 8,500. For last years count, we were at about 3,600. The thing that I’m impressed with is that the actual numbers of people on the street are clearly less than what they used to be. It’s funny because there’s a lot of sensitively by people to the number that are there. I keep thinking, you just don’t remember what it used to be like in terms of the number of people. If you look at camping under bridges here in the central city, I mean the numbers are a hundred, maybe a little bit more than that. But it’s just not a very large number. I remember under one particular freeway bridge right on the edge of downtown, we did rapid re-housing called the Wet and Cold initiative back in the mid-90s. And we moved 800 or 900 people in one kind of initiative to help people off the street. I think the challenge we had at the time was that we hadn’t fully thought out how it works once you do that. So we had a lot of motel rooms and hotel rooms and things like that. We didn’t have the permanent supportive housing part of it. We didn’t have the housing available, so it was a learning experience for us. It was somewhat ill-conceived, not that it wasn’t helpful to those involved. It definitely bettered their lives, but let me also say, it wasn’t permanent, and that’s what working so well now.
Compared to the past, there are fewer homeless people on the street. That doesn’t mean there aren’t homeless people, because there are, but I do think that for our visitors that come into our city, there are far fewer then they may experience in other cities. It’s funny because the public pushes back. It makes people uncomfortable to see homeless people. This is a very compassionate city. I’ve often thought that the discomfort comes because they want to help, but they don’t know how to help. What strikes me is that the numbers are so much less, especially than other major cities. What I’m finding nowadays is that when I travel to another city, I’m really surprised by the number of homeless that I see compared to what we have heard. I’m not taking my camera and my phone out and taking pictures, but I keep wanting to remind people here that we’ve made a lot of progress and I hope you really appreciate how much progress we’ve made.
Not that we don’t have a way to go, because we still do. I do believe in ending homelessness. I’d like to think we’re sort of in the last mile of a race. A marathon or so. It’s hard because the people we do have on the street have extremely challenging issues, from mental illness to substance abuse, dual-diagnosis. I think that they’re just tremendously challenging situations. It’s putting some pressure on us to really have to go back and exam some of our basis systems. Our basic health care system in the community, our mental health system, our system for detox, and things like that. I wish the last mile would go quicker than it’s going because as you’re approaching virtual zero, I believe it gets harder because of the complexities and some of the challenges people have while they’re out on the street.
Tony: But you have to pat yourself on the back because you’ve made leaps and bounds of progress over other cities.
Bob Eury: We’re pleased by that. I’m glad we’ve got those miles under us! Now we gotta get to the finish line with this. And, honestly, you never really get to the finish line. I think the reality here is that you get to the point where you’ve built a system of housing and services and a system of how people can move from a state of being homeless, or near homeless… it’s a very different system when we get to that point.
Bob Eury: We actually have three entities here. We have Central Houston, which is a bit of the mothership, okay, is a private, nonprofit member association. It’s actually like a chamber of commerce, but we’ve been very involved in planning a number of initiatives and homelessness has been a big part of our program really for number of years and we’re now 34 years old. We also have a public improvement district here, which assesses the businesses in downtown, and then we have also a redevelopment authority, which is funded by tax increments, which we use mainly for large redevelopment projects and some street reconstruction, sidewalks and things like that.
Bob Eury: I think we have always felt like working with the homeless issue is just a really major part of what downtown redevelopment is all about. To me it’s not just treating symptoms. We’re going to take the same approach toward working with homelessness as we do toward everything else. We’re really rebuilding a city. In this case, we’re rebuilding a system of housing and services, of connecting people, just that sort of, the pipeline to help people. Information flows, a cooperative network of service providers, city, the governments. It’s, frankly, every bit as complicated as we’ve been involved in building three– get the number right– three-sport stadium in downtown <laughs>, okay. Over the years we’ve been involved in a number of parks and other major projects. I think the complexities we face in working on homeless are every bit as difficult.
Bob Eury: And actually, the funding is about the same size as some of those big facilities as well.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah. What would leaders in organization like yours do in other cities to start this, working on this homeless problem?
Bob Eury: One thing is to sort of step back and take a pretty broad look, and also I think to engage a lot of people in the conversation, and but with a mindset that we really want to do something about this, okay, and make a real change, okay. I think one piece of learning that I had is we worked very hard, oh, sort of in 2004, 2005, along there, with our comprehensive 10-year plan for homelessness. But I think when we sort of got The Way Home started with the initiative to do that, and quite frankly it had sort of gotten to a crisis point here, because the federal government had, our lack of progress in Houston, had sort of had us singled out by the federal government that kind of said, “Hey, we need you to do something about what you’re doing here.” Fortunately they didn’t spank us too hard.
Tony Rodriguez: <laughs>
Bob Eury: They actually gave us resources, okay, to help us do a better job. But I think one of the things that was important about that is there was this sort of step back, get all the folks, various– it’s not just business– but governmental, neighborhood, service providers, the homeless, the population, the members of the homeless community, kind of get everybody together to sit down and say, “Okay. What are we lacking here? What do we really need to put together to get it done?” and I remember one of the things that I was on a bullpen session and one of the things I remember saying was about just sort of the political side of it, okay, and I said, “What we really need is political will, and it really can kind of come from the mayor.” Fortunately, Mayor Parker, at that time, she must’ve heard it.
Bob Eury: Because she really stepped in and she gave the political will to help move this forward, and it does take people with will to get this done, and it’s not, it’s not easy, and it can be very frustrating because of the complexity of it, but if the will isn’t there, you know, you just go in circles.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah. That’s true.
Bob Eury: And there are lot of bureaucracies involved and it’s easy for the bureaucracies to go in circles, okay, and so the fact is is you need that will to kind of say, “Okay. Here’s a deadline. We’re going to make it.”
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.
Bob Eury: Mayor Parker really picked up and said, you know, “We’re going to set some firm deadlines for progress we’re going to make.” One of the things that we did, and again, partly because we’d had some experience with it for quite a while. We helped the mayor find somebody to sort of serve as her special assistant to help cut the red tape, to help bring it together, but the individual we brought in, Mandy Chapman Semple–
Tony Rodriguez: Oh, yeah.
Bob Eury: –in cooperation with supportive housing, Mandy really had tremendous knowledge from other communities and Corporation for Supportive Housing helped too, because they also brought knowledge to the table and experience from other places. But thing we did was also offer to the city, “We’ll help recruit some business and community leaders who will kind of serve as an advisory group for the mayor,” as this thing, as The Way Home sort of moved along. But part of that, I think, was to give sort of a, a time where there would be accountability. So the mayor would meet with this team of leaders and sort of say, “Here’s where we are right now. Here’s the–“ you know, “There’s charts and graphs of the progress we’re making.” Then I think the most important function was to barrier bust, okay, that, you know, in these quarterly meetings. You know, the participants would, you know, they would, Mandy or the mayor would say, “Here’s the things we’re having problems with, so how do we overcome these problems?” and so I think there was extraordinarily good thinking and discussion of trying to help with that to kind of move everything forward. Because, as I said, it’s not easy, and you’re also, as you make progress on it, you really are in an area where you don’t have experience because you’re pushing forward and you’re removing barriers or going into the future and you really, you can’t anticipate all the issues and problems that come up.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.
Bob Eury: This is actually a map. So we’re actually right here, okay? <laughs>
Tony Rodriguez: Oh, yeah.
Bob Eury: Where we are right now, and so this is our downtown, okay, right here, and all the color that you see on the map, all the yellows and reds and oranges, that is new housing that’s been built.
Tony Rodriguez: Oh, wow.
Bob Eury: Since 1985, so it’s been a little over 20 years in terms of what’s been built. You can really see how much our inner city has changed, and I will say that there’s, this is, this is formerly homeless, this is formerly homeless, this is formerly homeless.
Tony Rodriguez: Okay.
Bob Eury: Ah, let’s see. There’s one over here, which I will pick up. I think it’s right here, and–
Tony Rodriguez: Hm, I see.
Bob Eury: –there’s more. <laughs> There’s more on the map, okay, so…
Tony Rodriguez: Hm.
Bob Eury: And I think part of the whole idea of this is that housing for homeless fits into the community as the community builds at the same time.
Tony Rodriguez: Wow, that’s wonderful.
Bob Eury: So this is fun. We have just reprinted this map,” <laughs> and it’s been really an interesting tool over time just kind of keeping track with what’s happened. When you think about it, there was no color 20 years ago.
Tony Rodriguez: Yeah.
Bob Eury: That’s a lot of change.
Bob Eury: Say this. I don’t think we find people that, in a sense, argue with money going toward working on homelessness. I think that’s not the issue. I think the issue is one of just because it’s difficult and because it’s complex, that I think it’s more one of is, “I just can’t, I can’t deal with it. It’s just too much.” It’s too big a thing to get your, you know, kind of get your head around and get your hands around and really do something, and the one thing I think we have learned here is is we’ve been able to show that we can make a difference if we all work together and we all have a very strong vision of where a common goal, where we’re trying to take this, and we have some deadlines, and I’ve seen people motivated to work together to really make a difference, which is happening.