Lofty Thoughts Blog

Lipstick on a Pig

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

By Flora Alexandra Brewer

In a recent series of articles about homelessness, a brave and beautiful young journalist spent several nights living at our Presbyterian Night Shelter and wrote about it. She brought readers a better understanding of the realities associated with living in a place where the lights stay on all the time, one has to hang onto one’s belongings to make sure they don’t walk away, and women call out in dreams throughout the night. The journalist spoke with me, listening patiently while I rattled on about my work in the Near East Side, home to the city’s homeless shelters, working to make a safer, cleaner, more productive environment. Her article credits me with “coordinating the homeless shelters with the remaining business owners to solve problems.” Thank you; I appreciate that. But the article goes on to say, “Brewer has even painted murals on her exterior walls to brighten up the area. Some might suggest that’s the equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.”


I must say I was stunned, surprised and angered by that last sentence. What does that expression mean anyway? Does it mean my buildings are “pigs?” That the neighborhood is a “pigsty?” Is the writer saying that public art has no role in community revitalization? That an area with concentrated homelessness cannot be uplifted by something beautiful? That it’s too little to make a difference?

Stung by what I believed was criticism, I looked for information about the impact of public art on a community. I quickly found a paper from Durbin, South Africa, in which social scientist Sabine Marschall examined the response of communities and citizens to installations of murals in depressed urban areas. Her research found that murals provided a “sense of ownership of and respect for walls or buildings” Like Durbin, we have had no graffiti or defacement of any of the eight murals we have installed in the Near East Side, and our mural was installed in 2003. I remember that as the artists worked, passing shelter residents gave the thumbs-up sign. The Durbin researcher found that murals were welcomed “as a valuable beautification of their often visually impoverished environment.” I remember looking out of my office window after the first mural was completed, watching kids get on the school bus in front of the Union Gospel Mission family center and being happy that those kids had something more pleasant to look at. The mural featured people who looked something like them and their families, doing things that people do when they’re happy.

Yes, that money could have been donated to the mission, and it might have housed 10 people for a year. But “lipstick on a pig?’ OK, these buildings aren’t great architectural wonders. But the mural says, Somebody cares about this place. And maybe makes it a little less scary. Maybe it inspires others to fix up their buildings. Hundreds of artists, students and members of the community have come to our neighborhood since 2003 to make art, tend vegetables, install trashcans and street trees, and even to bring in new businesses. Maybe the mural helped. Maybe it helped somebody living in a homeless shelter believe that somebody cares.

The murals were a strategy to make a bad situation better while solutions were being developed. To help a neighborhood that had hit bottom start the long climb back to respectability. To say to the world, Somebody cares about this place!

Murals and revitalization won’t end homelessness. Affordable housing ends homelessness.  Access to quality, affordable health care ends homelessness. Living wages end homelessness.  Skillful, consistent case management that connects people to housing, services and an income ends homelessness. Allowing an entire neighborhood of our city to decay because there are homeless people there only exacerbates the problem. By rehabbing and repurposing old buildings, fixing the streets, collecting the trash, and, yes, by painting murals on some of the old buildings—we are trying to help.

Lipstick on a pig? My new badge of honor!

“Because you pushed with flank and shoulder…”

Friday, December 26th, 2014

The reading today was from Ezekiel 34.  A chapter with which I was totally unfamiliar.  God said, “I myself will search for my sheep”.  “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, BUT the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them with justice…Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide…”

            When I was thirteen, I fell in love, twice.  Once with a boy – that story is for another day.  And once with Jesus of Nazareth.  It was 1970 and I was ready to take a stand on big ideas.  Jesus was Joan of Arc, King Arthur, Gandhi, and Kahlil Gibran.  Anti-war.  Speaking truth to power and unveiling hypocrisy.  Preaching equality, freedom and justice.  I fell head over heels.  And I gathered with others similarly smitten to read the Bible and Christian philosophy.  The stirrings of the evangelical revival were moving across America.  We were looking for an “everyday”, central and coherent purpose for our lives.  Not just the Sunday morning suit and tie, greet your friends experience.  We thought of ourselves as seeking a “lived” faith.  We looked at our parents’ lives and we didn’t see the passion, the selflessness that we saw in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  In fact, we considered businessmen to be in the same category as the Pharisees.  People who wanted to be seen on Sunday in order to gain favor with the right people but go to work on Monday and throw orphans out into the street.

For me, passion met reality when the recession of 1980 teamed up with the dismantling of the social safety net under increasingly conservative administrations leading to high unemployment, especially in the social services. I couldn’t find a job in the social service field for which I had prepared.

So I went to work for a defense contractor and pretended that my work had nothing to do with baby bombing.  We read “Dress for Success” and learned about the centrality of building “shareholder value”.  A stream of books led us “In Search of Excellence” followed by “Good to Great”, “Playing to Win”, “Getting to Yes”, and less well known:  “Winners and Whiners”, “10 Rules for Getting to the Top and Staying There”, etc. etc.  We were asked to give 110% to our jobs and then were tossed aside when we were no longer a “good fit”.  We cut benefits and made more work part-time and contingent.  Success was money and power.  If you didn’t succeed, you were a lesser human being.  Un-deserving.

Meanwhile, the Evangelical Movement took the Sunday church world by storm.  Emphasizing literal readings of everything in the Bible from poetry to allegory to myth to history.  It didn’t matter.  Infrequent texts were used to identify people and practices who were “wrong”.  The “prosperity gospel” advocates looked through the Bible highlighting every passage in which God gave increased wealth.  As though the purpose of following Jesus was to build up money and power for oneself and one’s family.  Because if we had it, we were worthy and those who didn’t were unworthy.

The Evangelical movement became a Christianity that I could no longer recognize as having any relationship to the Jesus of Nazareth whose teachings I had pledged to follow.  And today’s business world became meaner.

Today, our economic system adds wealth to wealth and poverty to poverty.  The myth that good fortune among wealthy people and corporations makes for a trickle down of prosperity to all is Sunday gospel.  The world we thought was ungodly and inhumane in the 60’s and 70’s was egalitarian compared to the discrimination of today’s economy.

The New Testament litmus test for determining whether someone is “doing right”, according to Jesus of Nazareth, is not their position on biblical inerrancy, abortion, or gay marriage, but whether they feed the poor, welcome the stranger, help the sick and imprisoned, strengthen the weak.  We have made little progress on these issues since that little girl fell in love with Jesus in 1970.  We still compartmentalize our actions into different spheres:  the personal sphere in which we donate to our church, take care of our family, and give cast-off’s to Goodwill; the public sphere in which we keep wages of front line workers too low to afford stable housing, saving for emergencies or retirement.  And businesses reap the benefits of these low wages in profits that go right into executive and investor pockets.  Competition means pay as little as you can for every cost element no matter the impact on human lives and pay as much as you can to the owners and managers because they deserve it.  And we defend the practice by saying “that’s the market rate”.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we really are worth 100 times more than those who put their hands on the product and deliver the service.

Jesus never calls the poor undeserving or unworthy.  Jesus never said how much compassion was enough.  The strong are to strengthen the weak.  Period.  When we participate in systems that institutionalize poverty and lack, we are not following the teachings of Jesus.  Christian or not.  And I find all these years later that I am strong and benefit from that strength beyond any dessert.  This is not a country built on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  And I mean at its heart – the marketplace.

What would it look like to stop pushing with flank and shoulder and butting at all the weak animals with our horns?  What would it look like to build economic systems that strengthened the weak?  It would look like a real Christian nation.

Being a Neighbor

Saturday, September 27th, 2014

Saturday in Unity Park has become an important opportunity for our neighbors on East Lancaster to relax and recreate in safety and for faith communities to fulfill their missions to reach out to those in need.  An equally important role played by Saturday is to educate faith communities in what really helps people who are homeless.  On Saturdays, faith communities learn that three meals a day are plentiful in the Near East Side.  Free clothing is available through all the shelters.  What is really needed is housing.  And not just housing, but housing with supportive services.  As our community considers how and where to create permanent supportive housing for persons in extreme poverty, I hope that our faith communities will understand that they have an extremely important role to play.  In permanent supported housing, formerly homeless people are provided with professional case management and access to services to meet their health and welfare needs and retain their housing.  Case managers are critical and I would never suggest that lay persons try to fill this role.  But what case managers cannot do is be a neighbor.  Case managers report one of the greatest challenges for newly housed persons is a sense of isolation and loss of the friends they made in the shelters or on the street.  Faith communities can fill this void.  Our new neighbors in permanent supported housing need someone to call when the toilet stops up and they don’t have a plunger, when they need a ride to the emergency room or the grocery store, or somebody to invite them to a show or get together for a supper and movie night or just chat about the neighborhood and current events.  Case management is demanding and difficult work.  People who have been homeless often have many complicated problems in their lives that would sink you or me.  Loneliness and boredom can be serious problems.  But in our faith communities, supported by professionals when needed, we can provide what the professionals cannot.  We can be neighbors.  And that can make all the difference in helping a person emerging from homelessness keep moving forward.

Op Ed Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

The Fort Worth City Council recently addressed reports on homelessness, affordable housing, and concentrated poverty.   The council understands the causes of homelessness are complex and without single, simple solutions.  But the occurrence of homelessness is not a complex problem and has a straightforward solution.  Here’s why:

·         In a city of nearly 800,000, we will always have several thousand persons unable to afford the lowest market rent for a consistent home due to disability, chronic illness, or incapacity.

·         Capacity exists (in our nonprofits, city and county agencies) to provide permanent housing, supported by skilled case managers, to keep chronically homeless persons in housing, indefinitely.

·         $6500 per year enables a nonprofit to house someone with a constellation of disabilities and health problems, reducing costs to county hospitals, emergency services, city code and police.

·         City and County have exhausted federal and state funding for homelessness.

·         Nonprofits have exhausted donors.

It’s time for citizens of Tarrant County to adequately fund permanent housing for persons struggling with chronic homelessness, (relieving over-crowded emergency shelters, streets covered with personal belongings, trash and human waste where victimization and assault is common with constant calls to police and ambulance for emergency assistance), by simply paying the rent for chronically homeless persons to live in private, stable housing.

Concerns exist that neighborhoods will not accept formerly homeless persons as their neighbors.  But, permanent supported housing is currently being quietly provided in scattered site apartments throughout our city.  Many service providers have demonstrated that programs for persons who have been homeless can be good neighbors.  No study has shown a decrease in property values due to permanent supported housing – quite the contrary.  We need council leadership, transparency, open dialogue and person to person education to work with our neighborhoods around homelessness.

We also need more investment in outreach.  Only one homeless outreach program currently connects to neighborhoods.  All our neighborhoods should have access, not only to 911, but to an agency that can respond to concerns about homeless persons, loitering, panhandling and camping.  But these outreach teams need to have rental subsidies “in their pockets” in order to successfully solve these problems.

Concentrating providers of emergency and transitional housing is very expensive and complex to manage.  The Near East Side Neighborhood Association works with its members to improve safety, sanitation, infrastructure, and development in the square mile where over 1000 homeless persons stay.  It boasts the lowest reported crime rates in the city, the best NPO, more patrol officers, and regular code service.  But it’s not enough.  NESNA members pay for private trash collection ($650 per month).  A nonprofit opens a private “park” on Saturday mornings to address the trash and traffic hazards created by street feeding.  Unreported crime is high.  Narcotics are easily available and in public use.  The Presbyterian Night Shelter is raising funds for a one year effort to open its “park” during the week and mount a private security street patrol on its property.  The NESNA is considering funding of a mobile private security officer.  The cost, $3700 per month, is beyond the capacity of its few commercial businesses.  It’s not reasonable to expect that a few tax-paying businesses in one neighborhood bear the cost of concentrated homelessness for our county.

The causes of homelessness are complex and can strike anyone.  The management of concentrated homelessness is complex.  Addressing the fact of homelessness is simple: adequately fund permanent supported housing for the cost of two Venti Mochas per Fort Worth citizen per year.  Smooth the path for persons emerging from homelessness to become our neighbors again.

It’s About Community

Sunday, September 8th, 2013

This is truly a continuation of My Story, but it’s a side trip to Race Street that has become a joy.  In about 2006 I met a friend who introduced me to a little piece of Race Street in the Six Points Urban Village between Sylvania and Riverside.  A charming area reminiscent of old Austin.  Small store fronts with community fixtures like Hale’s Costumes had fallen on hard times waiting to be rediscovered.  Surrounding, a highly diverse residential community – diverse in income, ethnicity, age.  My friend had been working with the owner of a property near the big intersection with Belknap (creating the “6 Points”) to rehab a beautiful old building.  The owner was personally supervising the work to include several retail and office spaces with the anchor being “Mamma Mia’s” (a wonderful neighborhood restaurant with the freshest Italian food in town).

Well I was hooked.  My brothers and I ended up buying over 4 acres between Race and Belknap, including an old meat packing facility.  The idea was to develop a mixed-use neighborhood that would eventually make money.  But it was 2006 and although we did a lot of engineering and planning, there were just no tenants while the commercial real estate market tanked in the great recession.  So I set aside the grandiose ideas and set about development as I know it.

Networking.  And my network is artists and community organizations.  We demolished what we thought couldn’t be reused.  We rehabbed buildings at 2902, 2814, 2812 and 2806.  First came the Tarrant County Democratic Party leasing 2806.  Then I joined forces with the tireless community arts organizer, Debby Stein.  Our friend Lori Thomson, another guerrilla arts organizer who I’d worked with in the early days of the studios at Lancaster Lofts, came up with the idea of open studios in our largest space.  We had rehabbed the space for a gym that abandoned the project – giant bathrooms with showers, windows on two sides, lots of open space and light.  Lori and Debby named it the Work Room.  Later on Lori moved to other projects and Kelly Belindo took over as our anchor artist – she was attracted by the big front retail style windows.  Her art is clothing design – textiles – accessories – custom tailoring.  Beautiful, creative stuff.  Kelly began signing up artists who were attracted to the open concept and energized by working around and collaborating with other artists.  Then we leased spaces to other artistic souls – Jason Gamblin’s commercial photography studio, a couple from New York City who live and work on their art forms in the space.  And most recently an emerging, non-traditional church that offers Yoga classes all day long with a continuous gallery on the walls from artist in their community.  And while all this was happening, Debby was connecting with the surrounding neighborhood associations including Oakhurst and Scenic Bluff.  These people are amazing.  On the undeveloped land behind the Work Room, led by Terry McIlraith, they developed the Stolen Gardens.  (You might have seen a newspaper article on how their initial beautifully-painted raised bed boxes had been been stolen before they could by filled.)  Debby brought a “Better Blocks Project” to the neighborhood that got the attention of the City of Fort Worth and now we have new street paving and striping.  I added a small parking lot and in keeping with the creative spirit, Lori Thomson (an accomplished sculptor and teacher) created an abstract fence out of found metal pieces.

Well, yesterday was Fall Gallery Night.  We had 4 venues open with over 15 artists represented.  I walked around, greeting old friends, being introduced to new ones.  And watched the energy behind every venue.  And this wasn’t the first such event on Race Street.  We’ve had gallery openings with Lauren Cross (a young up and comer in the DFW art scene) at WOCA (Women of Color Arts) now at 2902 Race.  We’ve got art classes at the Work Room.  We even had a community pot luck on the slab of the old meat packing plant next to the gardens with white table cloths and candelabras.  The Democrats have built a beautiful deck on the back of their building and held fish fries and movie nights open to the community.

And so in sum, that’s what it’s about.  I can’t say that I am a successful developer.  I can’t brag about my CAP rates.  But I can run a self-sustaining business and bring people together.  I am so proud of us.  All of us.  The pioneering residents and tenants.  The community leaders who don’t even live anywhere nearby but just want to help.  The neighborhood leaders who are bound to make a safe, creative, welcoming place to meet and play and work together with their friends.  Places just work well when the community helps to build them.  I’m humbled that I have been blessed with the resources to help make places for community to happen.

What’s Important This Month

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

This is budget time for many organizations – the time that values are put into dollars and cents.  The City of Fort Worth is conducting council meetings and public listening sessions to make good decisions on how to spend $1.4 billion or more or less.  And there are troubling things in the budget proposal. 

Public Safety

  • Reduction of projected vacancies in Police (46):  There are always unfilled positions in every department at any point in time.  It’s called turnover.  The City Manager is recommending that we short stop that normal turnover and in so doing, reduce our police force without having to fire anybody.  I attended a meeting recently with the Central Division Captain regarding crime on E. Lancaster.  Crime is up 8% throughout the city and (only) 6% in Central Division.  We are seeing a significant increase in crime in the Race Street corridor including speeding (we had a recent pedestrian fatality), illegal gambling, gang activity including aggravated assault. There was a terrible pedestrian accident last week in front of Lancaster Lofts in spite of all the new lighting and speed monitoring devices.  Both the 2013 survey of homeless persons and the recent study of homeless women’s victimization on E. Lancaster noted that about half of homeless persons experienced physical assault or rape in the last 12 months.  The FW police force is staffed at 20.2 officers per 10,000 citizens.  Average ratios for cities over 100,000 are 25 per 10,000.  Other examples, at 65.56 per 10,000 residents, Washington’s police force is nearly half again as large on a per-capita basis as Chicago’s (44.17), Philadelphia’s (43.21) and New York City’s (41.77).  While police staffing should not be based on ratios alone, our rising crime rate, including violent crime, is cause for concern.  I work closely with the Neightborhood Patrol Officer in the Near East Side and have learned that pro-active policing is powerful – but it takes time and staff.  I am willing to pay more taxes to maintain our police staffing.
  • Reduction of 10 vacant Code Compliance positions:  In response to citizen input, this may be changed to only 4 positions.  We struggle continuously on E. Lancaster due to substandard buildings, unattended property, abandoned personal property, medians full of trash, brush and high weeds.  Our neighborhood association pays over $600 per month to a provider to pick up the trash from persons who distribute food and items that are then tossed by the recipients.  Our code officers do their best, but they have access to only one trailer and struggle to schedule a monthly detail to pick up thousands of pounds of abandoned property.  Similarly on Race Street, I struggle with illegal dumping on my property.  I’ve paid thousands of dollars on clean up.  But we don’t have enough camera’s to address all the chronic illegal dumping sites.  I have learned the truth of the adage “grime equals crime”.  I would be willing to pay a higher tax rate to have a code compliance department that can be pro-active.
  • Transfer General Fund portion of jail costs to Crime Control and Prevention District Fund:  The CCPD was developed to supplement regular expenses of the city with an emphasis on crime prevention.  If I understand correctly, we are moving a regular basic expense of the city into the CCPD.  We cannot pretend that our cost for public safety is less than what it is by sliding items into the CCPD.


  • Reduction of contract street maintenance, in-house street maintenance and alleyway:  See above.  On East Lancaster we have significant areas with medians and public rights of way that cannot be maintained due to lack of capacity in the Code and Parks Departments.  I would be willing to pay a higher tax rate to maintain these services.

Government should always be working, as should any organization, to spend every dollar on the most effective strategies.  But for some perspective, Philadelphia’s budget is about $2400 per person.  Fort Worth’s proposal is about $1800 per person.  Philadelphia is a lot bigger than Fort Worth but it is also a rapidly growing city.  I was watching the City Council working session on-line as they reviewed the water and sewer budget details.  I was impressed by the analysis in the water budget that not only included concerns for what it cost to provide good services but also included an “affordability” assessment based on citizen incomes.  All of this analysis is important.  If you care about the city that operates around you, providing water, waste disposal, flood prevention, safety and sanitation, let your city council member know by email right away.  A city’s budget is an expression of its values.  Make sure yours are being expressed.

My Story – cont.

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

Right around the time I started working on East Lancaster, Don Shisler started working as the new Executive Director of the Union Gospel Mission, with offices right across the street from RBI.  Next door to RBI, the UGM owned the 4 story warehouse that was to become Lancaster Lofts.  In 1995, most of the windows, especially on the west side of the building, were destroyed by the infamous Mayfest hail storm.  In those days, UGM was a very different organization – overwhelmed by deteriorating infrastructure and an increasing population of homeless people and struggling to put funding together.  They were completely unable to repair the damage to the building which they used as a warehouse for donations and a distribution point for used clothing.  I used to think of the warehouse as the “Beirut” building because it looked like a bomb had hit it.

My father and I were discussing the neighborhood one day and he suggested that we talk with the mission about donating them some funds to repair the windows.  This was the first time I had ever thought about targeted, purposeful donations in this way – a donation that would help the charitable organization while benefiting the community around it.  We had lunch with Don and ended up making a donation of $10,000.  But the most important thing that happened was the beginning of a good friendship.

Around the same time, the City of Fort Worth began holding some public meetings to update their planning for the area.  I attended every one.  This was also the time that the initial planning for the demolition and rebuilding of the I-35/I-30 mix-master was in process.  I went to graduate school with lots of hopeful city managers and so these discussions were fascinating to me.  Generally they were poorly attended by the community and it wasn’t difficult to get to ask a question or make a comment.  But mostly I kept my head down and learned a lot of history.  The neighborhood planning meetings were generally characterized by property and business owners complaining about “what the city had done to them” by relocating all the homeless shelters into a once vibrant mixed residential and commercial corridor.  The meetings about the I-35/I-30 relocation were marked by the view that the world ended at I-35 and nothing really existed east of it – at least nothing of any worth.  Traffic speeds could be higher – there was nothing to stop for.

As a result of these meetings, I started finding some folks like Don who were not just interested in complaining but were interested in talking about what could be done.  This included Bob Gallant, second generation owner of Eastside Marble and Granite, and Sarah Adams, owner of Letterpress Graphics, who became interested in the neighborhood as a possible future home for her business.  We started to meet regularly and ask various city representatives to join us to discuss our concerns.  We talked to police, code, neighborhood personnel and finally met Fernando Costa, then the Planning Director for the city of Fort Worth.  Fernando encouraged us to form a neighborhood association and provided consulting support to help us set goals and define strategies to address them.

And so the Near East Side Neighborhood Association was born in 2001.  We focused our goals on making the neighborhood cleaner, safer and more positive for everyone who lived and worked there.  We set as a ground rule that no one was trying to force the homeless shelters out of the area.  We were all trying to work together for the good of business owners, property owners, shelter directors and residents.  We were about encouraging people to be responsible for taking care of their property and making it easier for them to do so.  We often had more city staff at our meetings than association members.  We developed and implemented many new strategies that involved partnerships among the agencies and business owners.  (See our “list of accomplishments”.)  We all worked on cutting our weeds, picking up trash, locating absentee owners, fixing up our facades, and making vacant properties safer.

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that there was only so much you could do to improve something that you didn’t control.  When I first started to work at RBI, it was as bad any of the other property owners – they didn’t cut their weeds until they got a warning from city code compliance.  We could take care of our own property and contribute funds to clean up common property, but that only went so far in an area with such an overabundance of vacant and deteriorated properties.  So I decided to put more skin in the game and bought 1324 E. Lancaster from the Union Gospel Mission in 2002.  We opened Lancaster Lofts in 2004.

As time went on, I acquired other vacant properties with the idea that the Near East Side didn’t need more organizations providing services to the homeless – it needed to strengthen the organizations that were already there, develop sustainable businesses in the vacant property and more funding to move people out of homelessness.

Now I need to start talking about the education I have gotten in homelessness over the last 15 years of working on East Lancaster and serving as board member and volunteer to organizations such as the YWCA and Day Resource Center.  Homelessness is a lack of housing, yes, but there are as many reasons why someone has no housing as there are homeless people.  Poverty is foremost among them.  If folks on E. Lancaster had resources, they would not be there.  They would be seeking treatment in psychiatric hospitals or rehabilitation centers.  They would be living in assisted living facilities or nursing homes.  They would be in group homes with other persons with comparable physical and mental disabilities.  They would be escaping abusive relationships by moving to another city.   If they had families with capacity they would be with their families.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been told by shelter residents that “the longer you stay on E. Lancaster the harder it is to get out”.  I was shocked to learn about the people who have spent decades there.

This week you will possibly read about a new study investigating the horrific level of victimization of women who stay on the street or frequent the shelters on E. Lancaster.   It’s not a dangerous place for you or me, for the people who work at RBI or live at Lancaster Lofts.  But if you are a woman living in a shelter or on the street, chances are over 40% that you have been physically assaulted in the last 12 months.  And this does not include problems associated with trash, narcotics dealing, public intoxication, public elimination, abandoned property.  If you put thousands of people in one square mile who are the poorest of the poor and have every problem imaginable, then you better be ready to spend a lot of money trying to combat the spiral of chaos that ensues.  This is the world I have been working in for the last 15 years.   (to be continued)


My Story

Sunday, July 21st, 2013

I was talking to some very smart people in the donor community last week to get advice on the Day Resource Center for the Homeless, a consistently struggling and under-funded agency providing the only walk-in day services for people who are homeless in the city of Fort Worth.  I heard something from these donor friends that I have heard from time to time before – that people think I invest in organizations like the Day Resource Center only because I own property on East Lancaster.  The irony is that the truth is just the opposite:  I bought property on East Lancaster because I cared about people who are homeless.  My donor friends told me that people don’t know my story, so how could they understand?  This, after I had just spent 20 minutes talking about the last 15 years on East Lancaster with my cheeks aflame.  So, although few may ever see it here, here, on Lancaster Lofts website – the first property I bought on East Lancaster – is where I choose to document my story.

In 1990, my father bought a company called International Music Corporation out of bankruptcy.  He bought it because he liked the part of the company that was Rhythm Band Instruments (RBI), an international supplier of musical instruments for elementary education.  For 5 years, he tried various strategies to make the whole company sustainable and ended up selling off everything but RBI.  (My father was one of the top financial minds of his generation and former executive vice president of the LTV corporation – another story.)  Concurrently, I had been head of training and organization development at General Dynamics which became a Lockheed Martin corporation.  Through a series of events (another very long story), my career had moved into a senior administrative staff role and I just wasn’t having fun anymore.  My father, knowing this, invited me to run and rebuild RBI’s operations after the major sell-off.  So, in 1996, I resigned from Lockheed and went to run a $5M distribution company on East Lancaster Avenue.  I took about 2 years to get the company stabilized and my attention began to focus on the neighborhood around me.

To understand why, I should tell you that for some unknown reason, I was programmed from birth to be a member of the helping professions.  I decided at 13 that I wanted to be a music therapist, focused volunteer activities on people with disabilities, and got a degree at Michigan State University in music therapy and vocal performance/pedagogy.  I did my clinical internship at Terrell State Hospital and emerged to look for a job in 1980.  Only there were no music therapy jobs and I was working at Del Taco.  So, my father gave me a chance to start over.  While my husband was pursuing a master of special education at the University of Kansas, I completed a master of public administration with a specialization in human resource management.  I really thought I would end up running a nursing home somewhere.  But being mainly worried about being gainfully employed, I took a lot of classes in the business school and ended up in 1981 with a job in human resources working for a defense contractor.  Not a career anyone who knew me would have anticipated.

So back to East Lancaster, RBI, about 1998.  I discovered that there was a wonderful city of small businesses and agencies that did good work out there called Fort Worth.  I started serving on nonprofit boards and became a volunteer business consultant to nonprofit organizations through the Nonprofit Service Center (now the Center for Nonprofit Management West).  to be continued… 



Murals R Us

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

Gee I hope that phrase isn’t copyright protected!  But it’s so true.  The Near East Side is home to 5 major murals, installed over the last 10 years and we are about to install our 6th!  The first was the “Community in Harmony” mural on 1316 E. Lancaster (see post entitled “10 Years”).  Last week we completed a 10 year face-lift that included repairing joints, repainting to restore and repair the art, and adding a bright new coat of paint to the red base.  See a pic of the artists at work on the Union Gospel Mission Facebook page, posted June 20.

The second mural was “Imagine No Violence” installed on the south wall of 1350 E. Lancaster.  The work by local artist and teacher, Jo Dufo, was supported by a grant from Safe Cities, FWISD and us.  Jo Dufo, a forever child of the 60’s, is an award winning professional who came to Fort Worth from Sante Fe more than 10 years ago now.  Her work is whimsical and uplifting.  I remember meeting Jo at an exhibition of her work at Evelyn Segal galleries.  Jo was recruited for the Fort Worth Independent School District by director, Beverly Fletcher, with a challenge to “try it for a year – I think you will be amazing”.  Beverly was right.  Jo was the recipient of the annual FWISD Chair for Teaching Excellence in the Visual Arts just a few years after starting her work with elementary school children.  Jo inspires and expects real art from her students – no scribbling allowed!  And they know she loves them.  Jo had a background in mural installations from Santa Fe.  We brainstormed this project for a Safe Cities/FWISD competition and won!  The Union Gospel Mission, owner of the building, was delighted to permit the installation that borders on “Unity Park”, a Saturday morning safe place to recreate for neighborhood residents and others to meet, greet and share.  The mural was the first of many improvements to our neighborhood “park”.  Jo wanted to include as many of her students as possible in the mural installation.  So we put an announcement in the paper and she sent flyers home from school.  We had no idea what would happen!  But on the Saturday morning, dozens and dozens of students, parents, and community folks showed up with no hesitation to work under Jo’s supervision.  And it still adds beauty and warmth to our neighborhood.

Then, Jo brought us another project.  Sister Cities International was celebrating its 50th anniversary with a special conference of youth from all the Fort Worth Sister Cities around the world.  This time, Jo worked with two other artists (one her brilliant daughter!) and Sister Cities to design and install a beautiful, and surprisingly delicate work of peace and friendship.  The work is located on the west side of the Union Gospel Mission warehouse near the 1100 block.  It’s the first thing you see as you enter the Near East Side from the west.  In conjunction with the youth conference, Jo also supervised the installation of a “peace mural” on the south side of East Lancaster at 1200 and 1112.  Each student painted the word “peace” in their own language.  When it came time for the traditional conference group photo, the students insisted that it be taken in front of their work of art.  Sadly, this work has been painted over, but it’s all good.  I like to think the mural helped attract our two newest commercial businesses – Got You Covered, in a beautiful rehab of the old Acme Coffee Company building, and Aquatech, an emerging aquaponic food production business.

And I almost forgot!  The Flag Building!  At 1100 E. Lancaster, first home of the Veteran’s Administration’s Fort Worth contracted work therapy program (CWT), Mike Zelanko, then program director, commissioned Michelangelo (a former resident of the Near East Side and veteran) to paint something to honor the services.  Michelangelo chose the flag and installed the mural solo.  Michelangelo is an accomplished artist whose passion is realizing unusual photographic portraits of famous persons in graphite.  His portrait of Malcolm X hangs in a library at Tarrant County College.

But we are not done!  Later this month we will, hopefully, get approval from Texas Department of Transportation and the City of Fort Worth to install a new mural (our first on public property) at the east end of the Near East Side.  The mural is titled “A Community Worth Unity” and is being designed and installed by WAL (We Are Legal), a group of young graffiti artists who started at the FWISD and have turned their guerilla art into a career.  WAL was a key contributor to Fort Worth’s election as an “All American City” several years ago.  So keep your eyes on the median, west-bound lane of East Lancaster, past Riverside, at the underpass (where the speed limit suddenly changes to 30 mph and we have all gotten at least one ticket)!  Prepare to be amazed at the continuing ability of art to transform public space and create community.  Flora Alexandra Brewer

An Unaffordable Life

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013


There are so many things to talk about this week I’m having trouble deciding so I’m picking what’s on my mind this morning.  I just spent the last 4 years of my life serving as Chief Operating Officer of a company that provides long term care services in the homes of people with disabilities, mostly on Medicaid.  What I learned and experienced has left me forever changed with a new (added) mission.  Medicaid is a wonderful program.  It is the only health insurance program that comes with long term care services.  If you are low income enough, based on your disabilities, Medicaid will provide for a trained attendant to come to your home from 5 to 50 hours per week, at a schedule that you direct, to help you with whatever you are no longer able to do without assistance, and keep you out of institutional care.  Amazing.  This is a clear social win-win.  People are healthier in their own homes, it costs less than nursing home institutionalization, and people get to stay in their communities continuing to contribute, whether it’s to their families, social organizations, or in continuing employment.


Now here’s the problem.  The attendants are paid typically $8 per hour for part-time employment, no PTO, no health benefits and they have to maintain their own vehicle to get to their clients.


According to the Center for Public Policy Priorities ( Family Budget estimator, in Fort Worth, a single parent with one child without employer paid health insurance and no extra money for savings would require a wage of $21 per hour to afford local rents, transportation, food, health and child care.  The wage required goes down to $15 per hour if the employer pays for a health insurance premium.  If that single adult has no children and employer paid health insurance premiums, the wage requirement goes down to $10 per hour.  And this is with no savings.


A car breakdown puts a caregiver out of work with no savings to back them up.  The results of these poverty wages are inconsistent attendance, high turnover (40-70% per year), a revolving door of caregivers for the client, high agency administrative costs for hiring, training and supervision, and a continuing need for state-provided welfare benefits (SNAP, Medicaid, housing support) by these hard working, compassionate employees.  We are mistaken if we do not think that we are already paying for complex and expensive welfare benefits to supplement these low wages when a few more dollars an hour would lift these employees out of poverty.


This is what I mean by an unaffordable life. People, mostly women, seek a career as a certified nurse’s aide or personal attendant in long term care, because they love this work and are dedicated to their clients.  I have seen caregivers save client’s lives many times, by being there to call 911 in time or because they were worried about a change in the person’s condition and checked in on them on their own time.  I have seen caregivers patiently take verbal abuse and perform personal tasks you couldn’t pay most people any amount of money to perform, because they had a deep understanding of the client’s disability and needs.  I have seen caregivers carefully thread the needle between what other family members wanted them to do, what the client truly needed and what their program permitted.  A long term caregiver may be helping persons with dementia, quadriplegia, or needing ventilator support, 24/7.  These jobs require sophisticated emotional and interpersonal intelligence, strong communication skills, as well as the ability to clean a bathroom using universal infection precautions.


But no one can really afford to live on these wages.  And our need for these services will only grow as medical technology keeps people alive and we all get older every day.  I am committed to advocating for change to allow for a living wage and health insurance for these under-appreciated every-day heroes.  No other healthcare professional is paid such low rates.  I would be delighted to hear from anyone with similar interests.  Flora Alexandra Brewer