Worthy Convos: Trailblazer Flora Brewer
There are those who talk the talk and those who walk the walk. Dr. Flora Brewer belongs to the latter group, but she seems to be moving at a faster pace than walking. Since the late ‘90s, Brewer has taken on the complex and often misunderstood issue of urban homelessness and created long-term, sustainable solutions in Fort Worth. President of Paulos Properties, a social-purpose real estate development company bringing productive businesses to the Near East Side neighborhood, Brewer was just awarded the inaugural Trailblazer Award by North Texas Community Foundation for her outstanding leadership and the innovation and impact she has had on the community.
How would you describe your career and life up until this point?
My life is a story of many careers. I originally trained to be a music therapist. After my internship I couldn’t find a job, so I got a master’s degree in public administration specializing in human resource management. That led to a 15-year career at General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin where I led the employee training and organization development function. When my career stalled there, I left to run a musical instrument distribution company on East Lancaster, across from the Union Gospel Mission. That led me to become involved in the city’s homelessness problem and its impact on people and neighborhoods, and ultimately inspired me to form Paulos Properties, a development company focused on improving conditions in depressed areas like our homeless district. During this time, I also got engaged with homelessness service providers as a board member and major donor and served on city commissions and task forces on homelessness. As a result of these experiences, I created PF Residential, a program of the Paulos Foundation, to buy, rehab, and develop supportive housing programs for chronically homeless people with disabilities.
From your experience, what causes homelessness and is it a predominantly urban problem?
To be able to answer this question and understand how to make the most impact, I spent 7 years studying homelessness at UTA, graduating last year with a PhD in Urban Planning and Public Policy. I learned that homelessness is fundamentally a mismatch between income and housing cost. Most people who are homeless have had careers in very low wage jobs that don’t produce enough income to pay rent and sustain a household over the long term. Almost all have experienced at least one severe life shock or traumatic loss that pushed them into homelessness. Most have non-existent or equally impoverished family support systems to fall back on. Those with chronic illnesses or disabilities in themselves or family members may slip into long term chronic homelessness. Our public support systems do not provide enough assistance to prevent the slide into homelessness. And yes, there is rural homelessness. It looks different and more often involves precarious housing in substandard mobile homes, camping out of sight, or moving from family to friend to family. And resources are exceptionally scarce in rural communities. But most of our homelessness in the U.S. is urban.
How have you leaned on your background in urban planning and public policy to create sustainable and permanent housing solutions?
My education and research allowed me to immerse myself in the latest research on contributing factors to homelessness and especially research into what works to end it. It gave me a much more clear-eyed view into the complexity of the problem as well as an appreciation of the limitations of social research and what we can know with certainty. It also supported my natural inclination to look at things as systems and understand the interaction between individual characteristics and social structures. While at UTA, I was a lead investigator for the Assessment of Fair Housing for Fort Worth Housing Solutions, and in Plano and McKinney. This two-year experience gave me a much broader understanding of the local housing market and its impact on households. I came away with a sense of urgency about providing decent, sustainable housing for people who could not hope to maintain their own housing in the current environment.
What is significant about the Near East Side neighborhood as it relates to the mission and work of Paulos Properties?
When my career landed me on East Lancaster in 1996, I’d never known that this part of Fort Worth existed. My office window gave me a daily view into homeless street life. I started to find opportunities to learn about what was going on and what plans the city, nonprofits, and community development organizations had for the area. I got involved in Southeast Fort Worth Inc. and began to meet local business and property owners, including shelter directors. We eventually formed the Near East Side Neighborhood Association to improve the quality of life and create a more positive environment for all the people who lived and worked in the area. Assistant City Manager, Fernando Costa, encouraged us and provided us with a mentor, Bennett Miller, Dallas’ “developer of last resort”. Being on East Lancaster every workday for 12 years and getting practical knowledge of places and people impacted by homelessness inspired me to begin developing property, putting skin in the game, to help improve conditions in what scholars call a “service dependent ghetto”.
Why was the Palm Tree Apartments model so successful?
First, it was not a new model. Dr. Sam Tsemberis created the model in the ‘90s, demonstrating that even chronically homeless people with co-occurring mental illness and addiction disorders could sustain housing given supportive services. Second, the Paulos Foundation had the resources to complete the acquisition and development of this first “proof of concept” project on its own. No other fundraising was needed, and the project carries no debt. Later, TAD granted a property tax exemption allowing more funds from rental income to be allocated for supportive services and maintenance. The apartment complex was already zoned properly for multi-family housing, so no rezoning was required. We were also making a dent in the problem of street homelessness in the Race Street area, earning us community support. Finally, great partners: Fort Worth Housing Solutions provided project-based rental subsidies through a 20-year contract providing stability; DRC Solutions, our service provider, brought deep experience in working with unsheltered homeless people.
What are common public misconceptions about homelessness?
The primary misconception I encounter is that homelessness is caused by mental illness and drug addiction. Only a very small percentage of people in the U.S. experience homelessness with estimates ranging from 0.5% at one time to 7% over a lifetime. Many more people experience mental illness, about 1 in 4 adults, and addiction, about 1 in 10 adults. These people are not all homeless. They afford housing through earned income and/or family support with some receiving a small amount of public assistance. Many live completely independently. But when intergenerational poverty and careers in low wage jobs intersect with traumatic life events and possibly a disability or chronic illness, homelessness can result. In my dissertation research, I interviewed 40 people with experiences of homelessness participating in housing programs and found that the one thing they all shared was a variety of truly daunting life shocks.
You have devoted your career to creating productive solutions that help large groups of people. How does that feel?
Mostly I feel grateful. Grateful that I have been at the right place at the right time to take advantage of opportunities. Grateful that my father left us a financial legacy to use and an example of giving back. Grateful for family, friends, and colleagues who encouraged, worked with, and supported me along the way. Grateful that we were able to use a relatively few resources to demonstrate what could be done in targeted ways, hopefully inspiring others to do more.
What’s next on your project list?
Six months ago, I was diagnosed with advanced cancer, so my life has become focused on treatment, wellness, and making sure that all the projects I’m involved in are in good hands for the future. I have stepped back from active involvement in new projects but continue to serve as an advisor. I am currently overseeing an evaluation of the Palm Tree program by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, experts in housing first programs and colleagues of Dr. Sam Tsemberis. We will be working hard to implement their recommendations for staff training, enhanced procedures and policies, and increased case management staffing. Across our local system we are finding that our chronically homeless neighbors are becoming older, with more disabilities, chronic illnesses, and complex health conditions placing greater demands on service programming. I hope this study will inform all supportive housing projects across our community. I am also participating as an advisor and donor to a new supportive housing project on Camp Bowie West, sponsored by New Leaf Community Services. https://newleafcs.org/
Why do you choose to live in Fort Worth?
I followed my parents here in 1975 when my father was transferred to Dallas with LTV. Then I met my husband, Mike Brewer, in Argyle, Texas, working at a summer camp for kids and young adults with disabilities. We relocated to Fort Worth so I could accept a position at General Dynamics in 1981 and have lived here continuously since then. I’m lucky enough to still have my mother living in Dallas so I can be close to her.