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Tucson Visionary Donates Millions to Help Homeless

21 Sep 2019 by BizDESIGN in Building Community, FALL 2019

By Tiffany Kjos

New Center of Opportunity Puts Resources All in One Place

There are people who think small. There are people who think big. Then there is Humberto “Bert” S. Lopez, who thinks gargantuan. 

Lopez has made a fortune investing in hotels, apartment complexes and a host of other ventures. Now he’s investing in something different – homeless people – with the vision of helping them become independent.

“He’s a very generous man with a heart toward people who are struggling with poverty, with homelessness,” said the Rev. Roy Tullgren, who was executive director of Gospel Rescue Mission for 20 years.

“He really wants to help people get back up on their feet – and where we are kindred is he wants that process to be one that values their dignity and self-respect, to treat them well and respect them.”

The H.S. Lopez Family Foundation, which is 100% funded by Lopez and his wife, Czarina, bought the onetime Holiday Inn on Palo Verde Road near Interstate 10. Now with 30-some nonprofit partners and loads of volunteers, the old hotel has been turned into a beacon for the homeless, with virtually every service a person might need all in one place. The new name of the former hotel is the H.S. Lopez Family Foundation Center of Opportunity.

“What he did is close to unprecedented,” said Tullgren, who today serves as pastor for donor and church engagement for Gospel Rescue Mission.

Humble Means 

Lopez comes from humble means. His father, a successful rancher in Cuidad Obregón in Sonora, Mexico, died when Lopez was 12. The family, which included six children, moved to Nogales, Arizona, to live with their grandmother and uncle. There, Lopez worked fulltime at a grocery store while in high school. During college, he picked melons, dug ditches and washed dishes to help feed the family. 

Armed with degrees from Cochise College in Douglas and the University of Arizona, he found he had a knack for investing and negotiating. In 1975 he established HSL Properties and has since made millions buying and selling hotels, apartment complexes, commercial properties and land.

Over the years the Lopez foundation has donated millions of dollars to Tucson nonprofits with an emphasis on health, welfare and education. The foundation invested millions more to get the Center of Opportunity off the ground.

The project started with a look at the Central Arizona Shelter Services in Phoenix, which Lopez saw in 2010.

“It’s close to downtown and they provide a lot of the services on one campus, but it looked like a war zone. I mean it looked like a completely homeless camp around the premises,” Lopez said. 

“I liked putting together a one-stop all-services campus – but I did not want it to appear as a homeless shelter. I wanted to be able to treat people with dignity and respect, no different than I would treat you or anybody else.” 

Quick Turnaround 

When the chance arose to buy the hotel, Lopez wasted no time. 

“The opportunity presented itself, and since I had the idea already, I jumped at it and made it a reality. I’m a dreamer, but I try to make my dreams happen,” Lopez said. “With anything I do, I follow through.”

Lisa Chastain, executive director of Gospel Rescue Mission, echoed his thoughts. She said, “Center of Opportunity is so many things – a dream come true, really.” 

Picture all these facets on the same campus – The Arizona Department of Economic Security, housing, food, job training, addiction counseling, medical and dental care, kids’ daycare, clothing, a fitness center, library and help for veterans. 

The point is to expedite homeless people’s journeys from hopelessness to able, productive and happy members of the community. 

Lopez interviewed several agencies, then decided his objective was most aligned with that of Gospel Rescue Mission, “a nonprofit that had been serving the homeless for more than half a century and was 100% privately funded with absolutely zero government funding,” he said. 

Gospel Rescue Mission spent about $4 million to remodel and renovate the main building to make it suitable for the services it will provide. It also vetted all the other agencies that will call the center home.

“Trying to keep 30-plus agencies working together will be the challenge, but it’s also the best opportunity. What will be accomplished is so much greater because there’s so much synergy,” said Doug Martin, president of Good News Communications, which also donated a million dollars to start rehabbing the property.

Dignity and Respect 

The concept of respect and dignity is woven throughout the center. The lobby was converted into the reception, welcome and community area, a comfy open space where people can play pool, play the piano, read and converse with their fellow residents. The dining service doesn’t make people go through a chow line, but serves plated meals at their tables by volunteers. The kitchen is serving nearly 1,000 meals a day, with the capacity to serve up to 3,000.

“The food is good, very good. When I’m in town and have luncheon commitments, we go eat at the Center of Opportunity,” Lopez said. 

When purchased by HSL, the hotel included furniture, industrial kitchen appliances, linens, cookware, dishes and more. It was fully operational. As a result, this center looks nothing like a homeless shelter. 

The Lopez foundation is leasing the Center of Opportunity to Gospel Rescue Mission for 99 years for $1 a year. The campus includes a six- story tower with 250 rooms that La Frontera, a mental health and substance abuse treatment services provider, will renovate. Once the renovation is complete and new buildings are constructed, the center will be able to provide short-term, transitional and long-term housing.

The H.S. Lopez Center of Opportunity was dedicated at a ceremony in May that included Bert and Czarina Lopez, along with dozens of officials and community supporters. That included Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, Pima County Supervisor Ramón Valadez, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and Tucson Councilmember Richard Fimbres. 

They were treated to a tour of the facility – including the expansive hotel-style lobby that was turned into the welcoming entry, the site of several casitas, former meeting rooms converted to sleeping areas, new bathrooms and laundry facilities – along with the plans for five buildings to be constructed that will house some of the nonprofits that are now inside the welcome center. 

Path to Productivity 

The center opened June 3 and in just the first 30 days provided 7,500 bed nights and 7,000 meals. Services were provided with the help of 2,000 volunteer hours. 

“We weren’t expecting to fill up so quickly,” said Victor Hightower, who does marketing for Gospel Rescue Mission. “We were expecting when we opened June 3 to take maybe 30, 40 people in. We took close to 200 the first day.” 

The center opened with 250 beds and is expected to add another 100 when construction of the buildings is completed. Eventually, the completed campus will accommodate about 600 residents.

It seems as though the center covers every amenity, including a dog kennel, library, a work-out facility and a park.

One cool aspect was unexpected: The hotel had a movie theater. It’s been renovated with all new seats, sound and video, and is used for chapel and Friday movie nights. 

“The main objective was not to house the homeless that are professional homeless, but to get these people to get training,” Lopez said, as well as clothing, food and self- respect.

People who need shelter but don’t want job training or addiction help are allowed to stay at the shelter for seven days. They must leave at 9 a.m. and can return at 5 p.m. 

“Those who want to make a commitment to get training are also helped to prepare a résumé, practice interview skills and find a job. They can stay up to 90 days and longer if needed. Those with addictions who want to get their lives back can stay and get help for up to 18 months,” Lopez said.

‘An Open Heart’ 

To keep the center funded, donors will be offered the opportunity to sponsor a building with naming rights. That money will go into an endowment fund to be managed by an independent board of directors including a representative of the foundation and the mission, providing grants to nonprofits operating within the Center of Opportunity and to maintain the premises.

“I hope to stimulate others that also have been blessed to share their blessing with those who are less fortunate, and to support the many other nonprofits that operate within our community, making it a better place for all. We also need volunteers to help with the workload – as well as clothing, food and furniture which is given free of charge to those in need, no questions asked,” Lopez said.

Lopez grew up on welfare and got financial aid from the government to attend college. He appreciates what a helping hand can do. 

“I’ve been very fortunate and blessed beyond my dreams. My children and grandchildren have been taken care of and I can’t take it with me. I’d rather help others by leaving our estate to this foundation to continue serving the many needs of our community.

“It’s payback. I was helped, went through college with government help, and so I’m paying back my blessings. I do it with an open heart. No one forces me. You do it out of your own goodness,” he said.

It’s amazing to watch people who were homeless and felt disconnected become productive people, said Martin of Good News Communication. One of those was his niece, a heroin addict who overdosed three times, went to jail and was put in a mental institution, all by the time she was 19.

She lasted one day at a rehab program Martin paid for. She ended up at the Gospel Rescue Mission, went through a nine-month program there and hasn’t used drugs for years. Today she is a cosmetologist. 

“Her father, who was a cardiac technician, had to save her three times,” Martin said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that she would be dead by now if she hadn’t gone to the Gospel Rescue Mission.”

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