Dept. of Partially Solved Mysteries

Whatever Happened to the Fifth Ward Recovery Center?

Two years after a promised renovation, the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital is even worse for the wear—so what gives?

By Adam Doster June 20, 2016 Published in the July 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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The Barbara Jordan Recovery Center’s limestone exterior is pockmarked, many of its windows overlooking Lyons Avenue blown out. This used to be a Fifth Ward anchor, a four-story facility owned by the historic Riverside General Hospital where, as recently as 2014, some 80 long-term residential patients received substance-abuse treatment. Now it sits vacant, an eyesore encircled by a rusty chain link fence. Around back, an entrance to the weedy parking lot remains firmly—and symbolically—padlocked.

Problems here escalated in 2012, when 11 executives of Riverside General—one of the oldest African-American hospitals in the country—were indicted in a $158 million Medicare fraud scheme. A suspension of funds from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services dried up the financial spigot, which made it impossible to pay for general maintenance. In the summer of 2014, Texas Department of State Health Services investigators found wings of what was once known as St. Elizabeth Hospital, an elegant Late Art Deco structure built in 1947, in complete disrepair.

Inside those limestone walls, fire-alarm and air-conditioning systems were broken, the plumbing a mess, building permits expired. Investigators shut Barbara Jordan down on the spot, and a majority of its patients were dis- charged without plans in place for continuing treatment. At the time, a news release from U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee suggested the center would only be “temporarily closed for maintenance and major repairs.” One hospital administrator reportedly pegged the amount needed for upgrades at “about $4 million.”

Now, another two years have passed. On a recent drive past the building on Lyons, we observed that it remains derelict and wondered how and when it might be rehabbed. When we couldn’t find even a trickle of news about the place, we decided to figure out what was going on.

Not surprisingly, the phone is disconnected. And the recovery center’s former email account kicked back our query when we tried to start at the source. Calls to clergy and social-service organizations in the area came up craps, too. Robert McKinley Gilmore, a reverend with Real Urban Ministry and community activist who worried about Barbara Jordan for years before it closed, said he and several community leaders finally met with the hospital board in May, after months of requests, but received almost no specific answers to their questions.

“I have not heard any talk at all,” said Betty Nunnally, vice president of programs at the nearby Star of Hope mission. “No chatter whatsoever.”

Still, the Harris County Appraisal District offered a clue: The building—sinking in value, depreciating from $10.4 million to $5.8 million in 2015 alone—was sold to a company called Ability Insurance Company in May 2015. That company’s lawyer provided yet another clue: Ability Insurance actually flipped the property 11 months later, this past April. The newest owner, according to Harris County property records, is 4514 Lyons LLC. That blandly named organization shares an address with the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, a mere two blocks down Lyons Avenue.

And that’s where we found a potentially happy ending—at least for now. “The recovery center will be renovated and integrated as a part of planned development for the Lyons corridor,” Kathy Payton, Fifth Ward’s CEO, told us over email. “However, it will be repurposed, and current plans do not include reopening as a recovery center.” No additional details or timeline were given.

But, at the very least, someone is planning to improve the facility. The next step? Clueing in Fifth Warders, many of whom are still hopeful that those vanished substance-abuse programs will be restored, in one form or another; after all, the nearest treatment center is now close to three miles away. As Rev. Gilmore said: “Everybody is curious to know the same thing that you just asked me—what’s going on over there?”

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