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Roger Heroux: Public Health Director, Activist for the Homeless

1941-2009


Mayor-Elect Helene Schneider delivered the following remarks at Roger Heroux’s memorial service, on Friday, December 11, at Calvary Chapel:

I am truly honored to be here today to speak about an incredible, honest, loving, and passionate man, Roger Heroux, and the amazing role he played in our community of Santa Barbara.

I was thinking of Roger quite a bit about a week ago. How I missed seeing him, talking with him. One of those times occurred last Sunday afternoon, the day before he died, as I walked into UCSB’s Thunderdome for a women’s basketball game. For many years, I would walk up the steps towards my seat, stopping midway to say hello and chat with Roger and Consuelo, who faithfully would be seated in their upper corner spot, cheering away for our Gauchos. Those seats were empty this basketball season, as they were for much of last season, and I thought that perhaps Roger was listening to the game on the radio.

Roger Heroux April 15, 2006
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman (file)

Roger Heroux April 15, 2006

I knew of Roger as Santa Barbara County’s public health director for a long time before I actually got to know him personally. (I remember hearing that he made sure his retirement party from the county ended in time for him to make it to the Thunderdome for a home game.) Roger started his career at the county in 1986 in what was then called the Health Care Services Department. He became the public health director in 1997. Upon his retirement in January 2005, he was lauded as “an advocate and champion for ensuring access to health care, universal health care coverage, and the crucial role of public health in protecting and improving the health of all members of the community” and was described as “a man of honor, integrity and compassion” and “proof that nice guys can finish first.”

You might think that upon retiring from a top-level countywide position in 2005, a person would take a break. That was not Roger’s way. Two opportunities arose that now, looking back, I think changed Roger’s life — and ours — in profound ways.

Roger was already very involved with many nonprofits, serving on the boards of the Neighborhood Clinics, Hospice, the Rescue Mission, and Casa Esperanza Homeless Center, among others I’m sure. Soon after his retirement, the executive director position at Casa Esperanza opened up, and Roger was asked to leave that board and become the interim director while they conducted their hiring search.

So here’s someone who has just completed his career as a county department head, now taking what I actually consider to be one of the toughest jobs around: running the emergency homeless shelter. Roger got right to work and was inside the shelter every day making sure people’s needs were met, and the day-to-day operations ran smoothly. How easy it would have been to say, “No. I’m retired.” Well, that was not Roger’s way.

At the same time, many of us were talking about how to better coordinate homeless services to get people off the streets and into supportive housing. We were hearing new information about a program from the White House called a “Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.” We needed countywide data. How many homeless people live in Santa Barbara County? How many public and private agencies dealt with homeless people? What was the cost? Roger was hired back by the county to find out. And he did.

In doing his research, Roger interviewed over 125 people. Supervisors, mayors, and councilmembers; nonprofit agency board members and staff, hospital administrators and doctors; law enforcement; city and county staff; business leaders. And also, dozens of homeless people on the streets. He got to know many of them and their stories. They got to know him, and trust him.

His results: 6,000 homeless people live within Santa Barbara County; a minimum of $36 million spent each year managing the system, not necessarily ending the problem. That report is not known as the Santa Barbara County Report on Homelessness. It’s known as Roger’s Report.

More importantly, Roger discovered flaws in our system. He talked about the silos of city and county government; how various people and organizations working on the same issue did not even know what the others were doing. He admitted that he was part of the problem as the head of the Public Health Department, not coordinating with the other county departments — the lack of coordination resulting in people remaining on the streets, and moving through the revolving door from the shelters to the jail to the emergency room to detox facilities and back to the streets.

Roger was determined to break down the silos, and because he was held in such high regard by his former colleagues, elected officials, community leaders, and homeless people alike, we started to see results. It was through his initial leadership and determination that our community was able to bring together over 100 community leaders countywide to create our own Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness; receive unanimous positive votes from the County Board of Supervisors and the City Councils in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, Goleta, Lompoc, and Santa Maria in approving the plan; recruit a strong governing board of directors; and secure the plan’s initial funding. In the last two years, the Ten-Year Plan calculated that over 325 chronically homeless people are now off the streets countywide.

Roger was really stubborn in that wonderful way that allowed him and others to focus on the issues at hand beyond bureaucratic red tape, personalities and egos — getting amazing results in the process. What a gift, and what a gift for us, that we can learn that from him.

It was while waiting for a flight home from Denver in 2006 that I learned more from Roger about his life, his interests, and his family. We had just attended a Jurisdictional Leaders’ Summit of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Sitting at that Denver Airport restaurant, I learned about his early career as a community organizer in Guadalupe, and at the Community Action Commission. He talked about how working at Casa Esperanza and with the Ten-Year Plan reminded him of his beginnings as a grassroots activist and organizer, how he liked the change of pace and how his perspective at that point felt like coming full circle with a better understanding on how to improve the lives of others.

Recently retired U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Executive Director Philip Mangano said it well when he visited here in July 2008, and renamed our dear friend, in front of over 100 people “Roger Hero.”

Thank you, Roger. For your leadership, your compassion, and for showing us how not only to look at how to improve what is around us, but also to look at how to improve ourselves in the process. We will miss you greatly.



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