Keith Downey was born and raised in Houston but spent much of his construction and design career in New York City. Back in his hometown, Downey is the incoming president of Super Neighborhood 52 representing Kashmere Gardens as well as the ProChair of Civic Collaboration for ProUnitas. Though his tenure doesn’t start until 2018, he’s already helping fill the role. During Harvey, he stepped up for his neighborhood that he says has often been overlooked.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
You were actually recovering from knee replacement surgery when Harvey hit. And yet you were able to help. How?
When the storm hit, my knee was propped up and I said, ‘Oh, I feel helpless. I want to help the residents of Kashmere Gardens, how do I do that?’
And it hit me; social media. Once I went on social media, a person said we need rescue of 15 seniors in a community of northeast Houston, Verde Forest. I posted it, people need help, they haven’t seen boats or helicopters, then people reached out to me in Kashmere Gardens and said, ‘Sorry to bother you, seniors are on their roofs, the water is about four feet high in their yards.’
It became continuously people would reach out to me from all over northeast Houston, from Gulfton, from Katy, from Sugar Land. A gentleman in California reached out to me in the height of the storm to help him find his brother who lived in Gulfton and was in the hospital.
And it worked?
I had never met the Cajun Navy, this one or that but they’re saying, ‘Mr. Downey people are responding.’ It was a like an automatic network, people were seeing boats and rafts, they were seeing trucks. I said, ‘Wow this is powerful.’ I would say about 40 to possibly 50 people reached out to me in the height of the storm.
Once the rain stopped, the next phase started and there was a sense from the community that they were again overlooked. How did that go?
The sun was shining for the first time, I said, ‘We got to go to work.’ I reached out to my cohorts, the Super Neighborhood president of 48 for Trinity Gardens and the president of the Kashmere alumni association.
We had five truckloads of donation that morning. This became larger than Kashmere Gardens or Trinity Gardens, it became northeast Houston. We started going out and taking a look at some of the hardest hit areas.
I happened to see the mayor of Houston [at a funeral] for a civilian who died. He graduated out of here out of the reentry program. I was his mentor and we belonged to the same church. At the same time the debris was piling up on the streets of our community.
[The mayor] said, ‘Mr. Downey, what’s going on in northeast Houston?’ I said, ‘We have debris piling up and it’s been weeks now since the storm.’ He said, ‘My goal is to get 500 trucks on the streets of Houston…what do you all need?’ I said, ‘We need those trucks, we need debris removed, we need our seniors taken care of. A lot of them still have their sheetrock still intact and it’s becoming unhealthy. We have volunteers doing the mucking but we need that.’
He said ‘Okay, we’re going to take care of that.’
That was [on] Saturday. Monday morning trucks were on the streets of Kashmere Gardens. And they removed 22 thousand cubic yards from the streets.
And there’s still more. They’ve done that first, they’re supposed to do the pass a month apart.
So with cleanup underway, what’s next for you?
We’re now going door to door canvassing, checking on residents house by house; have you had your damage sheet rock removed, has FEMA responded, do you have home insurance, do you have flood insurance and in most cases, they were saying, ‘We have to appeal our case with FEMA.’
Going back to my cohorts, we decided we wanted to put on a townhall meeting. We would educate our residents going forward. We want people to be stronger after Harvey than before Harvey. It was very successful. We had Lone Star legal aid. We had the Houston health department. We had environmental assessments. It was well attended.
I want the community in Kashmere Gardens and others to know people care, not just when it’s a wet day but when it’s a dry day. As we canvass door to door, so many people I’m meeting would start crying when they realized somebody was there for them that was just a person who cared and was there to listen to their story.
Everyone needs to exhale, we’ve all been through stress.
You’ve organized other community events since then as well and tried to continue to connect people to resources. Why is that so important here?
It means a lot to make that connection with people. One thing in our community, because once the people gain your trust, please never let it go because they’ve had so many broken promises. It’s something that is precious, when you have the trust of your seniors, of schools and principals in our community.
This is an underserved community, it’s a food desert, we don’t have quality food. A lot of the things we used to have in the community: we had a hospital when I was growing up across from the elementary school. You had businesses, you had retail. But when they made this bypass portion of 610 to make a true elevated highway, it kind of strangled the community because it made Kashmere Gardens a bypassed community.
I have gone street to street, checking on locations that have no received [attention]. About a week and a half ago, someone said we haven’t seen any trucks for debris on streets like Melbourne, the far northwest corner of Kashmere Gardens, so I traveled out there. Sure enough, the resident was correct. I know if you look up City of Houston solid waste management, there is a portion you can click on that says Harvey by the numbers that will tell you each day how much debris has been picked up and you’re also able to report debris. I reported each street. The resident sent me a photograph that afternoon and said, ‘They’re here, they’re picking up the debris.’ It makes you feel good to be able to help people.
It’s about making sure they feel better in the evening than they did in the morning.
Where was the worst damage in the area? What are the needs you’re dealing with now? A big part of your role sounds like just sharing information and connecting folks to resources.
The further east and northeast you go from highway 59, the worse you will find.
Last night I filled out two applications for seniors that have not had their sheetrock removed. They can’t afford it or FEMA is pending. There are volunteers I will connect you with to make sure you get that sheet rock removed, I just need to know this is going on. Whether you rent or own you shouldn’t be penalized.
People traditionally just didn’t know who to contact. At each meeting I have I say, ‘Take two of everything, one for you and one for your neighbor. Tell people what you’re learning.’ I want to make sure I learn something new before I left. We have to help our residents and empower them.
A lot of us don’t have internet, a lot of us don’t have wifi and a lot of us don’t have fax machines. We’re 0 for 3. So word of mouth, that makes a connection and builds a relationship. It takes time but it also is fulfilling.
So you feel like you’re building not just to help the community recover or even prepare for the next storm but to be stronger and better connected in general.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease, attend your civic meetings. Care and ask questions when you hear something going on.
One thing I want to do going forward, I want to see who wants to be a block captain, to try to keep our community as clean as possible with the illegal dumping going forward now that the city has helped us clean up.
You’ve been back for a little under two years. Did Harvey change how you felt about Houston?
It made me realize Houston is truly strong and it’s strong because of its people. I was in New York for 9/11. A disaster seems to bring hearts together but during Harvey, people were helping people on that day that did not help people the day before and going forward I want to continue those relationships so we’re able to help one another grow.