Robert Hess

Robert Hess ( )

Robert V. Hess, who turned his experience as manager of a disabled veterans thrift store into a career as a homelessness solutions expert, died of liver cancer Dec. 24 at his home in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. The former Perry Hall resident was 57.

After working in Baltimore for 25 years, he held top posts in Philadelphia and New York, where he was commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services.

Born in Baltimore, he was the son of Bernard Lawrence Hess, a city schools psychologist, and Barbara Ann Neumeister Hess, a DuPont manager. He was a 1974 graduate of Towson Catholic High School, where he played basketball, soccer and baseball.

He met his future wife, the former Patricia Garmer, now a nurse, at a school dance after one of his basketball games. He was a senior and she was a junior. They married in 1980.

He served two tours in the Army and was in an artillery unit in Germany. After his discharge, he earned a business degree at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In 1979, Mr. Hess took a job managing a Disabled American Veterans thrift store at Harford Road and North Avenue. Family members said he was mentored by Bill McCartin, a Noxell executive who helped him expand the store, which was heavily patronized by bargain hunters. The store was known for its large inventory and low prices. He enlarged that initial operation to employ more than 150 people in five locations.

"This led Rob to take a harder look at the homeless," his wife said. "After learning there were nearly a thousand veterans living on the streets of Baltimore at that time, he and a small group of veterans investigated what other cities around the country were doing."

She said he used a model of military-like structure and founded the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, known as McVETS, near Little Italy.

"He was driven," his wife said. "He was a strong leader and a phenomenal manager. His leadership style was compassionate and involved inclusiveness. He also had a great sense of humor."

She said the organization proved successful and helped numerous veterans.

Mr. Hess then began work at a policy group, Action for the Homeless, which merged with the Maryland Food Committee to become the Center for Poverty Solutions, at Charles and 25th streets.

In a 1998 op-ed page article in The Baltimore Sun, Mr. Hess discussed the then-controversial move planned for Our Daily Bread.

"The number of soup kitchens in Maryland has grown from about 60 in 1980 to more than 900, and hunger is still with us," he wrote. "But this conversation is a welcome and timely distraction. How often does poverty make the front page? ... The real issue is how we can ensure that every individual can live with dignity. What better time to raise the visibility of poverty than now, as the City Council is about to consider making sleeping outdoors illegal, and our society struggles with the consequences of welfare reform."

In 2001, he moved to Philadelphia, where he ran homeless services for the city and newspapers called him the "homeless czar."

"During Mr. Hess' tenure, the city focused more of its resources on reaching out to people living on the streets," a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article said. "During Mr. Hess' tenure, the number of street homeless in Center City was nearly cut in half."

Mr. Hess enlisted the help of numerous other service providers, including religious groups.

Then-New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hired him as the city's commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, a post he held from 2006 to 2010.

In a 2008 New York Times article, Mr. Hess said that homeless people prefer smaller "havens," not large communal shelters.

"They voted against the shelter system — that's why they're on the street," he said. "They've had the opportunity to come into the shelter system each and every night, and they said, 'No, the best place for me is on the streets.' That's a pretty strong statement."

In 2011, Mr. Hess founded Housing Solutions USA, a nonprofit that continued to identify potential solutions to homelessness.

In November, he met with New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio to discuss homelessness strategy.

"My husband was weakened with cancer, and I was impressed he could meet with him for an hour," his wife said.

Mr. Hess coached his daughters in basketball at St. Joseph School in Fullerton. He also enjoyed making crab cakes and experimenting with new recipes.

"He excelled at food presentation," his wife said.

A Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, 101 Church Lane in Timonium, where he and his wife were married.

In addition to his wife, survivors include his daughters, Christi L. Hess of Madison, Wis., and Brittany A. Hess of Philadelphia; his mother, Barbara Ann Neumeister Hess of Glen Arm; a brother, Steve Hess of Lewes, Del; and a sister, Lynda Hess of Waimanalo, Hawaii. His father died in 2013.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com