When homeless declined help in San Antonio's subfreezing weather, outreach workers persisted

by Ben OlivoFebruary 21, 2021
People sleep against the Aztec Theatre in subfreezing temperatures in the early morning hours of Monday, Feb. 15. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Days before the wintry mix began pounding San Antonio early last week, the city's homeless outreach groups mobilized. In downtown, a coalition of specialists and volunteers canvassed the streets and warned those exposed to the elements that temperatures would fall to single digits, below zero with the wind.

One of them was Raymond Martinez, 63, who I met Monday morning on a snow-covered East Commerce Street near the Aztec Theatre. He said he had spent the night with about five or six others who had cocooned themselves inside blankets on the sidewalk next to the Aztec as snow fell relentlessly, and he expressed frustration when I asked him what it was like.

"It's been an ugly experience," said Raymond, who was shrouded in a white blanket while returning to his spot. Around him, people in clean clothes and with a much different outlook on the snow and the cold walked up and down Commerce. "I only got one blanket. I'm 63 years old, and I don't know what to do no more. It's hard, because people have no compassion (to) get you a cup of coffee or a hot meal."

Raymond Martinez, 63, slept on a sidewalk overnight Sunday into Monday morning, Feb. 15, during the snow fall. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

A man named Carlos, who looked to be Raymond's friend, and who was also swaddled in blankets, interrupted the interview.

"Since you're reporting, my name is Carlos," he said, coughing several times before finishing his sentence. "What I want to ask you for … if you can help us out with a little change."

I had a couple of $1 bills and offered one each to Raymond and Carlos. Carlos took his, and Raymond told me to give his to Carlos. Then the interview continued. I wanted to know why they decided to stay on the streets when emergency shelters were opening up, including at some churches. He said he didn't want to go to Haven for Hope because of the rules, although the shelter had suspended many of them due to the crisis.

"Have for Hope is good, but they have a lot of restrictions," he said. "Like say if you forgot your mask, they'll put their ass in your face, 'Put on your damn mask' … Get out of my face like that. What's wrong with you, man? Attitudes. Shit like that."

He continued.

"I guess every man has his own mind and what to do in whatever condition of weather it is. I decided to stay out here, because I had nobody to take me nowhere else. I had no other choice, but to freeze my ass. I'm lucky I'm still alive."

Valerie Salas, Christian Assistance Ministry's (CAM) director of homeless services, was one of several outreach specialists who had been warning those on the streets that temperatures would dip well below freezing three days before it did.

"We've been outreaching since we heard about this front coming, letting them know how bad it's going to get, and I don't think they were really believing it until it hit last night," Salas said on Monday in the basement of Travis Park Church, where she was helping Corazón Ministries, a nonprofit that operates from the church, shelter folks that afternoon.

"There’s definitely places they can go, other churches, but it wasn't until last night, until they were making last minute (decisions), 'OK, we're getting snowed on.' "

Travis Park Church, 230 E. Travis St., opened as an emergency shelter last week. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Travis Park Church was one of a handful of downtown emergency shelters that opened before the freezing weather pummeled San Antonio.

Corazón Ministries usually services 800 homeless people a week through warm meals, doctor check ups, among other services. Pastor Gavin Rogers likened the effort last week to that of a hurricane shelter, but said the outreach becomes stigmatized when it's focussed on the homeless population.

"That's unfortunate, because really we should have the same resources as a hurricane (shelter)," Rogers said on Monday as backpacks and other personal belongings sat next to empty cots in the sleeping area. They were empty because the sheltered were upstairs watching a movie, "The Help," while volunteers sanitized the space. "Unfortunately, this hurricane is cold and only basically affects people in extreme poverty and homelessness, and that's a challenge we're all guilty of understanding, including myself."

Rogers made those comments Monday afternoon, not knowing hundreds of thousands of San Antonians would be without power for much of the week. He was a member of one of several outreach teams that also included nonprofits Church Under the Bridge, Life Restored Church, and Last Chance Ministries, in coordination with the City of San Antonio’s Department of Human Services.

"We went to everyone of those sleeping bags last night and nights before," Rogers said. Many came in on those nights before the first snow fell. Others called in the middle of the night, when temperatures became unbearable, when they were ready to come in.

Still, others declined the help.

"They don't want to leave their environment," Salas said. "They'd rather be out there. They want to actively drink by the hour. They want to actively use. And those are things … although there are barriers that these emergency shelters do not have that other places had before, even with that leniency and freedom, they just don't want to leave their environment."

Valerie Salas of Christian Assistance Ministry surveys downtown streets on Thursday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

When I asked Salas, 38, to describe what she does …

"What I do? Are you sure? Did you bring a helmet?," she said on Thursday half-jokingly.

That morning, Salas was assaulted by a homeless man she knew. He was high, and the church was already at capacity. She wanted to give him a jacket, because he had none.

"He does this boxing-in-the-air thing, which is fine, and then I walked back outside because I was bothered that he was only wearing a sweatshirt," she said. "So I was like, 'Here, just, at least take a jacket.' Let's figure this out type of thing. And that was stupid, because he just got the brick and chunked it at me."

The man took off yelling.

"Basically, I don't have a life and I just drive around trying to save people," Salas said three days after I met her at the church and what had been, for Salas, a full week of transporting people while operating on little sleep. When she wasn't driving around engaging with the homeless, she was at Travis Park Church helping run the shelter. "I love the mentally ill. They fascinate me, and I just want to spend the rest of my live with them. That's kind of it in a nutshell."

Salas, a mother of two, was homeless about eight years ago. Haven for Hope is where she got sober after enrolling in their treatment program. That was in 2013. She stayed for three days and would have stayed longer, but she found a sponsor who took her in.

A couple of years later, she started working at a downtown law firm and on her lunch breaks, would come downstairs to talk to the homeless.

"I was just so fascinated by them," Salas said while patrolling East Commerce during the second snow fall. "I was fascinated by their stories. I was fascinated that they don't want help. I was trying to tell them, because I had just come out of Haven, come to Haven. You can be saved. And they didn't want it. I was fascinated by that."

Some of her friends in recovery got jobs at Centro San Antonio, and she'd walk over to check on them to "make sure that they're working their program, and if they needed support," Salas said. "I was naturally outreaching."

Salas interrupts her origins story as she drives up to the people squatting next to the Aztec. They've been out in the elements for years, but in freezing temperatures for four days. Salas rolls down the passenger’s window.

"Nicky, Nicky," she says, talking to a woman sitting in blankets, the sidewalk strewn with trash. "Did you change your mind?"

"Nah," Nicky says.

"I'll buy you whatever you want," Salas said. "I love you … OK."

She drives a few feet forward.

"Carlos? Anthony? No?"

"Are you inviting me to your house?," one of the men asks.

"Am I willing to go to any lengths?" Salas says to me. "Let's contemplate this."

She directs her attention to someone else she knows.

"Princess, is that you? Did you change your mind? Do you want to come inside?"

A man shakes his head.

Raymond, the person who was frustrated the morning after the first snow fell, actually came in to Travis Park Church for two nights during the week.

"Raymond did come," Salas says "There was another one we took, Albert … with the legs."

Monday morning, I saw Salas roll up to the Aztec, help a man up from his belongings, and tried to help him walk toward the compact passenger van when he fell to the sidewalk, shivering, and crawled the rest of the way into the vehicle.

"Anyways, that's how I started outreaching, like as a job," she said. "The general manager (at Centro) noticed me … he was like, 'Why do you keep stalking my guys?' I told him I'm just a person in recovery and I lived at Haven with them. They are my brothers in recovery and I just want to make sure they have support."

That was in 2016. She joined Centro's homeless outreach team, doing the work as an employee of Haven for Hope, but contracted through Centro.

Just recently, on Jan. 1, she joined CAM on McCullough Avenue, near the Interstate 37 overpass, which she describes as an emergency room for the homeless. There, the ministry provides clothing, help obtaining an ID card, pays utility bills for families, among other services.

Salas helps a homeless man named Jonathan get into a compact van on the way to Haven for Hope's hotel shelter on Chávez Boulevard on Thursday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Salas's phone doesn't stop. She's talking to other outreach workers who are spread across the city. A homeless couple is across from an Adult Video Megaplex and the man says he has a broken hip. She’s getting calls about a guy outside a laundromat on the East Side. Earlier in the afternoon, she helped book a room at the Gibbs Hotel on Alamo Plaza for a mother and her son. They had stayed at the Convention Center warming center the night before, but wanted out after the mother's phone was stolen, and she felt she was being threatened by a man who was also staying there.

"This is outreach, boots to the ground," Salas said before circling back around to the Archdiocese of San Antonio's event center on Commerce and Camaron streets, where several people were hanging out on the steps as snow continued to fall.

"I like CAM because I still get to work with the clients. It's direct work with the clients, but it's just a different kind of work. This is out of the norm because of the situation."

She explains the psychology of why people don't want to come in.

"Just substance abuse issues, mental health issues. I don't know what the term would be but anger authority issues where they don't want to follow certain rules, or don't meet the criteria to go into a shelter," she said, "meaning you have to have ID, you have to have a clean UA (urine analysis), which are very real right now because of Covid, before the storm. The intake processes were different before Covid."

Expecting some of the homeless to have a clean urine analysis or an ID is unrealistic for those suffering from alcoholism or mental illness, she said. San Antonio needs a low-barrier shelter, she said. At Centro, where she used to work, they've now employed four homeless outreach workers. The city's Department of Human Services is gearing up to hire a team of outreach workers, as well.

"You can have a million outreach workers, that’d be great," she said, "but where are you going to put them? The mental health services need to expand. There’s just not enough beds."

John Diaz talks to Salas at a laundromat on South Hackberry Street on Thursday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The man at the laundromat is John Diaz, who used to preach downtown, but has since moved to spots on the East Side. He's ready to come in, but wants to wait for his friend, Vincent, who was sleeping under I-37 on East César E. Chávez Boulevard, next to the Alamodome.

"Mr. Diaz, right? I haven't seen you in forever," Salas said. "So this is where you've been."

"Yes, ma'am. I've been over here on the East Side," Diaz said sitting against the building with a Little Caesars pizza someone had just given him. "I've been here begging for blankets."

"No, it's too cold. Let me take you inside. There’s a couple of options. I can take you to the Convention Center. They're taking a lot of people in. They are serving serving food there. They'll let you stay overnight. Or, I can take you to Haven."

"Oh no."

"Or, I can take you to the hub (the city's Homeless Resource Hub on West Travis Street), which is open until 6. From there, they'll transfer you to Life Restore Church or CUB (Church Under the Bridge). I would suggest I take you to the Convention Center."

"The Convention Center, I think."

But Diaz was waiting for Vincent.

"I'm concerned about my friend, my brother. I ain't going to just go in and leave him out like this."

"I'm concerned about you, too."

Salas writes her number on the pizza box and begs Diaz to call her when he's ready to go to the Convention Center.

As Salas heads back to the van, Diaz begins a mini sermon for the hour.

"There's not a person in this world who doesn't need help. Everybody needs help. Stop being proud."

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Heron Editor Ben Olivo can be reached at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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