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."
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."
"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 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."
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'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."
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."
"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."
By Juan Pablo Garnham | The Texas Tribune
Just a couple of months ago, Steve Harrell got a ticket just for sitting in downtown Austin. It was around 4:30 p.m. and he was among a group of other people experiencing homelessness when a police officer approached, pointed at him and issued the citation, he told officials at an Austin City Council meeting last month.
"There has to be a better way," he said at the meeting.
Two weeks later, the law that got him the ticket was changed when the City Council reformed three municipal ordinances criticized for criminalizing homelessness.
Lying or sitting down in public is no longer prohibited as long as people don’t block access to spaces. Simply asking for money is no longer illegal, though aggressive confrontations are. And sleeping in some public spaces (excluding parks and City Hall) is no longer banned, unless it is deemed to endanger someone’s health or safety — or if it impedes the "reasonable use of a public area."
Debate over the changes went until 2:20 a.m the day of the final vote. Some residents and business organizations, like the Austin Downtown Alliance, worried the updates would make the streets dirtier or make it more unsafe for some to walk at night.
“Until you actually have safe places identified [for homeless people to stay], we don't understand why you're changing the ordinance,” said Kimberly Levinson, vice president of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association.
But many people who showed up supported the measure. The council approved it unanimously. The debate could have ended there. But it didn’t.
In yet another episode of the ongoing fight between cities and the state, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to override the ordinances. Saying that “the horror stories are piling up,” he shared a tweet that wrongly linked a car accident to a group of people experiencing homelessness running into traffic.
Later, when asked by The Texas Tribune in a press conference about possible solutions to the issue, he pointed to the approach taken by San Antonio’s largest homeless organization.
“There are so many options that are available that are superior to people camping out on Congress Avenue,” Abbott said. “Probably the best template for this is a strategy that's been developed in San Antonio that I urge all communities to take a look at as the possible best practice. It's called Haven for Hope because what it does — it does not ignore the homeless; it helps the homeless be placed on a pathway toward recovery and improvement in their lives.”
But while one of Haven for Hope’s chief approaches to combating homelessness has helped keep people with nowhere else to go out of the city’s downtown, experts say it doesn’t follow what the evidence — or even what the federal government — suggests to help people find stable housing.
Just 10 minutes away from the Alamo, west of San Antonio’s downtown, Haven for Hope’s massive 22-acre campus is dedicated to taking care of people experiencing homelessness. Before Abbott referenced the group’s approaches as an example for the state, he gave it the Governor’s Volunteer Award in 2017.
With an annual budget of approximately $20 million, Haven for Hope serves around 1,700 people on any given day, according to CEO and President Kenny Wilson. Around 80 percent of people who seek help for homelessness in San Antonio come through Haven for Hope’s $100 million campus, which has dormitories for men, women and families and an open sleeping area called the Prospect’s Courtyard.
“This is primarily people from the streets that can come in and stay with us one night or a year,” Wilson said. “And in both places, anyone who stays at Haven, they have access to good food, three great meals a day, hot meals, laundry, medical care and clothing.”
Brenda Mascorro is the executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, the regional planning body in Bexar County that coordinates housing and services funding for homeless families and individuals. She said Haven for Hope’s shelter and collaboration with 184 nonprofit partners is a critical part of San Antonio’s response to the issue.
“The benefits of Haven for Hope are vast,” she said.
Wilson said 5,000 people have gone through Haven for Hope’s “transformational program,” where people experiencing homelessness are given personalized help finding places to live.
“We follow them, and after a year about 90 percent of them are still in their home,” Wilson said.
But not everyone agrees with the organization’s approach. Program participants can be asked to take a urine test or a breathalyzer if alcohol or drug use is suspected. If people are intoxicated or high, they can’t enter the campus until they are sober. Once sober, they will meet with a treatment team to discuss the situation and analyze if treatment is needed.
This approach contradicts the current trend in homelessness services, which instead aims to find housing — despite conditions like alcoholism or drug use — and then focus on solving other problems through support services. This is what experts call the “housing first” model.
In the last two decades, dozens of studies have quantified what many say is the model’s positive impact. The American Journal of Public Health published a study in 2004 that found around 80% of people helped through the housing first model remained housed after two years.
At the same time, research suggests that model saves taxpayers by cutting the costs of jailing or providing health care to people experiencing homelessness. A study published in 2006 found that in Denver, the approach led to a decline in emergency room visits that saved $31,545 per program participant. And incarceration days and costs were reduced by 76 percent.
The model is used elsewhere in Texas, including in Houston, which has been successful in cutting its rate of people experiencing homelessness. And the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has adopted it as policy since George W. Bush’s administration. Current HUD Secretary Ben Carson supports it, and the agency considers its use a priority.
“While it might be more expensive because you are providing housing, it ends up saving money,” said Gary Painter, director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern California. “It is at least [as] cost effective as the other model and also certainly much more effective” in terms of keeping people housed, he said. “If you get an outcome that is far more better without more costs, why wouldn’t you do it?”
Wilson, with Haven for Hope, said that his organization partially relies on the housing first approach, through services offered by the organization’s partners. But he added that “there is no one way to solve homelessness.” He said that he has seen people get sober, find a place to live and then relapse.
“The downside of just saying, ‘Get people in a house,’ is their needs are so profound, so deep, so lengthy,” Wilson said.
But some people disagree with another aspect: having one massive shelter for a major city. The national trend is to have multiple smaller shelters.
“Haven for Hope is a big shelter with a big budget, but it does not end homelessness,” said Robert Friant, managing director for the Corporation for Supportive Housing, a New York-based organization that finances and consults on homelessness and housing. “Shelters don’t end homelessness. We need affordable housing. And what I’m conveying is evidence based. Homes end homelessness.”
The Texas Homeless Network, the non-profit that coordinates homeless efforts across the state, values the work done in Haven for Hope, but emphasized that the goal is to find permanent housing for everyone experiencing homelessness.
“Many communities have had success with ending homelessness for special populations but housing was the key piece. Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and most recently Abilene, have all effectively ended Veteran homelessness by securing housing and placing people in those units quickly. We know this can be replicated in other areas and with other subpopulations but we need housing,” the organization said in a statement.
In San Antonio, the number of people experiencing homelessness has remained more or less stable since the subprime mortgage crisis ended. Although the annual count is hardly a precise census, it does underscore that San Antonio hasn’t been able to decrease its homeless population the way Houston has.
Still, San Antonio has seen a visible change in the city’s urban core.
“Homelessness in downtown San Antonio has dropped about 80 percent since San Antonio Haven for Hope opened,” Wilson said. “We're near downtown, as I said, and we have 1,700 people here. I often wonder where would they be if they weren't here. And many of them would be downtown and on the River Walk, in front of the hotels.”
Since the approval of Austin’s reworked ordinances, Downtown Austin Alliance workers have seen the number of encounters with people sleeping or lying in public areas in the business district rise from 2,000 to 4,000 a month, CEO Dewitt Peart said at a forum organized by KUT radio earlier this month.
But at the same KUT event, Mayor Steve Adler strongly defended the policy.
“We haven’t created any more people experiencing homelessness over the last month. Now they are more visible,” Adler said, “but it is still the same person that needs a place to stay.”
The mayor said previous versions of the ordinances were costly to the city at a time when market-driven housing prices are rising for residents.
"I am tired of wasting taxpayer dollars not addressing this situation and just moving people around that are trying to comply, but living in a city where it is impossible," Adler said.
Austin’s approach has been to steer funds toward multiple shelters and permanent housing before addressing other issues like substance abuse.
“It’s so expensive to shelter people without having the resources to get them out and back to housing and to the community,” said Ann Howard, who recently stepped down as executive director of Austin’s Ending Community Homelessness Coalition to run for the Travis County Commissioners Court. “It really comes down to money: Those huge campuses become intractable.”
City officials will discuss opening one shelter in each City Council district. In June, the council approved the construction of a new center in South Austin.
“It’s a housing focused center, that people go through and not to,” council member Ann Kitchen said at the KUT forum. “It’s a safe, welcoming place to live and be connected to services to help them get to permanent housing.”
Austin plans to spend $15.3 million of the city’s next budget in homelessness relief. That includes money for rental assistance, legal aid and the new shelter that the city recently approved.
And the local homeless organizations are also partnering for a “pay for success” project, a new approach in Texas through which financial institutions, foundations and a health-focused organization would fund housing and assistance for 250 individuals that have been in and out of jails and hospitals. The success of the interventions will be measured with data related to recidivism, the amount of emergency room visits and how many individuals remain housed. If it is successful, investors get their money back. This way, the financial risk of the intervention doesn’t fall on the government.
“Republicans and Democrats can work together on it because it's fiscally conservative for the government, since it shifts the risk” away from taxpayers, Howard says. “The hope is that if the data proves that this permanent supportive housing helps, then we expect that governments will fund this and let go of funding things that they don't have data for or that don’t prove out.”
Lara Korte contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former board member of The Texas Tribune, has also been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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