With a federal eviction moratorium on its last legs and deadlines approaching to spend COVID-19 relief grants, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County community partners aim to house at least 500 people experiencing homelessness by the end of 2021.

To meet that goal, the county would need to find homes for an average of three people per day, 45% more than its previous rate.

The “housing surge” initiative, which started on Aug. 1, has counted only eight people as of Friday who have found permanent housing.

The South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) is coordinating the initiative as the federally designated lead Continuum of Care agency for San Antonio and Bexar County. SARAH has created a homepage for the housing surge, complete with a dashboard that tracks progress. The count will be updated weekly.

“Having a community goal and displaying the data for all of us, I think, will help everyone keep up with it and prioritize it,” said Katie Vela, executive director of SARAH.

From Jan. 1 to July 31, area partners were able to find housing for 483 residents, averaging 69 placements per month.

Deadlines for spending federal coronavirus relief dollars vary for the state, city, and county, but some generally start in mid-2022, Vela said. “So we are trying to speed up the process of moving people into housing so they can start spending those dollars because we don’t want any funding that’s available to go unused or anyone to miss out on an opportunity. … If we want people to have a full year of rental assistance, we want the placements to speed up now.”

The San Antonio Housing Authority has also received an additional 284 emergency housing vouchers for which there are already 300 applications, she said.

SARAH, the city, and partner agencies are working to identify open housing units across the state. There isn’t yet a central database that shows where open units are and whether they accept vouchers, nor is there one that maintains a record of people who have been previously evicted or incarcerated.

“This community effort to house people currently experiencing homelessness takes place at a scale without precedent in San Antonio,” Melody Woosley, director of the city’s Department of Human Services, said in a news release. “By combining Federal resources with our local know-how and dedication, we will make a difference for hundreds of people. … This housing surge is a product of the Community Homeless Strategic Plan and the City’s COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Plan, outlining our responses to the twin challenges of homelessness and the pandemic.”

Vela hopes that the surge will also help streamline inter-agency communications and processes for the long term.

“For example, before we got started, we met with every partner and said, ‘What are your biggest barriers to getting people into housing?'” she said. “And although we have tons of ID recovery resources, we didn’t have a guide and a process to connect people directly to ID recovery. So we have a group meeting now on a weekly basis, to put together a guide for all the partners and how they can quickly [access] ID recovery.”

A key long-term strategy to end homelessness is to build low-barrier, site-based permanent supportive housing, Vela said. That is permanent housing that comes with on-site support such as addiction and mental health services.

Currently, San Antonio doesn’t have any such housing. Towne Twin Village, slated to be completed in phases over the next few years, will be the city’s first for more than 250 residents 50 years or older.

Those units will count towards SARAH’s goal of facilitating at least 1,000 units of permanent supportive housing.

In the meantime, Vela said, shelters are still open despite the increased spread of the coronavirus due to the delta variant. Some may be hesitant to enter a congregate setting such as Haven for Hope.

“I still want to encourage people that might be fearful to go into a shelter,” she said. “They’ve done a fantastic job of keeping up with the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance and putting measures in place quickly, and they have not had a widespread outbreak in the last year and a half because of it.”

If someone is in an unsafe situation at home, she added, “they could get access to so many different resources that can help them get to a better and safer place,” such as Family Violence Prevention Services.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org