The number of homeless individuals in San Antonio has remained mostly flat over the past five years. But family homelessness has risen in San Antonio since 2016, according to a study commissioned by City Council last year.

City Council approved a contract with public policy consulting firm Homebase in October 2019 to develop a strategic plan to combat homelessness in San Antonio. Homebase recently completed its study and presented its findings and recommendations to the City – slightly delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The plan, as you may remember, was originally scheduled to be released in April,” Department of Human Services Director Melody Woosley told City Council members at a Wednesday meeting, where she answered questions about the report. “However, the delay due to COVID did allow for the Homebase team to update the plan in light of effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented influx” of federal coronavirus relief funding.

Between 2016 and 2020, the number of homeless families increased by 15 percent, from 235 families to 271. Families also make up 50 percent of the sheltered homeless population in San Antonio, according to the report from Homebase.

Homebase, a consultant firm based in San Francisco, identified many positive factors in San Antonio that make addressing homelessness easier but also found areas that need improvement, Woosley said. The barriers to access shelter need to be lowered, and more permanent and affordable housing options need to be available. The high rate of poverty in San Antonio and a minimum wage of $7.25 also make it difficult for people to find and hold onto affordable housing.  

Councilman Roberto Treviño pointed to the report’s finding that evictions are a large contributor to the homelessness problem in San Antonio as “not surprising.”

“We’ve known we’ve had this problem for a long time with rental housing stability in the city for decades and it is gravely concerning, considering all the unemployment benefits are set to end after Christmas and the eviction moratorium will expire on Jan. 1,” he said.

Though the City has given financial assistance to renters struggling to pay their bills, it’s likely not enough, Treviño said.

“I believe that we will need more than just a few more additional dollars in housing assistance before the new year, so I hope that we can address this issue given the people of color, women of color, and more specifically single moms of color face evictions and displacement at an incredibly disproportionate rate,” Treviño said.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) called for more empathy when considering solutions and said she supported one of the stakeholder ideas presented in the report to “reframe homelessness” and make it a more urgent issue in the community.

“Is the solution to declare it a state of emergency? Because … we see that there’s urgency,” Garcia said of council members. “Those are the calls that we’re getting from our stakeholders.”

The Homebase report made six key recommendations, including expanding street outreach and prioritizing the most vulnerable and hardest-to-serve people for permanent housing resources, Woosley said. It also recommended increasing the funding allocated for “permanent supportive housing” and affordable housing options for homeless individuals.

The City has already budgeted $32 million for homeless investments in fiscal year 2021, including $8.6 million for Haven for Hope and $3.2 million for other service providers who work with homeless people, Woosley said. Another $16.8 million from federal coronavirus relief funding was allocated toward emergency shelter, homelessness prevention, rapid rehousing, and street outreach.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) pointed to the lack of substantial change year to year in the homeless population as an indication that the City needs to examine the way it invests in homelessness solutions.

“There’s a point of diminishing returns,” Perry said. “We can send out more and more and more money but you’re not going to eliminate homelessness across the city. I don’t know that they can get it down below the 2,900 people, because we’ve seen that over the last couple of years [counts of homeless individuals have] been hovering around that number.” 

In 2020, San Antonio counted fewer than 3,000 homeless individuals in its annual homeless census (called the Point in Time count), an increase of 151 people since 2016.

City Attorney Andy Segovia clarified that though the number of homeless individuals seems flat, the population itself is not static; the City’s investment cannot be assessed as simply as taking the funding each year and dividing it by the number of people recorded during the annual Point in Time count.

“The set of individuals who identify as homeless in January, it’s different than the set of individuals that we look at in July or December,” Segovia said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg ended the discussion succinctly: “I’d also suggest that we shouldn’t reduce our compassion here to a simple [return on investment], in terms of dollars and cents.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.