(From left) Crystal Gutierrez, Victoria Webster and her daughter Aryan Nichols, and Diana Garcia and her daughter Eliana Ramos spend time together during a celebration for Mother's Day at Casa Mia.
(From left) Crystal Gutierrez, Victoria Webster and her daughter Aryan, and Diana Garcia and her daughter Eliana spend time together during a Mother's Day celebration at the current Casa Mia facility in May 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) made an impassioned case Thursday against a zoning change requested by a nonprofit organization seeking to construct a transitional housing project on the East Side for mothers battling substance abuse.

Andrews-Sullivan urged her fellow council members to deny an application from Crosspoint Inc. and UT Health San Antonio to expand their existing Casa Mia program, which currently operates in the Monte Vista neighborhood, to an Eastside facility just inside Loop 410.

“I’m asking that as we vote, we do not go forward in hypocrisy of how we will represent the City of San Antonio, especially in a district that has been far left behind by a city that continues to just push off things that other people do not want in their backyards,” Andrews-Sullivan said.

Andrews-Sullivan and Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) voted against the zoning change but the measure passed on an 8-2 vote, with Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4) abstaining.  

Crosspoint and UT Health San Antonio’s School of Nursing established Casa Mia two years ago. The program provides mothers struggling with opioid use the space to recover and not be separated from their children while doing so, according to Lisa Cleveland, nurse practitioner and associate professor with UT Health San Antonio.

“Mothering mothers entering treatment are routinely separated from their children, while their children are often placed in the foster care system,” Cleveland told council members Thursday. “This is a trend we observe nationally as well with a recent 10 percent increase in children entering the child welfare system after decades of steady decline.”

The new Casa Mia campus in the Dellcrest neighborhood would occupy just under 3 acres with 40 beds and provide primary health care services onsite along with specialized care for newborns with opioid withdrawal symptoms.

The zoning vote was a departure from the typical procedure of City Council members voting along with the council representative whose district is affected by a zoning change. Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) acknowledged that departure, but emphasized that his decision to approve Crosspoint and UT Health’s request came after much deliberation and discussion with his mother, Marta Pelaez, who serves as president and CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services.

“My mother is the CEO of the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter,” Pelaez said. “One of their 19 programs is transitional housing. And she was telling me that of her transitional housing units around San Antonio, every single one of them has been opposed by neighborhoods – every single one. And every single one of them has been opposed by the councilperson in whose district they were built.”

Where transitional housing already exists in San Antonio, those projects were approved because council members disregarded the tradition of deferring to the council member whose district was affected by a zoning request, Pelaez said. And his mother pointed out that none of her organization’s transitional housing opportunities would have been constructed had that not happened.

“Sometimes that tradition needs to be bucked in order for these projects to exist,” Pelaez said. “None of us have neighborhoods that want transitional housing anywhere near them. And yet, they need to exist.

“One day, it’s going to happen in District 8. And one day, my neighborhoods are going to be upset about it. And I may even take the same position that Councilman Andrews-Sullivan is and my hope is that you all vote in favor of transitional housing, no matter where it is, even if it’s in D8.”

The new Casa Mia campus must be completed and provide services by the spring in order to make use of $3.8 million granted by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Cleveland said. The new facility, dubbed the Women’s Wellness Campus, will have twice the space as the current Casa Mia home and will be built at 1500 Semlinger Rd. The property, formerly zoned for residential single-family use, now has a conditional use permit for the transitional home. 

The current Casa Mia building has space for 20 mothers and their children but needs more space, said Kevin Downey, president and CEO of Crosspoint Inc.

“We have served, in the first two years, over 60 moms and over 40 babies,” Downey said. “And now that we’re in the Christmas season, we just feel we can’t throw away those who are broken, who haven’t had the love and support needed for a new start. … the [Eastside] campus will promote healing and starting anew at a larger scale.”

Downey assured council members that Crosspoint has had good relationships with the Monte Vista neighborhood.

“The neighbors that surround us are important to us,” he said. “We interact with them, we don’t have problems with them. Cappy Lawton owns La Fonda on Main [and] is two doors away. He is a tremendous supporter of Crosspoint. Clint DuBose, who is the headmaster of San Antonio Academy adjacent to us, is a supporter.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) pointed out that there are transitional housing units in her district that people are generally unaware of and do not incite controversy. 

“Maybe as we see this project work, I would love to see where else we can establish these,” Sandoval said. “I see you didn’t look for property in District 7, but I would love to participate in something like this and help that happen.”

After searching in several districts, Crosspoint and UT Health decided to purchase the new site of the Casa Mia program from Emmanuel AME Church, which would be one of the transitional home’s neighbors. Rev. Carl Garmon of the church wrote in support of the project to the zoning commission in October, along with 32 other community members. Sixty-four people submitted their opposition to the commission in writing or over voicemail. Cleveland, Downey, and attorney Caroline McDonald were the only members of the public who spoke at City Council’s virtual meeting; McDonald spoke on behalf of the zoning request applicants.

Andrews-Sullivan said that though she supports the work that Crosspoint does, many District 2 residents were still unclear on the specific parameters of the program.

“When it comes to, ‘Is this a transitional medical facility or medical clinic?’ we heard different stories just from the presentation today,” she said. “This is the reason why the neighborhood itself, the people that have to live there – not those who are just passing through and not those who just want national recognition – want to have their voices heard.”

Andrews-Sullivan was responding to Sandoval’s question to Cleveland about the potential of having the new Casa Mia campus spotlighted in the national conversation about effective transitional housing. Meanwhile, Sandoval mused about her surprise over the resistance against the project.

“We had a new transitional facility or an extension of a current facility open up in District 7, and the purpose of this facility was to help women who had been victims of sex trafficking,” she said. “And I will tell you, I was honored to speak at the ribbon cutting for that event … We were proud to be able to help our neighbors and I’m wondering if the difference here is that these women are addicted to opioids. And I think we’re coming to the realization as a society that that is not a moral failure [but] a health crisis … and certainly no fault of the babies that they have borne.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.