In an effort to help homeless San Antonians find permanent housing, City Council voted Thursday to lease a downtown hotel to serve as shelter and provide wraparound services there. 

The city is partnering with nonprofit SAMMinistries to establish a one-year pilot program that will take in people who need shelter and connect them with service and health care providers as needed.

On Thursday, City Council approved a $1.17 million lease agreement to rent out the Days Inn at 902 E. Houston St.; SAMMinistries, which works to prevent homelessness, will operate the hotel as a shelter in a $1.73 million contract with the city, bringing the total pilot program price tag to $2.9 million. SAMMinistries plans to fill 45 of the rooms with residents, while the remaining handful will serve as administrative offices onsite.

Human Services Director Melody Woosley told City Council members that she anticipates 250 people will be served over the course of the year-long pilot program. Of those, SAMMinistries projects that 40% will ultimately move into permanent housing, she said.

Those numbers are based on the organization’s current test program located in a La Quinta hotel downtown: in the past 60 days, 15 people have gone through that program and eight are still housed with them. Three have found employment and four are in permanent housing, SAMMinistries President and CEO Nikisha Baker said.

Baker added that people entering the pilot program are being referred by street outreach teams and will not be accepted on a walk-in basis. SAMMinistries will be targeting more vulnerable homeless people, meaning those who also deal with substance abuse or mental health issues. In order to make the shelter more accessible and “low-barrier,” they will not require sobriety to stay there, though alcohol and drugs are not permitted onsite, Baker said.

SAMMinistries aims to have people stay somewhere between 90 and 120 days at the Days Inn, but there is no deadline for residents to find permanent housing and case management will vary from person to person, Baker said.

“We will have some clients that can move faster through the pipeline than others,” Baker said in an interview Thursday.

As part of its $1.73 million contract with the city, SAMMinistries will provide staff on site, including clinicians, Baker said. The SAMMinistries contract and lease agreement with Days Inn will be funded by the city’s COVID-19 Recovery and Resiliency Plan.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), the only person to vote against the measure, said he was concerned about adding to how much the City already spends to address homelessness. As of January 2020, the city counted nearly 3,000 homeless residents; there was no point-in-time count in 2021, Woosley said.

“I always hear this: we’re spending between $50 million to $80 million a year for homeless services here and that’s a wide range … And here we are setting up another facility for another $2.9 million,” Perry said. “Just doing the math, that’s close to $12,000 per person per year, for another facility.”

Perry also said he did not want to invest in homeless services only to attract more people experiencing homelessness to San Antonio. Woosley told reporters that she has not seen any evidence that would be the case.

“We’ve been hearing that since Haven for Hope opened, that it’s going to attract people from other communities,” Woosley said. “We’ve followed up on a couple of reports of that, and really have never been able to demonstrate that people are coming from all over.”

Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5) asked whether the hotel will allow couples or pets. Woosley said yes to couples but no to pets, nor will families referred to the hotel shelter. Woosley added that she and SAMMinistries are working with Animal Care Services to figure out the best way to house pets while their owners stay at Days Inn. Families will be referred to family shelters.

“I think this is an important first step and if this project proves successful, we should prioritize it for the future bond,” Castillo said. She urged city staff to “get with communities who have been impacted by homelessness to help us recalibrate and how we can make this better.”

The shelter will not require COVID testing to be housed there, but SAMMinistries plans to offer vaccinations to its clients, Baker said.

Councilman Mario Bravo (D1) said he would have wanted to have a longer public input process, but would still support the measure.

“I want to make sure we’re good stewards of the community’s tax dollars …  at the same time, there are many people who are living on the street now who don’t have the time for a new council member to come in and say, ‘I’m here to jam up the gears and slow down the process and we’re going to have a thorough review,’” he said. “I’m going to trust that city staff have been doing this for a while and are making good decisions for us.”

The lease with Days Inn starts July 1.

City Council voted Thursday to accept $302 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, allocating $49.7 million of that toward the Emergency Housing Assistance Program. That money should take the program through the end of the year, City Manager Erik Walsh said. Council also formally accepted an additional $35.5 million from earlier federal coronavirus funding sources, which will help fund the new homeless shelter at the Days Inn downtown, as well as vaccine distribution, airport operations, and childcare. City Council also voted Thursday to accept $5.5 million from Bexar County to bolster its emergency rental assistance program.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.