Rev. Ann Helmke (left) leads a Homeless & Hunger Action meeting at Local Coffee at the Pearl. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

At a small table outside a coffee shop north of downtown San Antonio, a small team of volunteers started planning a large convening of congregations and nonprofits to address one of San Antonio’s most pervasive challenges — homelessness.

In early 2019, 2,892 people were counted as homeless in Bexar County, including 523 children. The total is down 6 percent from 2018, but the problem remains. What makes this group of five people think they can tackle it?

There are several personal reasons, but the main ingredient for the team’s optimism seems to be the new connections forged between the faith community, City of San Antonio, and area nonprofits. The small group is called the Homeless and Hunger Action Team and was formed out the City’s faith-based initiative Compassionate SA.

During future convenings of congregations, there are many unanswered questions, Rev. Ann Helmke, the city’s first-ever faith-based liaison, said, including which churches on the North Side offer free meals? Which churches offer bathrooms, and identification recovery? Which places have the most need for these services?

“If you get half of these congregations in this area working together, you’re going to change it,” Helmke told the Rivard Report last week.

Helmke, an ordained Lutheran minister, was hired in February 2017 to take on the citywide Faith-Based Initiative that was created the previous year under the Department of Human Services to establish and grow relationships between government agencies, nonprofits, and religious groups. Less than a dozen other cities have implemented similar initiatives, each with different structures. San Antonio’s goal is to improve the lives of families and communities in need, and Helmke’s first step was to figure out what the faith community wanted to prioritize.

After several stakeholder meetings and a massive survey, eight categories emerged: generational poverty, homelessness and hunger, immigration and refugees, literacy, public health, mental health, children and foster care, and religious discrimination. A so-called “action team” of volunteers formed around each category.

“This isn’t an advocacy [initiative], it’s about how can we help each other,” Helmke said, noting that some in the City structure were cautious to allow “faith” to enter an environment where “church and state” are largely kept apart. “That’s where compassion is a really good fit because it’s based on the ethic of reciprocity; to treat others the way you want to be treated. … How would you like to be treated?

“The golden rule is found in all the world religions, it’s the common denominator.”

One of the first resolutions brought by Mayor Ron Nirenberg in his first term, and approved by City Council in June 2017, was the Charter for Compassion. It established an “ethos of compassion” for policy in San Antonio, Nirenberg said. That resolution was integrated into the faith-based initiative, but he was skeptical at first of the faith element.

“It made me nervous,” Nirenberg said. “[Because] when this was originally contemplated, it was talking about religion in a way that I thought extended beyond where the government should [allow]. But the way [Helmke] has integrated faith-based communities as a platform for people to convene on the most important issues of our City transcends religion. This is about going to where people are.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

For the most part, non-religious groups she encounters have more questions than skepticism, Helmke said. Most of the time they’re just curious about what she does and how it works.

Helmke doesn’t handle religious issues, Nirenberg said, she deals with how the community treats its residents – with compassion.

“It may be that faith-based liaison is actually not an appropriate title for her because it really doesn’t capture what she does on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t see us ever not needing a shepherd [for compassion] because it’s just the nature of bureaucracy to forget the humanity of what we’re trying to do.”

Not Just Working Well, Working Well Together

The action team assigned to immigration and refugees had their work cut out for them.

“[Nonprofits that offer migrant services] were working at the same time, but not necessarily all working well together, or had routes to work together more directly,” Helmke said. “So we started working on that … to start to pull these groups together.”

They worked closely to boost the work being done already by the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, which formed in 2014 in response to an unprecedented increase in unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. and then with the newly hired City immigration liaison.

“The action team developed a really fine-tuned communications system,” she said. “You can’t really tell where the action team begins or ends. It’s part of the system. … It’s not the only reason, but I think it’s a significant reason why the work that happened with the [migrant] surge went as smoothly as it did.”

Not to say it was perfect, she added, but there was a “willingness and relational trust that developed.”

Now the work begins to replicate that seamless integration of compassion and coordination into the other categories and City departments, she said. More work cut out for her and hundreds of volunteers.

Forming ‘SACRD’ Bonds

Luckily, Helmke draws from extensive experience in community organizing. She co-founded the San Antonio peaceCENTER that took aim at increased gang violence in the city in the 1990s, and previously served as a director at Haven for Hope, where she helped develop the city’s largest homeless shelter’s spiritual services.

Leaving Haven was a difficult decision, one that many close to her questioned at first.

“I am going because we need help and I think we can do that – we just never had the capacity [at Haven] to address the big picture,” she said. “I’m still working for Haven [in a way]. It’s like I relocated offices … the work I’m doing will make [their] job easier and every other nonprofit.”

While most of her work is in the connection-building realm, the most tangible example of Compassionate SA’s work can be found online at (pronounced “sacred”).

The San Antonio Community Resource Directory (SACRD), launched this summer, started as a Compassionate SA project that spun off into a stand-alone nonprofit. It allows users to identify places that provide food pantries, identification recovery, education, resume development, tattoo removal, and even public showers and bathrooms in their area.

The lack of a comprehensive, accessible database was identified as one of the main barriers for each action team category, Helmke said. It’s a directory tool she wishes she’d had at Haven.

Now congregations and nonprofits can see where services are located and can identify gaps, she said. “Within the faith community; it didn’t even know itself. They didn’t know how to get their hands on [the data].”

“You meet Ann and then you’re a permanent volunteer,” quipped Bill Neely, who initially worked for Compassionate SA through an AmeriCorps program and now runs the SACRD website as a “permanent volunteer.”

“What the initiative has done more than anything else is brought the communities that are already doing this work together,” he said. “A Methodist church is now talking to the Baptist church [that are] right across from each other.”

Congregations and nonprofits can be a little territorial, he said, because of the scarcity of resources.

Instead of working on an issue without knowing what your neighbor is doing, perhaps congregations can combine efforts and divvy up others to conquer the problem, Neely said.

His own work on SACRD is a result of following the ethos: “Do the thing that won’t get done unless you do it.”

In District 3, where Helmke launched a more in-depth pilot program alongside Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran’s office, a map revealed that in several hot spots – “areas within the district that seemed to be of more concern” – were lacking food pantries, she said. So congregations in those areas started offering food or feeding programs.

“It’s changing – I’ve watched it change – [in the faith community], but there might even be an aversion a little bit to data and numbers because people aren’t numbers,” she said.

Helmke also worked with the City to establish the urgent alert action system, an opt-in text messaging system that lets participants know how they can help in times of increased need.

By texting the word “compassion” to 55000, participants will receive information on, for example, how to contribute to box fan distribution during scorching hot summer days.

It’s a direct response to the comment: “We want to help but we don’t know how,” she said.

A High Level of Trust

But congregations working together across faiths and with other groups isn’t a new concept, Helmke said. The Neighborhood Faith Convening, led by Geri Gregory at Temple Beth-El, has been connecting urban core congregations for 11 years. They partner with local schools to provide assistance, among other programs.

“Part of the [long term] vision is that there is a faith-based initiative in every district if not in every neighborhood association,” Helmke said. “Congregations working together, regardless of their religion, in service of people and the community.”

Districts 7 and 8 will host large interfaith meetings next month, Helmke said, and similar meetings in District 2 and District 6 are happening even without Compassionate SA’s assistance.

That “organic” connectivity is a good sign, she said.

Back at the coffee shop, the action team shares information about area churches in City Council District 10 in preparation for a convening there.

Janet Grojean, former chief development officer for Texas Public Radio, has just joined the team and is ready to get to work after retirement.

“I just need some marching orders,” Grojean said. Helmke invited her to help coordinate the convening.

Tiffany Juarez, a homeless outreach coordinator for the City’s Department of Human Services, said she has seen great results in peer support programming that some nonprofits provide.

Juarez, a clinical social worker, is based out of the North Side SAPD substation for SAFFE (San Antonio Fear Free Environment) unit officers and works to connect unsheltered homeless to resources. She meets them “on the street, under the bridges, in the woods, wherever” to first get to know them, gain their trust, and tailor her approach to get them help.

“You have to really engage with them as an individual human being who is here and then go from there,” she said. “Most of the time people are not choosing shelter … they’re just not very trusting.”

After Juarez started at the City in June, she met a man who had been homeless for at least two years. “Now he’s in permanent supportive housing where he’s doing great.”

Congregations already know the people who attend their churches, she said, so they could start connecting their homeless congregants with area resources using the SACRD website or other printed resource guides.

But Juarez can only handle about 10 cases at a time, she said, as meeting with the homeless is time-intensive.

Helmke asked the group how they could amplify Juarez’ work. Grojean offered to shadow Juarez to find out more.

It’s these seemingly small conversations that lead to stronger trust, connections, initiatives, and programming throughout the city, Helmke said.

“That’s probably the first answer to how this is done,” Helmke said to the group. “A high level of trust.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...