As San Antonio faces rapid population growth in the next decades, one part of the city’s population – the homeless – should not be forgotten by the larger community, said pastors and homeless advocates during a panel hosted by the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association.
In an effort to talk about the challenges facing the homeless in San Antonio and think about ways that the community can address their needs, the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association hosted the panel Wednesday at the San Antonio Public Library as part of DreamWeek.
“It’s a community issue, and there’s a community solution,” said Officer Monty McCann, a member of the San Antonio Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Positive Encounters team.
Panelists also included Haven for Hope Outreach Director Ron Brown; Gavin Rogers with Christ Episcopal Church; City of San Antonio Department of Human Services Director Melody Woosley; Church Under The Bridge Assistant Pastor Andey Gray; and South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) Executive Director Bill Hubbard. Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard moderated the event.
In January 2016, SARAH counted 2,781 homeless people living in shelters or living on the streets countywide, Hubbard said. Of those, 418 of those were chronically homeless, which makes it harder to provide outreach. Many of these individuals are severely mentally ill or suffering from addiction, Woosley added.
“A goal for us in 2017 is to really impact that population … which is very excessive to a community in use of medical services, police services, and cleanup that is needed sometimes,” Woosley said. “It’s a strong focus because their lifespan is shortened by homelessness … It’s a matter, really, of saving their lives”
McCann said a chronically homeless person will come into contact with the police two to three times a week. Nationally, the cost of maintaining one homeless individual in a shelter or the street is $40,000, Hubbard said.
“Building a relationship is very important with helping someone get off the streets,” Brown said. “Just swinging by and dropping something off is fine and well, but they are looking for someone to talk to, someone that can relate to them on some of the issues they are having.”
Homelessness encompasses many different issues. Panelists stressed that the conversation must shift from the topic of “how can we reduce the amount of homeless individuals in our neighborhoods?” to one of “how can we help reduce homelessness?”
Rogers stressed the importance of housing first initiatives, and added that citizens must play a more active role in their communities.
“Martin Luther King Jr. said … the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect,” Rogers said. “Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else … Our citizens are failing the homeless by the way we treat them … it all comes down to a basic human relationship between the homeless and the citizens of San Antonio.”
Once a homeless individual finds a home, takes a hot shower, and has a warm meal, Rogers added, only then can they begin to address the other issues that can help end the cycle of living on the streets.
Instead of simply walking by the homeless, San Antonians should offer eye contact or a listening ear, Brown said. Sometimes, a simple conversation can get someone the help they need.
Brown, Gray, and Rogers all agreed that churches must play more active roles in their communities, not just by donating clothes and food, but by helping individuals find jobs, engage the city in an active way, or coming up with housing initiatives.
“[To those who say] the church is not in the housing business – just read the Bible,” Rogers said.
But it’s not just the church. Brown said that schools could play a more active role by educating kids on the issue of homelessness and how certain choices in life can contribute to a life living on the streets.
A significant part of the student homeless population identify as LGBTQIA and may leave their family homes only to end up homeless, Hubbard said, but more research needs to be done to get a full grasp of the numbers. Organizations such as Haven for Hope’s Thrive Youth Center work to provide services for these kids. Other services are available for single mothers who may be reluctant to seek housing help for fear of being separated from their children.
“There are programs out there that take the whole [family] unit. It just takes time to encourage them to go forward and inform them of those programs,” Brown said.