After weeks of heavy rain, a week of sunshine and warmer temperatures made the air sticky. For people who sleep on streets, highway underpasses, and at the City Council District 1 field office, the approach of summer signals a particularly difficult time of year.
Brandy turned on a water faucet outside the office to wet her face and soak her brown and blond hair, seeking a moment’s respite from the muggy day.
She hadn’t heard that Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) lost his bid for reelection and that a new council member, Mario Bravo, will be sworn in on Tuesday.
“I don’t pay attention to politics,” said Brandy, who did not give her last name. But someone “told me we might have to move, though.”
Roughly a dozen people like her who are homeless use the grounds of the field office at 1310 Vance Jackson Road as a place to rest during the day and sleep at night. Treviño and his staff offer supplies and connect them to services, such as ID recovery, housing, and counseling, several days a week.
But there have been numerous 911 calls and multiple arrests there, according to police officials, and neighbors say the encampment attracts drugs and other criminal activity to the surrounding Dellview neighborhood. The encampment, which often spreads to the adjacent Westfall Library property, was a flashpoint during the general and runoff elections between Treviño, who was seeking his fourth and final term, and Bravo, who won by more than 7 percentage points.
On Tuesday afternoon, police arrived to move people off library property. At least one man was arrested on an outstanding bond.
Treviño and members of his staff worry that people will no longer be able to rely on the field office as a place to rest or get help.
“I’m going to be fine,” Treviño said of his election loss. “It’s all the people that need help … who I’m concerned about.”
Bravo said he’s committed to a “compassionate” approach to the issue and will meet with city officials, including the police chief and the Department of Human Services director, to find it.
It’s his goal to “make sure that everybody who needs help is getting the services they need [and] … make sure that the neighborhood is safe for all the residents,” Bravo said.
He said he hasn’t discussed barring anyone from the property. “I definitely don’t want any abrupt changes,” he said. “I want a smooth transition.”
The attitude of neighborhood residents toward the situation at the field office is clear from the number of Bravo campaign signs dotting yards in Dellview, which surrounds Vance Jackson Road north of Interstate 10 and south of Loop 410.
In the yard of Shannon St. Cyr, a lifetime resident of Dellview, sits a large Bravo campaign sign with “WE DID IT DELLVIEW!!!” handwritten across the top. St. Cyr, who volunteered for Bravo’s campaign and lives less than a block from the field office, said the encampment was the reason she became involved in politics. Up until about a year ago, she wasn’t even aware that Dellview had a neighborhood association.
“I don’t want the encampment there,” she said. “Most homeless encampments are not in the middle of a residential neighborhood.”
She said Bravo pledged to “remove the [homeless] encampment from the back of the office” and connect the people there with social services.
St. Cyr turned to Bravo’s campaign after negative interactions with Treviño’s office in person and on social media. She has shared dozens of videos and pictures on Facebook showing people camping or gathering at the field office and other locations in the area.
She says it’s too dangerous for her 10-year-old daughter to play in her backyard because of people camping in the alley. She regularly finds needles from syringes in her yard, she said.
“You just don’t know what they’re gonna do,” she said of the homeless people. “Like if it’s somebody that’s just mentally ill that would attack or if it’s somebody on high on drugs — would they do something? … I don’t hate homeless people — who hates homeless people? That’s weird. It’s not that I don’t want to see them. It’s that I’m in a dangerous situation here.”
For the people gathering there, the field office has become less safe, too.
John Robinson told a member of Treviño’s staff in a recorded conversation that he was trying to sleep there on a recent night when someone in a passing car fired several shots from a pellet gun into the encampment.
The neighbors “let us know every single day” that they are not welcome, Robinson said. Recently a passerby told him, “Y’all gotta hurry up and get the f— out of here.”
Melody Woosley, director of the Department of Human Services, said no sweep of the encampment is scheduled.
“We are continuing to do what we’ve been doing over the last few months,” Woosley said. “We’ve had a very big effort to work with those individuals that are in that encampment behind the field office to try to help move them into better living conditions, get them connected to services. … We’re working closely with the police department, with District 1 staff, and we’ll continue doing that.”
Gov. Greg Abbott is expected to sign House Bill 1925, which would ban camping in unapproved public places. It would be punishable by a fine of up to $500. The bill, which would take effect Sept. 1, would require municipalities to seek state approval to designate government land as encampments. Under the law, parks cannot be designated as encampments, but it appears a district field office could be considered.
Woosley said that ideally the people staying at the field office would go to a shelter such as Haven for Hope or utilize other housing or support services. But she acknowledged that without the field office as an option, many will simply find a new place to sleep, including a nearby drainage ditch that is regularly cleared of people experiencing homelessness and their belongings by the City.
The people sleeping and hanging out at the field office will just gather somewhere else around the neighborhood, said Jaime Nicholson, a social worker and outreach coordinator who worked for Treviño’s office.
Nicholson said she was hired more than a year ago in response to the Dellview Neighborhood Association’s concerns about people who were homeless in the area.
Trevino’s office started a partnership with the Department of Human Services and SAMMinistries to offer hygiene kits, water, and other supplies and allow people to sleep outside the field office, hoping they would accept housing and health care services.
“We created rules and boundaries — which takes time to establish … because these are people that didn’t have rules and boundaries,” Nicholson said. Criminal activity such as drug use was not allowed on the property.
“I would give tough love,” she said, noting that Treviño’s staff members reported drug use to the police when it was observed on the property. “It wasn’t this pity party. It was like, ‘You will follow these rules.'”
To Treviño, opening the field office to people experiencing homelessness was an attempt to solve a problem that already existed. Too often, people use “public safety” as a reason to dehumanize people experiencing homelessness, he said.
“If you label them as criminals, they automatically become a public safety risk,” he said. “… What I will not do, and this is on principle, is [I] won’t criminalize homelessness.”
On the latter point, Bravo agrees.
“[Dellview voters] strongly favored me in this election, but I’ve made it clear in every conversation that I’m going to have a compassion approach … that homelessness is not a crime, [and] that I support a housing-first policy,” Bravo said. “I think the big difference is that I told [neighbors] that their ideas are welcome. I will include them in a conversation about how we take on the challenges in their community and their neighborhood.
“The Dellview residents who I spoke with said they are going to be patient, and they’re going to work with me. What I’m committed to doing is working with the experienced professionals who work on this issue.”
The City of San Antonio launched a citywide homeless outreach program this year funded by federal coronavirus relief money and $560,000 from the city’s budget. The program pays for an outreach specialist for each City Council district. The program is largely based on the pilot project Treviño started within his office with Nicholson and other staff.
The Department of Human Services has hired all but one district outreach specialist, Woosley said.
“They will work closely with the council offices … regarding the homeless population of the district,” she said. “The outreach specialist will also be filling that role with neighborhood associations.”
But how the council members interact with the Human Services employees — and what resources their offices provide them — will be entirely up to them, Woosley said.
Brandy has been staying at the field office on and off for about six months, working on her sobriety, she said. Sometimes she stays at a spot on Austin Highway and Perrin-Beitel Road.
She acknowledged that some people take advantage of the field office, that it may be “enabling” some, but she considers Nicholson a friend and appreciates the help she provides.
Asked where else she could go for such help, she replied: “I don’t know.”