Communication, outreach, dignity. Those are the things that Dignowity Hill residents and ministries believe are the start to addressing homelessness in the area.

More than 50 residents and representatives of neighborhood ministries attended a meeting on the issue Thursday at the Ella Austin Community Center. The “Dignowity Dialogue” was a roundtable discussion designed to help develop a stable network of communication and support between residents and ministries. It comes as City Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) announced this week the formation of a community task force to address homelessness and panhandling throughout San Antonio.

Many Dignowity Hill residents have complained that people served by neighborhood homeless ministries and shelters relieve themselves, fight in public, or trespass on private property. The residents have voiced frustration with the ministries, saying there’s a perception they are not doing enough to reach particularly troubled homeless people.

“I need more than prayers and food,” Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard, who moderated the discussion. “I need you saving lives in addition to souls.”

Community members and members of organizations seeking to feed and protect the homeless meet at the Ella Austin Senior Community Center.
Community members meet at the Ella Austin Senior Community Center to discuss homelessness in Dignowity Hill. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Dillard asked representatives of these ministries what more they could do to help address neighborhood vagrancy issues.

“There’s no hesitation, we just don’t have the money,” responded Chris Plauche, a board member and volunteer with the Catholic Worker House.

Located at 626 Nolan St., the Catholic Worker House provides on-site services to anyone needing a safe haven to rest, eat, talk, get hygiene supplies, receive mail, and make phone calls. The facility has free Wi-Fi service for sending email.

The Catholic Worker House offers the lone public bathroom facilities in the Dignowity Hill area aside from City parks. Plauche said her organization has just enough resources to help individuals coping with life on the streets.

“We’ve been blamed for band-aiding, but you have to do band-aiding before you get to the surgeon,” Plauche said.

She added the long-term solution lies with attacking the root causes of homelessness, and helping those individuals to find stable, permanent housing. For most homeless people, even a few hours sleep in a relatively safe spot is a luxury, Plauche said.

Haven for Hope outreach manager Ron Brown said a housing-first philosophy is fine, but homeless people must be taught the basic life skills to care for themselves. That way, an individual has a better shot of holding onto that new housing. If life skills are not taught, that person could revert to the ways that caused and prolonged their homelessness, he said.

Haven for Hope Outreach Coordinator Ron Brown informs the audience that more space and beds are needed for the the homeless population.
Haven for Hope Outreach Coordinator Ron Brown tells the audience that more space and beds are needed for the the homeless population. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Brown said many homeless people have mental and/or substance abuse issues. It’s incumbent on them, he added, to want to receive and capitalize on the services offered by ministries in order to improve themselves. But Brown also said those organizations could try and do more to better serve the homeless.

“If you’re not offering [the homeless] something tangible, then why should they bother changing?” he said.

Executive Pastor Dennis Cawthon of Church Under the Bridge said his church and its partner organizations provide a range of activities and programs to engage homeless people physically and mentally, not just spiritually. But Cawthon agreed with Brown that it’s up to the individual to want help.

“You can throw resources, you can throw resources, you can throw resources,” he said. “If they’re not going to change, they won’t change.”

Church Under the Bridge Pastor Dennis Cawthon.
Church Under the Bridge Pastor Dennis Cawthon. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Dillard said outreach organizations could strengthen communications among themselves and improve their partnerships to better engage the homeless population.

“This is where the relationship between you guys works well,” he told the representatives.

The relationship between neighborhood residents and homeless individuals also was discussed. Pastor Jim Gipson of The Strong Foundation, a nonprofit on North Hackberry Street that provides young homeless families with spiritual guidance, said it’s important for residents to not look down on homeless people.

In addition to offering food, clothing and shelter, the foundation works with partners to help clients develop or improve their parenting, financial planning, and job search skills. Tutoring for children and assistance with addiction recovery is offered.

“Most who come to us, they know they’ve made mistakes along the way,” Gipson said. “They’ve made bad decisions. When families come to us, they’ve done all they can do.”

Gipson said it is unfair to blame neighborhood ministries for drawing homeless people to the area, even if some of them cause other problems in Dignowity Hill. He also said it is unfair to think any and all crime in the neighborhood is caused by vagrants.

Dillard asked why some of these organizations could not minister to the homeless in specific hot spots in the neighborhood – places set known for drug use or prostitution – rather than wait for those individuals to come to them.

“We’re not the police,” Cawthon said of his ministry.

“I’m not asking them to do a citizens’ arrest, I just want you guys to be off campus,” Dillard replied.

Sgt. Dean Reuter of the San Antonio Police Department East Substation said residents should not hesitate in sharing information about criminal activity, regardless of whether it involves a homeless person.

San Antonio Police Sgt. Dean Reuter. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“If you don’t call and let us know, we don’t put a dot on the map,” he said. “We need that dot to make sure [police] resources are doing to the right place.”

Meeting participants agreed more can be done to enhance neighborhood relations between residents and the ministries. Dillard said he and Valeree Bell, chair of the DHNA’s homelessness subcommittee, will return to their association to recruit members and other residents to volunteer with area ministries.

Resident Devin Verdon stressed the importance of acknowledging homeless people and their dignity: “These people need to feel like we care about them. The solution starts with all of us.”

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.