Children shrieked with delight as confetti cannons launched flurries of white paper into the air that blanketed the grass like snow.
Haven for Hope, the city’s largest homeless assistance shelter, was transformed into a winter wonderland on Thursday, with tents set up across a football field that’s part of the facility’s campus to host the ninth annual Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays dinner. Sponsored by NuStar Energy, the celebration served a traditional holiday meal to the more than 1,500 residents of the shelter’s Transformational Campus and Courtyard.
Santa and his elves were also in attendance, handing out stockings filled with gifts to each resident.
“I had no plan for Christmas,” resident Gloria Garcia told the Rivard Report. “My son and I have been here for one-and-a-half months, and I have been working to get back on my feet. On Christmas, it was just going to be me and my son spending time together, but probably not a gift.”
Garcia said she arrived at Haven for Hope in October after her house was broken into; the burglars took everything of value they owned, including the $1,000 meant to pay the next month’s rent. Living paycheck to paycheck, Garcia said she was unable to make the rent in time, and she and her 12-year-old son were evicted shortly thereafter.
“I don’t make three times the amount of rent in a month needed to get another place to live, so when we had to leave, we had no choice but to come here,” Garcia said.
Garcia and her son, Cameon, are two of the more than 3,000 estimated homeless people living in San Antonio in 2018. An annual census of the number of homeless people in Bexar County on a single night documented 918 households living in emergency shelters in 2018.
Haven for Hope has a $20 million budget, 60 percent of which is funded by private donors and the remainder by government funding, including from the City of San Antonio. NuStar Energy, the organization’s largest private funder, has raised more than $38 million for the shelter in the last 12 years to support the organization’s staff and assistance programs.
Earlier Thursday, City Council approved a new fee for hotel guests in San Antonio. Although the fee, estimated to generate $10 million a year, had been intended to fund tourism promotion, City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) proposed that some funds – about 20 percent – be directed to Haven for Hope. He failed to get enough support for the idea, but other City Council members and Mayor Ron Nirenberg acknowledged the need to find ways to sustainably fund Haven for Hope and other homelessness initiatives.
Opened in 2010, Haven for Hope has a 22-acre campus with variety of accommodations for homeless people, including family and single-sex dormitories and small apartments as well as an outdoor courtyard for sleeping. Residents can receive support services such as drug counseling at Haven, which has been cited as a national model for addressing the issue of homelessness.
Haven for Hope resident Anguletta Neal lives in a single apartment at the shelter, her second stay there in a year. Complications from a physical disability caused her to be hospitalized for four months, and she was homeless both before and after.
Neal said she lost her housing when her roommates abandoned the apartment without warning; because they turned in the keys, she was unable to retrieve anything, as her name was not on the lease.
“I am trying. I didn’t think I would have this to worry about – but I do, and I have a disability,” Neal said. “I can’t afford an entire apartment rent on my own. I am trying.
“This Christmas party has been some of the biggest happiness I have felt [recently].”
Neal carried with her a stocking full of gifts and a small Christmas tree that previously served as a centerpiece for the dining tables in the paper snow-filled Christmas tent. Residents were told to take the trees and decorations home to decorate their private or shared residential spaces.
Both Neal and Garcia agreed that Haven for Hope helped them feel a sense of community and connection in a difficult time in their lives.
“We are getting the help that we needed here,” Garcia said. “It’s a blessing in disguise, really. My son, before, he was interested in drugs and gangs. And now that he has seen what it is like to [be homeless], he’s understanding the importance of holding down a job, and instead of being interested in gangs, he is moving in the right direction, [and] making friends here who are good for him. ”
As people celebrated all around him, 10-year-old Dabriel Flores danced around outside the chapel at Haven for Hope as his mother attended church service. He was listening to Cameon practice his baritone for the Nimitz Middle School band.
“I thought this party was really thoughtful,” Dabriel said. “They sang songs for us, they gave us food, and I thought it was really nice.”