Volunteers Kassandra Gonzales (l) and Angela Ramirez (r) on their way to hungry diners at the 2018 Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays dinner at the Haven for Hope on Dec. 6.
Volunteers Kassandra Gonzales (left) and Angela Ramirez make their way to hungry diners Thursday at the 2018 Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays dinner at Haven for Hope. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

I took a long walk of appreciation around Haven for Hope’s campus before entering the great hall to experience the Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays dinner served Thursday evening to the many homeless families and individuals sheltering there.

It was a spiritual experience to see so many vulnerable people happily enjoying a holiday moment and traditional meal in a warm, safe place, lifted up by gospel singing and the attention of dozens of giving volunteers.

This is the ninth year that NuStar Energy has sponsored the dinner, so it was no surprise that I saw the company’s founder and chairman, William “Bill” Greehey, posing for photos with attendees and volunteers and greeting Haven employees by their first names. Mary Rose Brown, the company’s executive vice president, was waiting tables nearby. Haven CEO Kenny Wilson was working the floor while San Antonio Food Bank CEO Eric Cooper was busy in the volunteer kitchen.

The bosses set the example.

There is no real way to convey the emotional experience of being with so many homeless people as they enjoyed a few hours removed from their travails, sharing the kind of rich, leisurely meal we take for granted. For one evening, they were made to feel like they matter.

They do matter. Everything the people of San Antonio and our elected leaders can do for them increases the likelihood they will get back on their feet to lead meaningful and dignified lives. It’s easy to dislike the homeless as many of us experience them: panhandling on downtown streets, begging at traffic lights, sleeping on sidewalks, or trundling along, unbathed and ill-dressed, pushing a grocery cart of belongings.

Many have addiction issues or are mentally ill and off their meds.

That is not what I saw Thursday evening. I saw people feasting and clapping to the music, hugging volunteers, visiting with friends. I saw many mothers with children and received more than one hug from a little boy or girl. There are too few good fathers in the homeless community; it takes only a smile and a few caring words to touch little hearts.

She is happy, but her brother isn't, as Santa Claus welcomes children at the 2018 HoHo Hope for the Holidays dinner at the Haven for Hope.
She is happy, but her brother isn’t, as Santa Claus welcomes children at the 2018 Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays dinner at Haven for Hope. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

I wish all of you had been there. I wish everyone on City Council who effectively voted against Councilman Rey Saldaña’s (D4) proposal Thursday to increase funding for Haven through a newly implemented hotel fee had been there. I wish all of this city’s hotel operators and others who prosper from our visitor industry had been there.

I am not saying San Antonio’s elected officials or visitor industry leaders lack empathy, because I don’t believe that. But it’s easy to say no in council chambers – where many of those leaders could be found Thursday making sure hospitality industry taxes were not shared with Haven for Hope.

It’s easy there to ignore the fact that the very public business of caring for the community’s most vulnerable in San Antonio is largely paid for with private dollars. That’s wrong.

Haven for Hope has a $20 million budget, 60 percent funded by private donors, 40 percent by government, notably the City of San Antonio. NuStar Energy, the organization’s largest private funder, has raised more than $38 million for Haven over the last 12 years. That’s been driven by Greehey, who personally has contributed $28 million since the Haven opened in 2010. What happens when Greehey eventually concludes his corporate service and steps back from his public life?

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and other council members recognize that Haven for Hope is underfunded. It would seem reasonable for City and County officials to set a goal of reversing the funding ratio by increasing public funding to 60 percent and reducing dependence on private funding to 40 percent. In that process, the $20 million budget needs to grow.

There were 25 families ready to graduate from the Haven’s programs last week, Greehey said Thursday, but lacked an affordable housing option. Some are sleeping in offices and conference rooms because campus dormitories and apartments are filled. That, in turn, prevents newly arrived families sleeping in the courtyard from moving into indoor housing.

The irony is that other cities send teams here to adopt best practices from Haven for Hope and then return home to more generously funded programs.

It’s important to note that this is not money spent simply to feed and shelter the homeless. Haven for Hope is dedicated to the proposition that everyone willing to help themselves is capable of returning to society as a productive member. The tax dollars we spend pull people back from the abyss and give them and their children hope and a new start in life.

A mother and her two children arrive for the Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays dinner at the Haven for Hope.
A mother and her children arrive for the Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays dinner at Haven for Hope. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

Of course, there are people who fall down again, and there are many people who do not accept the Haven’s help because they are unable or unwilling to address addiction or mental health issues. Comprehensive treatment programs are not intended to end homelessness – a social ill that will always be with us. Haven for Hope aims instead to do the most it can for the most people in need and serve as the bridge for those people to regain control of their lives.

The services delivered at the 22-acre campus are comprehensive: drug counseling;  medical, dental, and vision care; job counseling; food and clothing.

How elected officials will find new funding remains to be seen, but it is money well spent. The hospitality industry, meanwhile, can do its part by paying all employees a living wage. They can become more transparent about their local charitable giving. The industry benefits directly from public investment in the downtown area. Without Haven for Hope, conventioneers and tourists would experience a very different downtown San Antonio. That is reason enough for them to step up their own giving.

Click here to donate to the Have for Hope.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.