South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless is unable to perform its annual count of people experiencing homelessness this year due to the coronavirus, but the work the nonprofit and its partners do has not been paused during the pandemic.

If anything, their outreach and case management work has increased, said Katie Vela, SARAH’s president and CEO.

“They’re out there every day, providing food and services, transporting people to shelter and treatment, [and] getting people directly into housing from the street,” Vela said Tuesday during a supply drive SARAH hosted downtown City of San Antonio/Corazón Ministries Resource Hub.

SARAH, which coordinates area homeless service providers, pivoted away from the annual point-in-time count, which would have been held Tuesday, to instead celebrate outreach workers, collect clothing and toiletries, and raise money for its partners.

A donor whom Vela declined to name plans to match donations up to $5,000 collected through the Change the Way We Give campaign. Proceeds will directly benefit homeless service providers. The unnamed donor’s match ends at midnight Tuesday but donations for homeless agencies will continue to be accepted year-round. Text “SAGIVES” to 41444 or click here for more information.

At Tuesday’s supply drive, dozens of bags of blankets, socks, shoes, coats, and other items were dropped off at the hub and will be distributed to service providers across the city.

The point-in-time count typically draws hundreds of volunteers and multiple agencies out into the streets and homeless encampments across the city. The numbers, which track the demographics of people experiencing homeless, are usually submitted to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to demonstrate the need for grants and assistance. This year, SARAH will submit only the number of those in shelters.

That doesn’t mean individuals living on the street or in encampments are “uncounted” or forgotten, Vela said.

“What we’re looking to do is [review] the last year of data that we have available in our homeless management information system, which our partners use, including street outreach program,” she said. The system tracks individuals as they receive help or are contacted by an outreach worker. “By looking at those data sources, it won’t be the same methodology and it won’t be as consistent … but we can still look at demographic trends and populations that have upticks and use that to make funding and program decisions for next year.”

Last year’s pre-pandemic point-in-time count found a 6% reduction in overall homelessness since 2019 for a total of 2,872 individuals, including sheltered and unsheltered. It also found a 45% increase in homeless youth and young adults, up to 185 from 128.

There hasn’t been a large outbreak of COVID-19 among people experiencing homeless so far, Vela said, “and we certainly don’t want to expose them to that” with a point-in-time count.

Homeless shelters are currently operating at less than capacity due to health recommendations and social distancing requirements. Pre-pandemic, the City would routinely clear out encampments, but with limited shelter capacity, some of that has been paused.

“It’s not completely on pause,” said Marjoriee White, homeless administrator of the City’s Department of Human Services. “Our priority encampments are definitely those where there’s criminal activity going on and we do feel that it’s a high safety and health concern.”

Consistent outreach – offering supplies, services, and housing – to these encampments is critical to gaining the trust of the people who live there and ultimately finding them shelter or a permanent home, White said.

Clothing is gathered during the SARAH Street Outreach Day of Appreciation drive-by collection event. South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) hosts Street Outreach Day of Appreciation, which is a drive-by collection event. Photos taken on January 26, 2021.
South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless gathers clothing during the SARAH Street Outreach Day of Appreciation drive-by collection event. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We’re in this movement of trying to get all outreach coordinated better,” White said. When the pandemic started, agencies were working “in silos,” she added, “so we’re in the process of finalizing a street outreach protocol.”

Those protocols will be informed by input from SARAH, Haven for Hope, SAMMinistiries, the police department, and several other stakeholders.

Seven individuals from various partners received recognition Tuesday as “2020 Street Outreach Heroes” for “adapting quickly during the pandemic and going above and beyond to provide essential services to the most vulnerable residents in our community,” according to a news release.

The honorees, who will receive an award, are: Alba Garcia Nava of SAMMinistries; Derwin Williams of American GI Forum; Dr. Hans Bruntmyer, assistant professor at the University of the Incarnate Word; Jaime Nicholson, an intern with City Council District 1; Morgan Handley of Centro San Antonio; Seth Jarmon of American GI Forum; and Valerie Salas of Christian Assitance Ministries. They and 12 other nominees had cookies delivered to their offices or home offices, Vela said.

Through her work with Centro, Handley spends her days reaching out to people experiencing homelessness across the Public Improvement District – 132 square blocks in the downtown area.

“A lot of times, they spit, or they say horrible things to us,” she said. “But we still come out here every day. And we’re gonna love them through their lowest of low moments. And eventually, they see that and they see that we’re not going anywhere.”

It can take weeks, months, or even years to gain someone’s trust after they have spent time on the street, she said. “It’s our job to build those relationships on our own so that we can connect [them to] services.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org