Sylvia Becerra has at least four Christmas trees in her cozy apartment near the South Texas Medical Center in San Antonio. The largest faux tree glimmers in the corner of her living room and a cluster of several smaller ones sits in the opposite corner, surrounding a Nativity scene.

Crosses and angels dot her walls. The shelves are filled with trinkets and family photos.

“Guess who that is,” Becerra, 64, asks, pointing to a photo of a man smiling next to a young boy.

“Garth Brooks!” she said. When her young nephew met the country music star, he just had to capture the moment.

Last Christmas, these valuables and decorations were not carefully displayed on shelves. They were packed into Becerra’s car, where she lived for two years.

Originally from Kingsville, she followed her two children to San Antonio in 2008. An argument with someone she lived with led her to leave her home. Her disability checks alone couldn’t cover rent — especially with a deposit. So she found shelter in her black Kia sedan, often sleeping in parking lots.

Her eyes well up with tears when she remembers that time — and when SAMMinistries was able to give her vouchers to pay for rent.

“They’ve been a blessing … so wonderful,” she said.

Becerra was one of more than 500 people experiencing homelessness that Bexar County’s network of governmental and nonprofit agencies was able to house since the local “housing surge” initiative started on Aug. 1. As of mid-December, 565 permanent housing placements were reported.

“We are grateful for [the agencies’] unmatched commitment, compassion and grit in helping our most vulnerable neighbors during another challenging year — but [these agencies] need our support,” Katie Vela, executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, stated in a news release. “We must expand housing availability, including permanent supportive housing, to meet the present and future needs of our residents experiencing homelessness.”

SAMMinistries and dozens of other agencies, including the city’s Department of Human Services, were able to find homes for an average of more than four people per day, about twice their previous rate.

These agencies would gladly continue that pace, but it’s a matter of funding, SAMMinistries President and CEO Nikisha Baker told the San Antonio Report. “There was a collective of federal [coronavirus relief] resources that flowed into the partners involved in this surge. When those resources go away in February or March for most of us … that impacts how many people we’re able to house — individually as an organization but also collectively as a community.”

A housing surge, in some ways, will continue as Mayor Ron Nirenberg joined more than two dozen U.S. leaders in November in committing to house thousands of people experiencing homelessness by the end of next year.

The local goal, set by the city’s Human Services and Neighborhood and Housing Services departments, is to subsidize permanent housing for 1,500 people experiencing homelessness and start building an additional 860 housing units for the population by the end of 2022.

Some additional funding for homeless mitigation and prevention services may come through the city’s or county’s next round of American Rescue Act Plan allocations, which haven’t been finalized.

Another funding opportunity lies within a $150 million housing bond that voters will see on the ballot in May. The housing bond, as proposed by a citizen committee (pending City Council approval), includes $25 million for permanent supportive housing. That is housing for homeless individuals that includes wraparound services such as physical and mental health care.

“We know as a community, we need about 1,000 units to meet the needs of those experiencing chronic homelessness currently,” Baker said. “An allocation of $25 million means that we can add 250 units to the inventory, which is significant and substantial. It doesn’t get us all the way there. We need to continue this fight.”

SAMMinistries President and CEO Nikisha Baker embraces with Sylvia Becerra in her apartment where Becerra has been living in for about six months. Becerra was experiencing homelessness while living out of her car.
SAMMinistries President and CEO Nikisha Baker, left, embraces Sylvia Becerra in her apartment. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

SAMMinistries holds the largest inventory of permanent supportive housing in San Antonio, with 175 active units and 60 in the pipeline.

“Whether it’s the housing bond, or whether it’s leveraging public-private partnerships, tax credit opportunities — whatever that looks like, that’s the work that we need to continue to do to increase inventory,” she said — and that includes affordable housing.

This month, City Council approved a $3 billion, 10-year plan to address the community’s affordable housing needs, and the housing bond will play a role in that plan by producing and preserving affordable units.

“I think this is going to be a transformational time for our community because I think we can do so much for so many people,” Baker said.

For people like Becerra.

During Winter Storm Uri — which dumped 6.4 inches of snow on San Antonians in February, many without water or electricity for days — she was able to leave her car and stay in a home with friends for most of the single-digit nights.

“I wasn’t the only one out there,” she said, remembering the other people she met who did not have a home. “I don’t know how the people out there do this.”

This winter, she’s happy to have a roof of her own over her head, the names of her five grandchildren on her door and her trusty car parked outside.

“It’s gone through everything with me,” she said. “It’s a great little car.”

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