You can’t arrest society’s problems away and that’s especially true for homelessness, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said Thursday in his field office off Vance Jackson Road and Interstate 10.
Two of his staff members, a college intern, and a San Antonio Department of Human Services employee busily squeeze moisturizer into small containers and stuff other necessities such as water, soap, and tampons into bags that will be hand-delivered to homeless people in and around the Dellview neighborhood.
It’s like using the same flathead screwdriver over and over again when what you really need is a Phillips head, Treviño said about relying on an enforcement approach. “Now we’re getting the right tools to address the challenge correctly.”
Amid local and national conversations around “defunding the police” (reforming the role police play in public safety) the City of San Antonio aims to deploy a new, citywide homeless outreach program that doesn’t bring guns and badges into interactions with homeless individuals. Instead, 11 specialized teams of clinicians and social work interns – one in each Council district and another focused downtown – would be sent out into the streets and encampments to build relationships with unhoused people to connect them to services.
The outreach teams’ metaphorical Phillips screwdrivers are trust and safety nets. And safety-net resources available to homeless populations can’t succeed without first establishing trust.
The roughly $1 million outreach program, funded through federal coronavirus relief funds and $560,000 of the City’s 2021 proposed budget, is based on a pilot project Treviño started in July in the Dellview neighborhood and Vance Jackson commercial corridor. Since the pilot began, about 30 people are now off the streets, a success rate unseen by other City or police department programs, officials said.
The program would function similarly to outreach teams deployed by Haven for Hope, San Antonio’s largest homeless shelter, which hosts dozens of homeless support services on site.
What’s happening in Dellview?
The Dellview neighborhood has an especially large and visible homeless population, said Human Services Director Melody Woosley. During the coronavirus pandemic, the City’s encampment cleanup efforts have been paused to stem its spread.
“That has caused some encampments to grow,” Woosley said.
When Treviño returned to his field office after a trip out of town in early July it was surrounded by trash and shopping carts from the nearby Walmart.
“There was so much trash, it was like Lollapalooza happened [there],” he said. “We had to get a dumpster truck just to pick up all the trash.”
The neighborhood, too, was understandably upset about the problem, he said.
Even before the pandemic shut down the city in March, the Dellview Area Neighborhood Association worked to bring a Bexar County Sheriff’s Office mobile substation to the neighborhood. The sheriff’s office partnered with the Center for Health Care Services and Haven for Hope to address the “uptick in crime [and] offer resources to the homeless in that area” in February, a spokeswoman said.
“Most accepted the resources and relocated to Haven For Hope,” she said. “We felt the operation was a great success and the community members of the Dellview neighborhood also expressed their gratitude for this operation.”
Denise Hernandez, who works for Treviño as a coordinator, questions whether any of that success could be credited to law enforcement’s presence. She said the sheriff’s office even sent horse-mounted deputies to patrol the area.
“I was so livid,” Hernandez said of when she heard officers on horseback were interacting with the homeless population – an intimidating sight. “That’s not … meeting people where they are. We completely understand where the neighborhood is coming from. They are frustrated – everyone wants to feel safe in their neighborhood.”
All the patrols can do in many cases is tell a homeless person to leave, she said. “So they move for 10 minutes and then they come back.”
The Dellview Area Neighborhood Association did not respond to emails seeking comment.
After much of the trash was picked up in July, Treviño established the Collaborative Action Unifying Safe Environments (CAUSE) initiative and started reaching out to local businesses, homeless service providers, and universities to formulate a plan. The objective isn’t to “get rid” of homeless people in Dellview, it’s to help them get off the streets for good. Obviously, law enforcement isn’t the right approach, Treviño said.
By repeatedly touching base with individuals who live on the streets or in encampments, the CAUSE team establishes trust with them that can’t be gained through a single interaction with a police officer or deputy sheriff responding to a complaint.
When they’re ready, they will accept the help from safety-net service providers such as Haven for Hope, rehabilitation clinics, and other organizations, said Hernandez, who assists the CAUSE team as a liaison to the Dellview neighborhood.
SAPD Officer Scott Boehm, who is assigned to the San Antonio Fear Free Environment (SAFFE) Unit in District 8, northwest of the Dellview neighborhood, said officers are trained to inform homeless people of services and offer them rides to those providers.
“If they do break the law, then we take enforcement action against them,” Boehm said during a virtual panel discussion with Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) on Thursday. “When we do a homeless cleanup and there are people from Haven for Hope with us, they’re more successful at getting these people to go downtown with them than we are.”
Meet ‘Starsky and Hutch’
Joe Van Kuiken, a veteran who works for the Department of Human Services, was sent to support the CAUSE team as it started to roll out in July. Jaime Nicholson, who studies social work at Our Lady of the Lake University joined the effort as an intern in Treviño’s office.
“I call them Starsky and Hutch,” Treviño said, referencing the popular 1970s buddy-detective television show. They’re on the streets nearly every weekday and sometimes on weekends – but unlike the fictional cops, Van Kuiken and Nicholson are armed with water, sanitary supplies, and compassion. Typically an outreach representative from Haven for Hope joins them as they visit known hangouts and homeless encampments.
The team takes a trauma-informed care approach to these interactions, Van Kuiken said. “We need to have the discussion about why folks are out there. Addiction is a powerful thing, but a lot of times addiction is their way of coping with a trauma that they’ve experienced in their life [or mental illness].”
That process of getting to the root causes can take months for the team – and the homeless individual – to realize, he said. “We try to meet them where they’re at, physically and emotionally,” Van Kuiken said.
This approach has allowed SAFFE officers to focus on supporting SAPD with the real criminal activity in the area, Treviño said.
It is one of those “alternatives to policing” that City Manager Erik Walsh has said the City will continue to look for in the coming months as pleas to “defund the police” in the coming City budget mount.
Under the 2021 budget proposal, funding for police would increase by $8 million to $487 million to cover a 5 percent pay increase for officers. It’s the lowest increase to the police department in years, but many have said that doesn’t go far enough.
People say “defund the police” is a bad way to word it, Treviño said, “but is it? Because its got everybody talking about it.”
The CAUSE initiative also has exposed another function that can be shifted away from SAPD: identification recovery.
“Lack of identification is one of the greatest barriers that homeless individuals face,” said Morjoriee White, Human Services’ homeless administrator. It’s a process that can take months, and “sometimes you lose them in the middle of that.”
SAPD and its Homeless Outreach Positive Encounters (HOPE) team have already sped up ID recovery efforts by months, White said.
The HOPE team dedicates two people to ID recovery one day a week, Treviño said. “There can be a bottleneck.”
That program would be expanded under the Department of Human Services, in partnership with SAPD and the city clerk’s office, which already handles birth certificates and passports.
“It’s like having that Phillips screwdriver all along. It was just not used,” Treviño said.
At the end of the day, where will they live?
When Kenny Wilson first took the job leading Haven for Hope in 2016, an acquaintance congratulated him but said, “Those people don’t want help.”
“It really galled me,” Wilson said. “That’s just baloney because I’m there every day and every night, and I see people getting help. And they are there because they want help.”
These are struggling San Antonians, he said. “Our job is to figure out not what’s wrong with someone … but what happened to them along the way.”
Not everyone is ready for that help the first time a new social worker or law enforcement officer approaches them, and not everyone can access the help they need from Haven, Treviño said.
Sobriety is required to live in Haven’s Transformational Campus, and detox programs often are full. Haven also helps people find other housing options and pay rent if they don’t meet the criteria to stay, Wilson said.
The key to solving homelessness is homes, Treviño said. That will mean providing free or affordable housing with wraparound services such as addiction and mental health counseling as well as education and job training.
“The [homeless outreach] program itself is going to educate the entire system about what it needs to correct. … My prediction … is we must adopt a housing-first policy,” he said. “There’s no reason why a battered woman who needs detox has to be turned away.”
Lacking permanent supportive housing means that, even if these teams succeed in getting every homeless person ready for help, they may have nowhere to go, he said.
Not having a place for them “breaks that trust” that social workers have built with them over the months – and in some cases years, Van Kuiken said. “[When] they’re finally ready … where do they go? They often go back to the street.”