This article has been updated.
Angel Rodriguez and Nicole Kostos, who is pregnant, have been sleeping under Interstate 37 near Brooklyn Avenue for about two months.
Rodriguez said he lost his job and home during the coronavirus pandemic. After an altercation on the shelter’s campus, Kostos said she was told to leave Haven for Hope, and the couple found themselves on the street. They, along with more than 100 other people, started sleeping under the overpass, many in tents and makeshift shelters.
“It’s been OK,” Rodriguez said, noting that he’s been able to fix and sell bicycles to buy food.
On Wednesday morning, they awoke to police officers and homeless outreach teams telling them to pack up and leave and offering help. Reports of violence, including at least one shooting and several stabbings, led to the cleanup, said Sgt. Dean Reuter of the San Antonio Police Department.
Reuter said there have been reports of extortion among the encampment residents. People sleeping there were being charged for protection against violence, according to the reports.
This particular encampment was established during the pandemic and was cleared out once before in mid-December, he said, noting that most of the people there were warned ahead of time that the cleanup, or what the City refers to as abatement, was coming. Texas Department of Transportation, which owns the land under the interstate, set the date to clear the encampment and coordinated its cleanup with the City.
“These people are not bad people,” Reuter said. “They all have a different story as to why they are here. They don’t normally give us a whole lot of problems, but it’s something we have to address.”
Officers and homeless outreach teams offered rides to shelters and services, Reuter said. He estimated that less than 10 people accepted such help Wednesday morning. Most gathered their things and sat or stood on nearby sidewalks, watching the cleanup crews. Eventually, they dispersed.
“The removal of today’s homeless encampments demonstrates why a more strategic effort is needed to truly speak to the heart of the resources and housing needed for our vulnerable residents – not just a ‘get up and move’ notice,” Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2) said in a prepared statement. Her district includes the near-Eastside site. “This is not a display of compassion that they deserve. We had requested … dumpsters, porta-potties, showers, and more care resources. … There’s too much money and resources for this to be the images we see today; those families deserve better.”
Jaime Nicholson, who works for City Council District 1’s homeless outreach program, was at the encampment Wednesday morning. A team from Centro San Antonio arrived around 7:30 a.m. to wake people up, inform them that they would be forced to move, offer them services, and help with packing, Nicholson said.
They were told earlier in the week that this was coming, but “most of the clients didn’t think it was actually happening because they’ve heard this for weeks,” she said. “[They were] angry, irritated, frustrated, and to be honest with you, I side with the clients on that. The biggest point is where are they going to go?”
Haven for Hope and other shelters have various rules and requirements and many people experiencing homeless aren’t ready to accept shelter or other services, Nicholson said. Sometimes there aren’t enough beds in detox facilities.
“I understand that [there is a] concern for safety,” she said, “but not providing those services and not giving them a place to go – how is that going to assist with the criminal element? In fact, you’ve just irritated everybody; you’ve just frustrated everybody.”
A site in Dellview
A much smaller site at Councilman Roberto Treviño’s District 1 field office in the Dellview neighborhood could receive a similar homeless abatement on Friday – a move that he’s vehemently opposed to and City officials were still discussing Thursday evening.
As of 8 a.m., no one from the police department or Department of Human Services had shown up. It appears City officials decided late Thursday night – or perhaps due to the press conference Treviño hosted early Friday morning – not to go through with it.
The parking lot of the former fire-station-turned-field-office was mostly clean. A single shopping cart and sleeping bag could be seen in the grass and some belongings were hung in a tree. Roughly a dozen people, mostly men, were standing in a group several yards away from the press conference.
After answering several questions from reporters, Dellview resident Linda Gomez asked to speak to the councilman. She had seen a live video of the press conference online and arrived as it was concluding.
“You’re seeing this now [but] this is not the way it [usually] looks,” said Gomez, who lives over a mile away from the field office. “And, sir, I’m telling you, I cannot go anywhere without being concerned.”
She’s seen people having sex in the field office’s driveway, she said. “I know [people experiencing homelessness] need help. I don’t want to abandon them. But you’re abandoning us. My taxes keep going up. I’m a single mom putting her daughter through college trying my best. I can’t afford to move out of here. … How can I help?”
Activists who attended the press conference started chanting “stop the sweeps” in attempt to drown her out, but she persisted.
“I am not the bad guy,” she said.
About a dozen people experiencing homelessness sleep there on an average night with his permission, a District 1 staff member said on Wednesday.
“I don’t know of anyone who sees this [abatement] as a good measure,” Treviño said. “It wasn’t coordinated with my office. … It’s incredibly dismissive and wasteful.”
These people are considered clients of his office’s outreach program, he added. “They are not trespassing by definition.”
Nicholson said they are not allowed to sleep there without rules. Drugs are prohibited, and they are expected to clean up their belongings and trash at sunrise.
They are often harassed by a handful of residents, she said. “Just a few – a select few – come around and take videos, and they really antagonize the clients. So this is the one spot where sometimes they can feel safe. … [Recording] somebody at 11 o’clock at night. I just don’t understand.”
At the press conference, Treviño offered to meet with Gomez and Nicholson responded to her.
“You are not the bad guy,” Nicholson said. “Let’s talk together. That’s what outreach is. … Now listen, there [are] different policies, there [are] different politics. At the end of the day, this is your neighborhood, and you have every right to feel safe. You have every right to feel irritated. I get that. Work with me not against me is all I’m asking. … I promise you, we can do this together.”
The movements and activities of people staying there don’t stay within the boundaries of the City-owned field office, City Manager Erik Walsh said. They often spill out into the parking lot of the adjacent Westfall Library and on surrounding streets, creating tension between Treviño’s office, the people sleeping there, and the surrounding Dellview neighbors.
“There were tents practically up against peoples’ backyard fences,” said Walsh, who drove by the site on his way home last week. “I saw tents, I saw people at the library sleeping. It has grown a bit.”
There have been some reports of violence in the area, he said. “The last thing I think anybody wants – not just me – is for somebody to be injured, or not feel safe, or worse – killed in such a situation.”
Getting people the help they need on the street can take weeks, months, or even years, Nicholson said. Most of the work is in getting the client prepared to accept services as many struggle with addiction and mental health issues.
“I’ve worked so hard … to establish a relationship with these clients,” Nicholson said. “[Abatement] just completely destroys the relationships that I’ve built with them. … They’re going to go right back into the neighborhood.”
Friday afternoon, Walsh said in an email that he will allow people to sleep there for the next two or three weeks.
“The City’s Department of Human Services will work with our partners and the Councilman’s staff to do intense case management and get the individuals who need help connected with the appropriate services. Our goal is to eliminate the need for the encampment in the coming weeks. We will continue to monitor the situation,” he said. “Criminal behavior at the encampment will not be allowed. We also will be enforcing no trespassing, camping, drug activity, defecating, urinating, and loitering at the adjacent Westfall Library, the parking lot and the grassy areas. It is essential for Library users to feel safe and secure when using the library,” Walsh wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, the City plans to deploy 11 specialized teams of clinicians and social work interns – one in each Council district and another focused downtown – into the streets and encampments to build relationships with unhoused people to connect them to services.
The roughly $1 million outreach program, funded through federal coronavirus relief funds and $560,000 of the City’s 2021 budget, is based on a pilot project Treviño started in July. Nicholson, then an intern, was half of the team that led the project.
For the new teams to be effective, aggressive abatement cannot continue, Nicholson said. She hopes those teams will make that clear to the City.
“Instead of one person … having this conversation and saying that this is an issue, you’re going to have teams of people under [the Department of Human Services] that will all be able to [speak to] the barriers and the things that frustrate them and irritate them, to then really give more … enlightenment on where the City is actually failing.”
When and how homeless encampments are abated
Unless there are risks to public safety or criminal behavior, the City’s policy was to leave encampments alone during the pandemic.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend allowing unsheltered people living in encampments to “remain where they are. … Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.”
When the pandemic first peaked last year, homeless shelters stopped taking in people. Now, however, most shelters have capacity, Walsh said.
“We had encampments before the pandemic,” he said. “So, we’re not going to abate every single encampment. We can’t; it’s just not realistic. The goal is to make sure that we’ve got relationships established and services offered to those that want it … in every encampment. Where we have health and safety issues, or criminal issues, we’re going to need to abate.”
The Department of Human Services, in collaboration with other homeless outreach and service agencies, decides when to abate.
“I wouldn’t say that we have an abatement policy,” Walsh said. “We have a homeless outreach policy right now.”
That outreach leads to abatement in four steps: establish contact, build relationships with those who live there, offer them services from housing to counseling, and then abatement. Depending on the size and type of activity at the site, that could take weeks or months.
“This process existed prior to COVID,” Walsh said, but now the City has more funding for outreach.
The City is also looking into more “tools” to provide legitimate shelter for those living on the street, Walsh said.
“We’re doing … work right now to look and see if we should purchase a hotel or a piece of property to [become] transitional housing,” he said.
The City is currently leasing a downtown Holiday Inn that Haven for Hope operates as such. Last month, Austin City Council approved a purchase of a hotel to serve as a shelter and is considering buying more.
“We’d want to work with our partners to help us operate that and service the individuals,” Walsh said. “My guess is there would have to be, you know, some rules [for entry].”
Meanwhile, Rodriguez was figuring out his next steps with Kostos at the entrance to the Hays Street Bridge.
“I have a friend that might let us stay in his garage,” he said. “We’ll figure something out.”
Some, like Kostos, said they don’t trust the police.
“It’s not an issue of trust [for me], it’s too much stuff,” Rodriguez said, gesturing towards several suitcases, bags, and bike parts temporarily piled up near benches.
As a veteran, he qualifies for some assistance, and he has a meeting with the American GI Forum National Veterans Outreach Program soon.