No one should experience homelessness. Traumatic and dangerous, it is a life none of us would choose for ourselves, our loved ones, or neighbors. Lacking a safe, permanent home creates challenges with education, employment, health, and recidivism into justice systems. Studies show it reduces life expectancy by up to 20 years and disproportionately impacts people of color.
San Antonio has not yet experienced a homelessness crisis on the scale of other major cities due to our availability of shelter, extensive onsite programming, and organizations working together. But any level of homelessness is too high. We can continue producing positive outcomes and trends while reducing the systemic barriers and issues that cause homelessness by coming together to meet individuals where they are.
Thankfully, San Antonio has many partners already collaborating toward preventing and ending homelessness by identifying gaps and working toward strengthening partnerships around sustainable solutions. The South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) fosters this communitywide commitment to address homelessness and housing insecurity.
Instead of continually spending money on symptoms, common sense tells us to address root causes. And we have made progress. In 2016 San Antonio reached “functional zero” for veterans experiencing homelessness, meaning that every unhoused veteran in our community was offered a permanent housing solution, and we are capable of housing any veterans who may briefly experience homelessness in the future. We actively use this effort as a model for other groups. And, although it presented new challenges, the pandemic has accelerated our coordination and response efforts.
Heightened cooperation is a critical first step. Nowhere is that clearer than in the creation and adoption of the Strategic Plan to Respond to Homelessness in San Antonio and Bexar County. SARAH worked closely with the City of San Antonio (COSA), Bexar County, and other partners on a yearlong community planning process. The resulting five-year comprehensive approach to eliminating systemic barriers guides our work, and we urge other organizations to adopt it as well. We must have a unified response to prevent and end homelessness.
During the pandemic and the catastrophic winter storm, we learned that with enough time, resources, and strong relationships, barriers fall, and many people are willing to accept shelter. But we can’t expect people to agree to help and services from strangers after a lifetime of trauma and distrust in systems, so outreach and relationship building in the field is an essential second step. With the input of skilled outreach workers, our community has developed Homeless Street Outreach Standards – protocols to ensure consistent training on best practices, awareness of resources, and cohesive work to manage care. The City expanded its staff to include a street outreach worker in every City Council district, in addition to the dozens of outreach workers already on the streets representing other service agencies.
A third area where we have made significant progress and identified needed investments is data collection, sharing, and analysis. In addition to current shelter options such as Haven for Hope, we can now house people directly because outreach workers from organizations like SAMMinistries utilize Homelink, a software platform that serves as our local coordinated entry system. Homelink assesses individuals’ needs and connects them to permanent housing programs that include rental assistance and case management. Nearly 400 people experiencing homelessness have been connected to housing through Homelink in the first three months of 2021.
Finally, the strategic plan identifies new units of affordable, accessible housing as a top priority. Like any infrastructure to meet community needs, deeply affordable housing requires public investment. This can be achieved through Proposition A, which would allow the City to issue bonds for permanent public improvements, including affordable housing programs.
While we have identified our path and are making clear progress, challenges remain. For example, we must expand our community response system for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, which means they have been unhoused for over a year (or repeatedly) while struggling with a debilitating condition like a substance use disorder, mental health issue, or physical disability. These are our most vulnerable community members who need tailored permanent housing and supportive services for their path to recovery. The City is taking on this challenge by investing more than $5 million in the Housing First Community Coalition’s Towne Twin Village Project for older San Antonians.
Though there’s still work to do, it’s important to recognize the successes we’ve had and the progress we’ve made in addressing homelessness in San Antonio. We can learn a lot from these wins and have learned that by listening to our neighbors, those who need housing the most, we can find the right solutions.