The path that led a San Antonio bank president to a new job running one of the country’s most comprehensive homeless shelters and transformation programs is easy to understand for those who know Kenny Wilson and why he was the unanimous choice of the Haven for Hope board of directors to become the organization’s president and CEO in April 2016.

Wilson left behind a 16-year career as president of Bank of America San Antonio, but his resumé as a successful business and civic leader is equally rich for his work and accomplishments in the worlds of nonprofits, charities, and philanthropy.

Through this involvement, he became familiar with many of the 93 partner agencies working to provide services at Haven for Hope, a 22-acre campus west of downtown San Antonio that has been providing shelter and services to homeless individuals and families in Bexar County since 2010.

While the organizations are comparatively different, Wilson attributes his experience at Bank of America as helping to guide his intentions at Haven for Hope. Citing customer service as a key focus, he expanded on the idea that treating clients with dignity and respect is integral for any successful business, and that in vulnerable moments, people often just want to be heard.

“You have to listen to people,” Wilson said. “You need to find out what’s going on and how to solve the problem – but the listening is really the medicine. And I find that that’s true here.”

Haven for Hope President and CEO Kenny Wilson speaks with long-time resident Patrick Lorio. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Haven for Hope President and CEO Kenny Wilson speaks with long-time resident Patrick Lorio. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Wilson was quick to make clear that he didn’t come into his new role to fix a broken system. Haven for Hope’s organizational structure and its transformational services are highly regarded as a national leader in providing comprehensive services to help minimize consequences of homelessness.

Focusing on client management, problem solving, teamwork, and teambuilding as keys to success, are essential carryover points of focus for Wilson.

During a meet-and-greet with Haven for Hope employees in March 2016, Wilson reported that he would spend the night in Prospects Courtyard, the outdoor safe sleeping area located on campus, to gain insight into the lived experience of individuals receiving services. Since beginning the position five months ago, he has stayed overnight on a number of occasions.

Wilson takes a grassroots approach toward connecting to the population he serves, regarding his time at the Courtyard as a “learning experience,” and something that he would invite anyone in the community to take part in. He went on to revisit the theme that he believes persists throughout all levels of care at Haven for Hope, and all business practices: people want to be heard and feel like their experience matters.

For individuals experiencing homelessness, determining the next right step can be a daunting experience. Feelings of guilt and shame may impact an individual’s willingness to reach out for supportive services. Couple this with co-occurring crises such as drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment, or mental health diagnoses, to name a few, the”‘next right step” could be in any number of directions.

Haven for Hope Peer Support Specialist Lina Garcia embraces a Haven for Hope resident who she has been helping obtain her own permanent residence. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Haven for Hope Peer Support Specialist Lina Garcia embraces a Haven for Hope resident who she has been helping obtain her own permanent residence. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Providing assistance under a framework of trauma-informed care, Haven for Hope service providers are trained to be understanding of and responsive to the impact that trauma has on an individual. This framework helps service providers connect through a lens of compassion and empathy as they work to understand how past experiences may impact future decision-making for vulnerable populations.

Wilson expanded on the universality of traumatic experiences, explaining, “All the people here including our staff have had some trauma. We are not just treating addiction or homelessness – we are treating what has happened in this person’s life.”

This trauma informed, person-centered focus has been the driving force for change on the Haven for Hope campus. Understanding that past experiences may have a lasting impact on an individual and their sense of self-worth is key as service providers work to build the rapport necessary to help clients set and achieve goals.

In 2013, Haven for Hope implemented a peer support program that works to train and employ individuals with lived recovery experiences to help their peers gain hope and move forward in their own recovery. These individuals work with incoming members to help navigate through their recovery journey from the day they first arrive on campus.

In June 2011, Kevin Langehennig found himself in Prospects Courtyard after a felony drug conviction further complicated his already precarious circumstances. Twenty years of alcohol addiction, depression, and attempted suicide were part of the journey that led him to Haven for Hope, where he spent his first 30 days in the Courtyard, before becoming a member on campus and fully utilizing the transformational services for the following two years.

Former Prospects Courtyard and current Haven for Hope Peer Support Specialist Kevin Langehennig helps 45 residents with guidance. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Former Prospects Courtyard and current Haven for Hope Peer Support Specialist Kevin Langehennig helps 45 residents with guidance. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Now six years and four months sober, Langehennig has been working for the last several years as a peer support specialist at Haven for Hope, with a 45-person case load of individuals who look to him for guidance. He sums up his role by simply saying, “I believe in people until they start believing in themselves.”

Peer support specialists bring to their role a personal understanding of the circumstances that lead individuals to homelessness. Touching on his own experience with homelessness, Kevin said that it helps him to be able to approach individuals non-judgmentally and to connect with genuine empathy.

“My biggest thing is that I want people to feel human while they are here,” he said, reiterating the idea that people experiencing homelessness lose a lot more than just a place to live.

The length of time that a person spends receiving services at Haven for Hope varies widely. As Housing First (also called “permanent supportive housing”) remains a prominent national model and point of focus, people who arrive on campus may receive housing assistance immediately, without ever having to live as a member on campus. This practice goes against the traditional “housing ready” approach, where a team of service providers works with a client to determine housing readiness over a period of time. Instead, it focuses on the idea that everyone is housing ready, regardless of the complexity or severity of needs.

“People often confuse housing first with housing only,” Wilson said. He went on to explain that once people transition into housing they are still eligible for services at Haven for Hope, including physical and mental health services, what he referred to as the “waterfront issues” affecting a client’s quality of life.

Once rehoused, additional support is offered to clients – it is not required. And while still eligible for services, living in off-campus housing makes participating in them more difficult. Transportation and financial constraints may present clients with barriers to return to campus to receive services. In many situations, immediately rehousing a homeless individual without ensuring that they are capable of sustaining their living situation may appear metaphorically as putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

Understanding that housing first may overlook certain issues affecting the lives of Haven for Hope clients, Wilson explained that the person-centered, genuine approach outlined in their organization’s core values, is essential. It is in the initial moments that service providers quickly connect with, screen, decipher need, and filter clients towards the services that best fit their circumstances.

“What we are more about here is transformation,” Wilson said in response to Housing First. He went on to explain that service providers at Haven for Hope work tirelessly to set individuals up for success – not failure, and that clients are provided the opportunity to work toward getting their needs met through the services that Haven provides, regardless of time spent on campus. Screening clients and setting them up with the services that best fits their needs is crucial and reduces the recidivism of homelessness.

Lina Garcia entered Haven for Hope after struggling with untreated depression for 11 years. She spent more than two months in Prospects Courtyard before transitioning to the member’s side, where she participated in transformational services that helped her gain employment and transition to external permanent housing.

Haven for Hope Peer Support Specialist Lina Garcia sold plasma for several months to make ends meet until she made the decision to return to Haven for Hope to volunteer. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Haven for Hope Peer Support Specialist Lina Garcia sold plasma for several months to make ends meet until she made the decision to return to Haven for Hope to volunteer. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

When the contract she was working ended, Lina struggled to make the minimum $50 payment to maintain her low-income housing. After selling plasma for several months to make ends meet, she made the decision to return to Haven for Hope to volunteer and reconnect with the helping professionals that had aided her in the past.

She recalls what it was like when the vice president of transformational services recognized her on campus and made a point to connect, explaining that it is this genuine, caring approach at Haven that helps people succeed.

“(They helped me to) feel a lot more comfortable and not so paranoid,” she explained of the service providers, “they helped the experience (of homelessness) to feel more safe.”

Now employed full-time as a peer support specialist, Garcia works to ensure that clients at Haven for Hope feel equally supported and like their experience on campus, and in the world, truly matters.

“This place is home to me,” Garcia said of Haven, “and I feel gratified to be able to be a part of people moving forward in life.”

At any given time, more than 1,400 people are utilizing Haven’s Transformational Campus; and 700-900 people per night may cycle in and out of Prospects Courtyard for safe sleeping. According to reports, more than 2,600 individuals have graduated and moved into permanent housing with another 4,500 individuals considered chronically homeless moved into other supportive housing, including in-house treatment programs or higher levels of care.

Overall, Bexar County has seen a 4% decrease in homelessness since 2015, and a 15% decrease since the Haven campus opened in 2010.

While Haven for Hope certainly works to address homelessness, it has not eliminated the issue. According to the January 2016 Point-In-Time count, the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless reported that 2,781 individuals were counted as experiencing homelessness in Bexar County, with the highest number of individuals reporting living on the streets or at the Courtyard.

Wilson explained that he understands that the need for services that Haven for Hope provides extends beyond what takes place directly on campus.

“I am looking at ways to expand that so we can get more people help,” he said. “I think there are some things that we can do institutionally that can drive more change for individuals.

When asked about Haven’s expansion, Wilson explained that he isn’t ready to talk about anything that may be coming into fruition just yet.

In the meantime, Wilson can be found throughout the campus grounds connecting with both staff and members in an attempt to understand the functions of Haven for Hope, which he describes as “bigger and more complicated than expected.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.