A nonprofit in San Antonio plans to transform about 17 acres of vacant land into a campus that will provide housing and support services for an estimated 250 older homeless people in the city’s East Side near Interstate Loop 410.

But before the Housing First Community Coalition can finalize its purchase of the land, start more aggressive funding asks, and solidify partnerships with other nonprofits, it needs to change the property’s industrial zoning. The City’s Zoning Commission voted Tuesday to recommend that City Council grant final approval. The Council vote is slated for next month.

Tentatively named Towne Twin Village, the campus would host apartments, tiny houses, RVs, a community center, showers, an amphitheater, and green spaces for homeless individuals 50 years and older, said Chris Plauche, the volunteer director of the coalition and the Catholic Worker House. The Catholic Worker House, which currently provides a home and services during the day for homeless people in the near-East Side Dignowity Hill neighborhood, will continue its work in the new village.

“It would be too difficult to split ourselves between two locations,” Plauche said.

The coalition chose to focus on older, chronically homeless individuals because they are usually the hardest lives to stabilize and a growing population, Plauche said. “This population is the baby boomers. We are the big bulge of the python … now there’s a bulging of senior programs because that’s [how old] this huge cohort of people is. … We could fill [the village] up in a day with seniors.”

“The idea is to provide dignity for those last years of life,” she added.

The “housing first” approach to tackling homelessness is one that focuses on providing housing first so that mental and physical illness, debt, domestic violence situations, and unemployment can be more easily addressed, as opposed to prioritizing emergency shelters or requiring sobriety and/or participation in programming before housing individuals.

Haven for Hope, San Antonio’s largest temporary housing provider and one-stop for supportive services, requires a clean drug and alcohol test to enter its housing campus. However, Haven has a policy to immediately take in and find housing for families with children in need of a place to stay. It also has a team that connects people to off-campus housing regardless of whether they are accepted into its campus.

Haven is not billed as “housing first” facility, but maybe it should be, said Haven for Hope CEO Kenny Wilson. “If ‘housing first’ means we’ve got to get people in a home: we do that.”

The Haven for Hope campus west of downtown San Antonio.

Wilson sent a letter of support of the village to the Zoning Commission, he told the Rivard Report on Monday. “It’s well-thought-out [and] well-designed. I’m all for it.”

During a one-night count in 2019, 2,892 people in Bexar County were counted as homeless. The previous year, the count showed more than 3,000 people were homeless.

While there are other organizations in San Antonio that work to find low-barrier, permanent housing for homeless individuals, the Towne Twin Village will be the first of its kind in San Antonio, said Tia Moen, project manager for the Housing First Community Coalition.

“There is housing first [in San Antonio] but it’s all scattered,” Moen said. “This would be the first place in San Antonio to provide all three elements in one spot; housing first, permanent supportive housing, and services on-site.”

The residents would be charged 30 percent of their income, if they have any, for rent and given job opportunities on-site, she said. The rest would have to come from donations, grants, federal vouchers, or other subsidies.

The coalition drew some inspiration from the 51-acre Community First! Village in Austin, which is operated by the outreach ministry Mobile Loaves and Fishes.

In San Antonio, the coalition’s plan is to partner with St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church, which operates the separate Traveling Loaves and Fishes meal program here. The campus will partner with several other nonprofits to provide more formal, traditional assistance, such as medical and employment help, as well as informal socializing opportunities, such as movies in the amphitheater and workshops, Moen said.

“We really want to be part of the community,” she said. The on-site homeless support services would also be open to those who don’t live in the village, while the community center and theater would be open to the neighborhood.

Volunteers from the community will also be welcome to participate in the coalition’s P.A.L. (Please Alleviate Loneliness) program.

“These are people that might have their own RVs because they’re retired, empty-nesters” or have been homeless themselves, Plauche said. “They would live on-site … and commit to six months” to volunteer in the village and befriend residents on their journeys to stability.

“It’s about living in solidarity,” she said.

Details surrounding partnerships, timeline, and even the village’s name are still pending, Moen said. The Towne Twin name comes from a double-screen drive-in theater that was once there but closed in the 1980s.

“That’s a placeholder name – it’s not completely official, but we think that it honors the area,” Moen said.

Plauche, who started volunteering at Catholic Worker House in 2007 when she retired from pediatrics, said she’s been trying to set up a community like Towne Twin since 2008, but dozens of other properties, including a hotel, fell through.

“We’ve seen well over 50 properties and, for one reason or another, it just doesn’t work out,” she said. “By closing doors, maybe He was leading us here.”

Divine assistance aside, help in the real estate industry also came from local developer and philanthropist Gordon Hartman, Plauche said.

Twenty-five people signed up to speak in favor of the zoning change at 4701 Dietrich Rd. ahead of the commission’s vote – though few took the opportunity to do so as no one had signed up to speak against it. As part of the re-zoning process, notices were sent out to neighboring property owners and residents. The City received 22 notes in favor of the rezoning and one opposed.

The proposed site plan of Towne Twin Village.

The property that the coalition wants to buy is next to a large apartment complex, roughly seven blocks of single-family homes, trucking and storage services, and other industrial and commercial uses.

The not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) attitude is one of the greatest challenges that homeless service providers face because of a common fear that homeless individuals bring crime, litter, and unpredictable behavior to an area.

Through her work at the Catholic Worker House, Plauche has a deep understanding of the tense relationships that can occur between residents and homeless service providers. The house opened in 1985 to care for needy families in the historically neglected near-East Side of town.

Public and private investment in the area over the last decade has brought new, more affluent neighbors into renovated historic homes and new homes in long-vacant lots. Some neighbors have bemoaned the Catholic Worker House as some of its clients bring litter, fighting, and menacing behavior to their streets.

“Its been a little bit quieter recently … but that’s a relative term,” said Carsten Griffin, who lives in a renovated home next to the Catholic Worker House. He attributes that to the house’s recent switch to serve only 50-and-older men. “There are still people wandering around on drugs, screaming in streets … it’s not uncommon for a fight to break out.”

Thirty years ago, the City allowed the Catholic Worker House to operate because it didn’t care about the East Side, Griffin said, but that’s not an excuse to ignore the problem now.

“I don’t have any problem with the homeless … I donate to Haven for Hope,” he said. “My problem is [Catholic Worker House] operating in a neighborhood in such a manner that provides no accountability to their neighbors.”

Plauche and Griffin are both looking forward to the Catholic Worker House’s move farther east.

“We want to live in a neighborhood that likes us,” Plauche said, adding that the vacant lot today often has homeless people camping there already.

The coalition has block-walked and spoken with nearly all the neighbors, Plauche said, adding that there will be rules and security presence at the campus.

Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), whose district includes the East Side, said she’s supportive of the project.

“We welcome, with open arms, any project that will better the District 2 community,” Andrews-Sullivan said via text. “This appears to be a great project and seems promising, but there is still work to be done to have a transparent conversation with the community. Before I can fully support anything, I need the community’s input and buy-in.”

Construction would likely be completed in phases, Moen said, depending on funding.

The land value was appraised at $772,640 this year, according to the Bexar County Appraisal District.

The San Antonio office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) is working with the coalition to provide $5 million in low-interest loans towards the estimated $8 million cost of the campus.

Fundraising efforts will ramp up once the property is acquired, Moen said, which may include sponsorship of the tiny homes.

That includes federal, state, and local government funding as well as philanthropic money, she said. “We’ve identified many funding streams, we just have to take one bite at a time.”

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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