Each person who enters the homeless resource center in downtown San Antonio has traveled a unique path to get there.
No matter their history, Kameron Rhys, 26, greets them with a smile.
“He’s the first face that they see, so he’s the definition of the day,” said Brittney Ackerson, assistant director of the Corazón Day Center and Resource Hub. “His cheerful attitude really impacts somebody who’s coming in in a bad mood. … He sets the tone.”
The center provides hot meals, hygiene supplies, benefit navigation, recovery groups and hot showers to an average of 200-275 people a day.
Rhys, an intake specialist at the center, had his own experience with homelessness and mental health issues, which allows him to connect with and earn the trust of many people who arrive at the center.
“I just take their name and their birthday down on a piece of paper — but it can be so much more than that,” he said. “Some of them feel comfortable opening up to me, and I’ll tell them … you’re not struggling alone, because I’ve been where you are, I know what it feels like to not have anything — to have people turn their backs on you.
“If nobody else cares about you, if nobody else believes in you, well, you better believe that I do.”
His dedication to helping some of the most vulnerable residents led the Texas Homeless Network, a statewide nonprofit, to select Rhys for its 2022 Outstanding Community Service Award.
The award ceremony was a humbling experience, Rhys said. “I didn’t think I was gonna get emotional … people recognize the work that I do and it’s not going unnoticed.”
Working with people experiencing homelessness is often difficult and thankless, Ackerson said, “so for somebody on our team to get that recognition — it’s a breath of fresh air.”
Getting other voices heard
While Rhys is from San Antonio, he spent much of his childhood in Sabinal, a small Texas town about an hour’s drive west.
He was placed in the foster care system when he was 6 years old and was adopted by his foster mother when he was 10.
But their relationship was strained and he wanted independence.
“I moved back here to give us some space [and] get on my feet,” he said. “You can’t really get a good job in a small town and I wanted to be on my own — but I couldn’t support myself.”
He eventually found himself living with someone who was struggling with mental health issues and drug addiction — a combination that led to violence in 2018, he said.
“I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he said. “When people say that their drug use only affects them — they’re wrong because it affects everybody around you, even if you don’t think so.”
He found the Thrive Youth Center program at Haven for Hope and spent 13 months waiting for housing through Opportunity Home San Antonio, formerly San Antonio Housing Authority.
While at Haven, he was asked to help form a Youth Action Board organized by South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH).
That board informed a grant proposal for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund new youth-specific programming and partnerships.
At first, he was skeptical. “I was like … are they actually going to hear us? Is it actually going to make a difference?”
It appears so.
In 2019, San Antonio received a $6.9 million grant that funded youth-focused street outreach, transitional housing, rental assistance programs, and the Young Adult Stability and Support Drop-in Center to create a safe place for young adults to access critical resources at Travis Park Church.
“They listened. And that’s what really set it off for me … I put my story out there and they’ve heard me,” he said. “I need to continue this because this is working. … I’m working on getting other voices heard, too.”
It’s hard to pinpoint how many young people age 18-24 live on San Antonio’s streets, in shelters or are couch surfing in any given year. The region’s 2020 point-in-time count found 185 homeless youth and young adults, up from 128 in 2019. The count was canceled in 2021 due to the pandemic, but during the 2022 effort, 156 youth were counted as homeless, 23 were unsheltered.
‘100 more Kamerons’
Rhys started serving as president of the Youth Action Board in 2019 and was appointed to SARAH’s board of directors in 2020.
“Being homeless isn’t easy. And I know these people out here have it pretty hard, which is why I fight for them the way I do,” he said. “I know not all programs will get it right with them. They get failed and they fall through the cracks.”
He’s taking online courses toward a degree in sociology from the University of Texas at San Antonio and has repaired his relationships with both mothers — his birth mother and his adoptive mother — and his older brother.
Ultimately, he wants to start his own nonprofit that specializes in low-barrier — meaning you don’t have to be sober to benefit — services including emergency shelter, benefit navigation and harm reduction strategies, which reduce negative health consequences associated with drug use, disease and infection.
“I want to serve everybody and not just the ones who fit certain, quote-unquote, criteria,” he said. “Harm reduction really humanizes them. They’re not numbers. … They’re human beings who need some help.”
In the meantime, the staff at Corazón is happy to have Rhys’ smile welcoming folks to the center.
“Kameron is a vital part of Corazón. Not only does he treat our clients with empathy and kindness, his lived experience and perspective help us create policies that reduce gaps in the system and redesign programs that better serve those in need in our community,” said Rev. Gavin Rogers, executive director. “He and other peer support specialists transform us into a much better nonprofit and service provider. I wish I could hire 100 more Kamerons.”