Members of the homeless population were given care packages including toiletries, snacks, and clean socks.
A California-based company has been hired to create a comprehensive plan on how San Antonio can properly serve the homeless through public policy. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Point in Time (PIT) Count seeks to determine the number of homeless people on the nation’s streets and in shelters on a single night. In San Antonio, more than 400 volunteers fanned out across the city to survey the homeless population.

The annual count is conducted throughout the nation in order for states to qualify for federal funds to assist the homeless population. It also is a way for nonprofits, cities, and law enforcement to identify more effective ways to address homelessness.

To view PIT Counts in San Antonio from previous years, click here.

On Thursday night, I was attached to an outreach group that included a San Antonio police officer, a volunteer who had once been homeless, workers from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, and volunteers from Family Endeavors Inc., a national nonprofit that provides services to children, families, veterans, and anyone struggling with mental illness and other significant disabilities.

This year, the federally mandated PIT Count was conducted using a smartphone app, ‘Counting Us’, developed by SimtechSolutions, replacing the paper system used previously. The app was used to survey the homeless individuals we encountered. Volunteers gathered information on each person’s age, gender, ethnicity, years homeless, history of mental illness, and potential HIV diagnoses, among other things.

One member of our volunteer group, Tommy Riester, was homeless for more than a year after his wife dropped him off in front of the VA Hospital and left him. There, Riester tried to commit suicide five times. Eventually, the Navy veteran found a friend in Family Endeavor volunteer Teresa Estrada, who helped him transition out of homelessness. Riester, who suffers from severe PTSD, has been off the streets for a year.

When he was still homeless, he frequently visited Haven for Hope, a local comprehensive homeless shelter and transformation program. But Riester said his experience there was not positive, illustrating the complexity of issues facing homeless people. For some, shelters feel confining and unsafe, while for others, they provide a vital respite from the streets.

At Haven for Hope, an outdoor area called Prospects Courtyard functions as a sleeping space at night. Riester felt crowded in, “this far apart from each other sleeping,” he said, holding his hands approximately eight inches apart, “and everything’s getting stolen.”

Haven for Hope Outreach Manager Ron Brown said the facility provides lockers for people who sleep in the courtyard, and their use is encouraged. Two police officers are on duty until 11 p.m.

“[Theft] has gotten a lot better, but you’ve got to watch your stuff,” Brown said.

Brown said Haven for Hope has rules those who seek shelter at the facility must follow, but some find that difficult.

“It was a choice between being in there and having all these little restrictions,” Riester said. “It just doesn’t work out, and that’s why you end up with people out here.

“… People looked at me as a homeless person. They never looked at me as just an individual or that I was in the military, none of that,” Riester said of his past experiences on the streets. “I was a homeless veteran, but I was looked at as an alcoholic, a druggie, or in trouble with the law.”

Tommy Riester and his service dog Cooper stand for a portrait near a homeless hot spot. Tommy has overcome homelessness and has been off the street for just over a year.
Tommy Riester, with his service dog Cooper, helped survey the homeless population. Riester has overcome homelessness and has been off the street for just over a year. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Scott Ball is San Antonio Report's photo editor and grew up in San Antonio.