On the evening of March 1, nearly 270 volunteers walked the streets, under highways, and into encampments to count and survey San Antonio and Bexar County’s homeless population.

The result of their work is the region’s 2022 Point-in-Time Count report released Thursday, which showed a 2% increase in the homeless population since 2020. Compared to the city’s growing population, however, the city’s homelessness rate remains flat at 0.14%.

What did rise, dramatically so, was the percentage of those considered chronically homeless.

A total of 2,995 people were experiencing homelessness on that night, compared to 2,932 in 2020. The count, which typically occurs in January, was canceled in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic and delayed this year due to a rise in local cases.

“Given our explosive population growth, to see that it remained flat is good news and shows that a lot was done to make that the case over the last two years,” Katie Vela, executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH), told the San Antonio Report.

However, Vela said, the area saw a 77% increase in the chronically homeless population, meaning they have been homeless for a year and have a disabling condition, which can include a substance abuse disorder, serious mental illness, developmental disability or chronic physical illness or disability.

While federal pandemic relief funds helped many families stave off homelessness, most of those programs weren’t aimed at people living on the street long term, she said, “so conditions were really getting worse for people who continue to be out there.”

The count includes people who are sheltered — living in emergency shelters and transitional housing — or unsheltered, who live outdoors, in tents, cars or in other places not meant for human habitation.

The total unsheltered population decreased from 2020 by about one-fifth, while the unsheltered, chronically homeless population rose by 4.5%.

For the 2022 Point-in-Time Count, 2,995 individuals were counted as experiencing homelessness.
For the 2022 Point-in-Time Count, volunteers counted 2,995 individuals who were considered to be experiencing homelessness. Credit: Courtesy / South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless

The report’s author, Amanda Hernandez, SARAH’s director of research and evaluation, noted that there are always limitations to the data collected by the point-in-time count. Some people go uncounted — especially people 19-24 experiencing homelessness.

“Someone who’s maybe couch surfing … wouldn’t necessarily be counted,” Hernandez said during a report reveal event Thursday to publicize this year’s count at Endeavors’ Veteran Wellness Center.

Volunteers counted 198 families living shelters this year. That’s 25% more than last year, when the count was only performed among sheltered individuals.

The eviction moratorium helped keep a lot of families housed, Vela said, as well as anecdotal reports her agency received that families were more wiling to take people in during the pandemic

“So it may not have been permanent, but it was a roof over their head,” she said.

Vela emphasized the need for permanent supportive housing, which is longterm housing that comes with on-site support such as medical, addiction and mental health services.

Earlier this month, San Antonio voters overwhelmingly approved the $150 million city housing bond that reserves $25 million just for such projects.

Currently, San Antonio doesn’t have any site-based permanent supportive housing. Towne Twin Village, slated to be completed in phases over the next few years, will be the city’s first, expected to serve more than 250 residents 50 years or older.

“Every corner of this community is united around the issue of ensuring that everyone in the city is able to live in dignity is able to have a safe, affordable home,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Thursday at the event.

Since the mid-2000s, cities across the nation have conducted point-in-time counts in an effort to better serve the homeless population. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires the count for communities that receive federal funds tied to homelessness mitigation.

While the baseline HUD survey questions have remained relatively the same over the years, SARAH added a question about sexual orientation and gender identity this year. That information, like any demographic data, can help point resources toward marginalized communities. Sexual orientation, Vela said, is “a contributing factor to homelessness.”

Of the unsheltered population, 7% identified as LGBTQ. Of those, roughly a quarter reported that their sexual orientation played a role in their experience of homelessness. Just over half a percent of everyone counted identified as transgender or non-binary.

“This very likely might be an undercount,” Hernandez said.

SARAH also added a “needs assessment” element to the survey, asking unsheltered individuals what they need the most. After housing, identity recovery and health care were the top reported needs.

The point of point-in-time counts

While the point-in-time count is required by HUD, SARAH coordinates the initiative for San Antonio and Bexar County.

Local organizations submit their findings to HUD to create a national report, used for policymaking and federal funding. SARAH also submits its data to Texas Homeless Network for a statewide report.

San Antonio and Bexar County get additional federal funding for housing and homelessness by providing HUD five-year plans that outline how the money will be used to address issues identified in the point-in-time count.

“We’ve increased our HUD funding by over $5 million in the last six years,” Vela said. “It used to be … that once a year, we would just meet with the city and county go over their report. Now we meet with them every two weeks, so they’re constantly in the loop on what we’re seeing.”

The count does not reflect how many people experience homeless throughout the year for days, weeks or months. That is an estimated 8,000 people in Bexar County, the city estimates.

“We’re ready to move beyond this one-night snapshot to tell the story of what’s happening,” Vela said.

SARAH and its partners have been working with the City of San Antonio on a public homelessness dashboard that will be updated quarterly. The dashboard will show progress on the city’s five-year homeless strategic plan, such as how many people are unsheltered, moved into housing, or returning to homelessness, Vela said.

“Then we want to break all of those out by equity measures,” she said. “We’ll look at gender, age, ethnicity, and race, and see if there are disparities in each of those.”

The 2022 count showed that almost 23% of the homeless population are Black — more than three times what would be proportional to the population of San Antonio, which is about 7% Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That’s obviously a problem, Vela said. SARAH is working to educate its partners and other stakeholders on the racial history of housing issues in San Antonio “and the other systems that impact this,” she said, “so we can start working on solutions there and hopefully see that number go down.”

Leilah Powell, SARAH’s board president, said that Bexar County has the people and political willpower in place to drastically reduce homelessness.

“It’s not a big unsolvable problem,” she said. “It’s something that we have good information [about], good teams in place and a good consensus of how to move forward.”

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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