(From left) SAMMinistries client resident Lillie Espino and SAMMinistries CEO Navarra Williams share a laugh in the library.
(From left) Lillie Espino and SAMMinistries CEO Navarra Williams share a laugh in the SAMMinistries library. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When you meet Lillie Espino, it’s hard to believe that she spent the last two years living in her van. She radiates positivity, lifting the spirits of others through encouraging words.

Espino now lives in a one-bedroom apartment on San Antonio’s North Side. She lights up when she talks about what it’s like having her own space and feeling safe for the first time in years, and brightens even more when talking about Zach Marcotte, the case manager with SAMMinistries who helped her secure her apartment and outfit it.

“That young man has so much potential,” Espino said. “He changed my life.”

Marcotte works in one of the five homeless prevention programs operating out of SAMMinistries, which was founded in 1983 in response to the death from exposure of a homeless man outside the First Presbyterian Church in downtown San Antonio.

To honor its 35th anniversary, SAMMinistries is hosting a 35-hour donation drive on Wednesday, with a goal of receiving 350 individual donations that will go directly toward homeless prevention programs.

The drive will run from noon Wednesday to 10 p.m. Thursday.

“Over the years, our organization has changed the lives of people throughout the city, and in some cases completely changed their entire life trajectory,” said Navarra Williams, president and CEO of SAMMinistries.

SAMMinistries spearheaded in 2004 the first homeless prevention program targeting San Antonio families at risk of being evicted for past-due rent or utilities, and has continued to expand its programming, Williams said, noting the organization is introducing a new homeless prevention program in October.

“We have always been a big presence in preventing homelessness. We help the most vulnerable people when they need it the most.”

Espino became homeless when symptoms from diabetes became so severe that she was unable to work. While she receives Social Security disability payments, her monthly income was not enough to pay rent on her own. Extended periods of living with her son left her feeling like she was a burden, and he eventually told her she needed to move out.

Over the next two years, Espino’s health worsened. Living out of her van meant not eating a proper diet, making it difficult to manage her diabetes. She also had surgery to remove a tumor, after which she stayed with her son before again returning to her van.

After being placed on a waiting list for affordable housing, Espino was referred by the San Antonio Housing Authority to SAMMinistries.

“I knew that I couldn’t live in my van another year,” she said. “I was in a dark place, like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t keep myself clean, and I was really sick.”

When Marcotte met Espino he was able to quickly guide her through applying for the organization’s program for chronically homeless people with disabilities. The program pays for permanent housing and allows participants to remain indefinitely, if needed.

“There’s a different story for everyone we help, and we try to meet them where they are at,” Marcotte said. “Many people currently receiving help from SAMMinistries were found after [SAMMinistries employees] trekked out to look for them under bridges and highways.”

The organization’s staff of 80 is supported by thousands of volunteers who help families on their path to self-sufficiency on a total budget of about $9 million, which includes funding from donations and federal and state grants. SAMMinistries helped house more than 5,200 San Antonio residents in 2017.

Espino is one of 150 people SAMMinistries helps through the program that provides shelter indefinitely. Program participants are not required to work, and instead are asked to stay out of trouble and keep in weekly contact with a case manager, whom they meet with regularly to work toward personal goals.

When the Rivard Report met with Espino, it was at the organization’s Transitional Living and Learning Center on the city’s Northeast side, which serves as home to 40 families as they work to overcome homelessness, and includes administrative offices for case management and other services, including mental health treatment.

Click through the gallery below to see more images from SAMMinistries.

Espino told the Rivard Report that she had never heard of SAMMinistries before she found herself homeless, and that she tells as many people as she can about the help she received from the organization.

“If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t know how I would have survived it at all,” she said. “Homelessness is a dark place. You lose your dignity and your spirit, for sure.”

Roseanna Garza

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