This column has been updated.
I was waiting to be buzzed into an East Houston Street business for a meeting Monday morning when I was suddenly struck in the head from behind. Startled but unhurt, I spun around to protect myself, only to find a homeless man in dirty, tattered clothes shouting incoherently, “Do you want some water? Do you want some water?”
He had hit me with a nearly-empty plastic water bottle, which he waved above his head as he backed into the street, ignoring vehicle traffic, babbling incoherently as he ambled down the block.
My experience will surprise no one who works downtown these days, a district with too few workers and residents, the post-pandemic vacancy notably worsened by the growing presence of panhandlers and vagrants, some under the influence of street drugs that can trigger violent, even deadly outcomes.
Small business owners, hotel and restaurant operators, and even nonprofits and church workers that serve the city’s most vulnerable citizens readily shared stories and anecdotes with me.
“We need to hold everyone to the same standards of civil behavior, and drug addiction, alcoholism, and serious mental illness are not justifications for illegal or antisocial behavior in public places downtown,” said Matt Brown, CEO of Centro San Antonio, the nonprofit bridge between the business community and local government.
“We need persistent policing because people who are off their meds need to be helped back on their meds. Sleeping on sidewalks, urinating on downtown streets — these behaviors are not OK,” Brown added. “We do not have 24/7 bike patrol, we do not have homeless outreach on the River Walk, which is the heart of the tourism economy and the face of the city, and it’s being seriously affected.”
Two men were stabbed by a homeless man Saturday night on the River Walk. Their assailant fled. Days earlier, a 70-year-old woman was stabbed in a restroom at the Shops at Rivercenter mall. Her attacker, who was stabbed by the woman’s relative, was taken into custody.
“We serve the homeless, yet even we have difficulty dealing with some situations, but that doesn’t mean we should criminalize homelessness. I wish we had a homeless court designed to address people’s real needs,” said the Rev. Gavin Rogers, associate pastor at Travis Park Church and the executive director for Corazon Homeless Ministries.
“We’ve started a harm reduction program, funded by UT Health San Antonio, and we are taking a lot of people off the street. We have a needle exchange program, but right now fentanyl-laced heroin has reached epidemic levels. I’ve done four funerals for homeless people who have overdosed in the last year.
“We simply don’t have enough beds to be able to deal with mentally ill people whose needs are way beyond anything that can be provided at a shelter,” Rogers said.
Meanwhile, many in the downtown community say there has been an inadequate response from city staff, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council, despite the City of San Antonio’s Department of Human Services’ 2020 Strategic Plan to Respond to Homelessness.
Cite-and-release programs adopted by Bexar County in 2019 and the City of San Antonio in 2021 reduce the county jail population, free up police to address serious felonies, and allow minor offenses like marijuana possession to be dealt with via citation.
“Those policies also mean the homeless and others know they can come in here and tag our store walls, or shoplift something and get away with it,” said one retail store manager who did not want their name or business name published. “Even if the police arrested some of these repeat offenders, and many of them are familiar to us and to the police, they are just released.”
For 12 years now, San Antonio’s Haven for Hope has attracted national recognition as a leader in comprehensive treatment for homeless people and services provided by 180 partner agencies, but many individuals suffering from severe mental health issues, drug addiction, or chronic alcoholism are unwilling to leave the streets and enter the Haven’s treatment programs.
Brown said Centro’s Quality of Life Ambassadors cataloged 8,000 engagements with people downtown from November through January that included interactions with homeless individuals. He and other downtown stakeholders met this week in anticipation of meeting with city officials next week to explore more proactive approaches to addressing the problem.
One complaint dating back to the start of the pandemic is the tradition of local authorities using the downtown Greyhound bus station as a drop-off site for people released from the county jail, while tens of thousands of migrants detained along the border have been placed on buses by the Border Patrol and transported to the Greyhound station, which lacks processing facilities or spaces.
Stakeholders want the 10 council members to agree to establish at least 100 government-funded housing units to disperse some of those those moving from the streets to 1,000 newly established transitional housing units, an approach opposed by several council members.
“Why not take them to other parts of the city?” Brown asked. “Why do they have to be allowed to hang out around Travis Park and populate the front of the St. Anthony Hotel? Let’s move from NIMBY (not in my backyard) to YIMBY (yes, in my backyard).”
This column has been updated to clarify that Centro’s Quality of Life Ambassadors, not the San Antonio Police, cataloged 8,000 engagements with people downtown.