San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg joined more than two dozen U.S. leaders this week in committing to house thousands of people experiencing homelessness by the end of next year.

The local goal, set by the city’s Human Services and Neighborhood and Housing Services departments, is to subsidize permanent housing for 1,500 people experiencing homelessness and start building an additional 860 housing units for the population by the end of 2022.

The Biden Administration launched the initiative, House America: An All-Hands-On-Deck Effort to Address the Nation’s Homelessness Crisis, in September. It calls for local and statewide leaders to use a “housing first” approach when spending federal coronavirus pandemic relief grants targeted at reducing homelessness.

The “housing first” approach is one that focuses on providing housing first so that mental and physical illness, debt, domestic violence situations, and unemployment can be more easily addressed. Other approaches prioritize emergency shelters or require sobriety and/or participation in other services before housing individuals.

Nirenberg publicly committed to the House America initiative during a City Council meeting on Wednesday.

“Too many had to endure the COVID-19 pandemic without the safety and protection of a stable home, while the homelessness crisis has been further impacted and/or exacerbated during and due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the mayor wrote in a letter that will soon be sent to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge to formally join the initiative.

Dovetails with existing plan

The mayor’s pledge is largely on track with the city’s existing plan to reduce homelessness, said Melody Woosley, director of the city’s Human Services Department.

“I think it dovetails very well … with the work we’re already doing,” Woosley said.

The local plan notes the need for permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing, or other permanent housing, including low-barrier housing that doesn’t require sobriety.

San Antonio will use local, state, and federal dollars “to make progress towards ending homelessness and ensuring that all residents have a safe and affordable place to live,” Nirenberg wrote.

January 2020’s point-in-time count, which involves volunteers literally counting people living on the streets and in shelters, found a 2% increase in overall homelessness since 2019 for a total of 2,932 individuals, including sheltered and unsheltered. Over the past 10 years, the city’s homeless population is trending toward unsheltered, with a 19% decrease among those staying in some type of temporary residence, according to the annual report.

It’s unclear if these numbers have changed significantly since early 2020, as the annual count was canceled this year due to the pandemic.

Nationally, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will provide an additional 70,000 emergency housing vouchers, $5 billion in HOME grants, and investments to protect housing on tribal lands. It also includes $350 billion in state and local fiscal recovery funds to address homelessness and housing instability.

San Antonio was awarded $326.9 million under ARPA and has used more than $97 million to stabilize its 2022 fiscal year budget. How to divvy up the remaining $229.4 million will be subject to City Council approval. The city is currently taking input from the community on how that money should be spent through a series of public meetings.

“The pandemic has shown us that we, as a nation, are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us,” stated Fudge, who also serves as chair of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, in a news release. “Addressing homelessness is not only about helping the individuals and families who face the greatest housing challenges, but also about the well-being and economic security of our communities and our whole nation.”

Success with veterans experiencing homeless

In 2015, then-Mayor Ivy Taylor committed to the Obama Administration’s challenge to effectively end veteran homelessness. San Antonio met that “functional zero” goal in 2016 by ensuring that every veteran in the city has access to permanent housing and the community has the resources to rapidly stabilize veterans on the brink of homelessness. During that year-long push, housing was found for 1,335 local veterans who were experiencing homelessness.

Woosley said the city will approach the House America challenge “through many of the same strategies.” The city partners closely with the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) and a broad coalition of groups to braid local, state, federal, and private funding sources.

Ultimately, the goal is to “ensure that homelessness is rare, brief if experienced, and nonrecurring,” she said.

Emergency shelters still play an important role in addressing homelessness, she added.

“Frankly, [shelters were] an important part of the veterans initiative,” she said, and it will be an important part of this more broad effort because shelters serve as temporary respite and place to contact people when services or housing become available.

Towne Twin Village, slated to be completed in phases over the next few years, will be the city’s first site-based, permanent supportive housing in San Antonio. It will house more than 250 residents who are 50 years or older — some of those units may be available (and count towards the House America pledge) this year.

City officials have said that a portion of the coming $150 million 2022-2027 housing bond could be used to build 1,000 site-based permanent supportive housing units, meaning housing that has on-site medical care and other assistance for people who have experienced chronic homelessness.

But those units, if approved by City Council and the voters, will likely not be built until 2023.

The House America pledge complements SARAH’s goal to house 500 people experiencing homelessness by the end of this year.

The “housing surge” initiative, which started on Aug. 1, has counted 369 people as of Thursday who have found permanent housing. Some of those numbers will go toward the House America goal, which counts the housed and housing units from Oct. 1 this year through Dec. 31, 2022, Woosley said.

Since the beginning of 2021, there has been nearly 900 people housed, she said.

While the House America goal of 1,500 will be a bit of a stretch for the current system, she said, “we feel like it’s achievable.”

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