On Wednesday, the Homeless Persons’ Memorial will pay tribute to the lives of 160 people who died while homeless in San Antonio this year. Representatives from SAMMinistries will read each name, ring a bell and light a candle in each person’s honor.

The homeless prevention nonprofit, which organizes the annual event at Milam Park downtown, will need more than double the number of candles used in the event last year, when it commemorated 71 people who died — a 125% increase.

“What we are seeing, quite honestly, is the continued fallout from the COVID pandemic,” said Nikisha Baker, president and CEO of SAMMinistries.

She attributed these deaths to “the strain on personal health and wellness that we have all experienced as a result of the pandemic, but beyond that, the stress for those who are extremely vulnerable or living on the streets is compounded greatly.”

While the unhoused rate compared to San Antonio’s growing population remains flat, the chronically homeless population has increased 77% since 2020, according to the city’s point-in-time count conducted early this year.

“Those are the folks that we are losing,” she said, referring to people who have experienced homelessness for more than one year and have a disabling condition.

While the nonprofit does not track the causes of death among unhoused people, Baker said the way they often deal with stress and trauma is through substance abuse, which leads to other health issues, including fatal overdoses.

The youngest person who died while homeless this year was 21; the oldest was 84. At least 35 were 60 or older, 10 were military veterans and 59 lacked official identification at the time of their death but were eventually identified.

The memorial also serves to highlight the shorter life expectancy associated with being unhoused.

“Those who have experienced homelessness, or those who are currently experiencing homelessness, die at three to four times the normal rate,” Baker said. “We’re talking about premature deaths simply because of their exposure to [the] elements, lack of access to consistent health care — let alone preventative health care — and all of those things come together … to cause us to lose friends and family members oftentimes before their time.”

San Antonians can help in a number of different ways — including by donating to or volunteering with service organizations — but Baker’s immediate priority is to get residents to support homeless services and affordable housing opportunities in their neighborhoods.

Often such projects are met with fierce opposition by current residents, she said.

Baker hopes permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless will mean that her organization will have to read fewer names at future memorials and ultimately create stronger communities, “because folks won’t have to rummage through your trash or break into abandoned buildings if they have access to housing and shelter and supportive services.”

SAMMinistries has the largest inventory of permanent supportive housing units in the city — nearly 180 units scattered in various communities, and residents of those units typically require regular check-ins and transportation to support services.

With San Antonio’s housing bond, the city and Bexar County’s federal coronavirus relief funding and other federal grants, the region now has $45 million to spend on permanent supportive housing. But it’s still unclear where that housing will be located.

The South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) is coordinating with the city and county to award that funding, which will prioritize projects that feature on-site services. The request for proposals was released in late November and closes in January.

“Permanent supportive housing developments always take a collaborative effort of different partners, because you need a housing developer with experience, you need someone to operate the property and the right supportive services, which can be clinical and mental health on site,” said Katie Vela, SARAH’s executive director.

These projects often have an added hurdle of neighborhood opposition.

“I think it’s important for the community to know that permanent supportive housing is not emergency shelter,” Vela said. “This is not a facility where people are walking up every day. … This is going to be where people live permanently and they’re going to have the support and the community on-site to make sure that they’re successful.”

There is still a lot of stigma associated with the unhoused population, she said. “That’s why the memorial is so important because it’s a good reminder of how many people are passing away and that their lives mattered.”

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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 mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org