Haven for Hope Outreach Manager Ron Brown shakes the hand of John, who has been homeless for more than five years.
Haven for Hope Outreach Manager Ron Brown shakes the hand of John, who has been homeless for more than five years. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Fifteen years ago, Mike moved to San Antonio from Laredo for an entry-level job in construction. He was living paycheck-to-paycheck for more than a decade when an on-the-job back injury left him unable to work for months.

Mike, 55, stayed on a friend’s couch for a while after he was evicted from his home, but when the friend moved away, he started sleeping on the streets.

“I thought it was just [going to be] a couple days,” he said.

That was two years ago.

Homelessness in San Antonio is pervasive, but the city is considered a model for its efforts to address the issue. Haven for Hope, the city’s largest shelter, receives national recognition for its comprehensive, on-site services, including short-term housing, addiction and mental health treatment, job placement, and physical health rehabilitation. But many experts say putting homeless people in long-term homes should be the first step in fixing the problem. It’s what’s known as the “housing first” strategy.

Mike first arrived at Haven for Hope’s gates to find the facility full. He also knew he would fail the drug test required to enter the housing portion of the campus. His back injury led to an addiction to prescription pain medication that turned into heroin addiction as he sought the drug on the streets. Now, when he can’t find or afford heroin, he uses synthetic cannabinoids, commonly referred to as “synthetic marijuana” or “K2.”

After his belongings were stolen on the street, the staff at Haven and its partner organizations helped him get a new identification card and connected him with drug rehabilitation programs. They also tried to get him a voucher for an apartment, but the waiting list was years long, and he now has misdemeanors on his record, making him a less appealing tenant to landlords. 

Stories like Mike’s have led cities, including San Antonio, to consider moving more toward a “housing first” strategy – one that’s recommended by national homeless organizations and agencies – that prioritizes easy-to-enter housing that doesn’t require sobriety or participation in rehabilitative programming.

Eighty miles northeast in Austin, City Council legalized camping and sleeping on sidewalks this summer in an attempt to decriminalize homelessness. Encampments of tents, sleeping bags, tarps, and boxes cropped up under overpasses, on the sidewalks, and anywhere else they could fit – especially downtown.

Austin’s approach made the crisis of homelessness more visible to residents, business owners, and visitors. It sparked heated debates and conversations about how to solve, or at least mitigate, homelessness statewide. Gov. Greg Abbott targeted the City of Austin and Mayor Steve Adler in tweets threatening to “override” the City ordinance. Abbott said the capital city should look to Haven for Hope for guidance on how to combat the problem.

But homeless counts indicate that Travis County, where Austin is located, has only a slightly higher homeless population than does Bexar County compared to its total residents. Roughly 1.7 percent of Travis County’s estimated 1,248,743 residents were counted as homeless last year while about 1.5 percent of Bexar County’s estimated 1,986,049 population were counted as homeless. But while the homeless total decreased 6 percent in Bexar County last year, it increased by 5 percent in Travis.

Those so-called “point-in-time” homeless counts, however, should be taken with a grain of salt, local homeless advocates told the Rivard Report. Often counters miss some of the homeless population on the days they take place.

The Austin camping ordinance did not increase the population of homeless, but it did increase the volume of the homeless discussion in Austin, Adler told the Rivard Report last month after participating in a Texas Tribune Festival panel on homelessness.

That was an unintended consequence, Adler said. “I think we knew that what we were doing would be changing the status quo. I didn’t anticipate that it would become the [main] thing that most people are talking about as rapidly – but at the same time I don’t mind that’s what’s happening in the city, because I want us to actually do something.”

Drastically redirecting funding or changing rules about camping, sleeping, and sitting in public spaces is unlikely in San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.

“There’s a strong sense of awareness [of homelessness] already. … We really don’t have to work [on that],” Nirenberg said, adding he’d rather focus on finding sustainable funding for homelessness mitigation initiatives.

“We need to address the public safety concerns, but in a compassionate way that treats homelessness as a symptom of a system failure and remembers that these are folks that don’t choose to be in this situation,” he said. “We have to continue to do what we’re doing in San Antonio by focusing on homeless services as a continuum of care and funding strategies that prevent homelessness from happening in the first place.”

When it comes to incorporating a housing-first strategy or investing more in Haven for Hope and other similar strategies, Nirenberg envisions a hybrid approach rather than one-size-fits-all.

“Just providing someone shelter is not going to fix the underlying issues of mental illness, substance abuse, job training and education [inadequacies]. … The sequence of those issues requires individual approaches,” he said. “So having the ability to work and tailor a solution to meet a family’s needs, I think, will put us in a much stronger position.”

The big need, he said, is affordable housing – a priority of his administration widely supported by his colleagues on the council dais.

The Mayor’s Housing Policy Task Force spent a year formulating recommendations that were adopted by City Council in September 2018. To fulfill the goals of increasing affordable housing in the city, this year’s budget increases funding for those efforts by $8.5 million for a total of $34.4 million from the City’s general fund, federal grants, and other sources for the housing investments and initiatives to keep vulnerable families in their homes.

Ingredients for Success: Leadership and Political Will

Businessman and philanthropist Bill Greehey of NuStar Energy led the fundraising effort to establish the $100 million Haven for Hope campus almost 10 years ago. The facility is supported by at least $3 million from the annual NuStar NuHope Golf Classic hosted by the Greehey Family Foundation. Haven for Hope CEO Kenny Wilson credits Greehey and then-Mayor Phil Hardberger for Haven’s existence.

“You’ve got to have leadership, and you’ve got to have political will,” he said. “And I see both of those” in San Antonio today.

The homeless population downtown has decreased 80 percent since the temporary housing, shelter, and wrap-around services campus opened on the near West Side, according to annual counts. Most days, more than 770 men, women, and children live temporarily in its dormitories. People stay an average of six to seven months in the transitional apartments on campus before they move to permanent housing. An additional 600 people sleep outside in the Courtyard. Haven also has a dog kennel.

The Haven for Hope campus West of downtown San Antonio.

Additionally, Wilson said, Haven has adopted a “moral” policy not to turn away families in need of emergency shelter, regardless of whether the facility is full. Haven has placed roughly 4,000 people in permanent housing since it opened in 2010.

San Antonio has other overnight and day shelters, such as ones operated by the Salvation Army. There are several operations providing food for San Antonio’s homeless across the city, but most are concentrated downtown. Haven, with a $20 million annual budget, is by far the largest all-encompassing entity.

Walking around the 22-acre property, it feels more like a school campus than a homeless shelter. There are 67 nonprofits that operate on-site, providing everything from medical care to identification recovery to dental work. Haven refers clients to 87 other partners. Thirty other community partners, including local school districts, City departments, Bexar County, and police and fire departments network with Haven. 

Visitors, including elected officials and homeless advocates, come from all over the U.S. to explore the facility and glean inspiration, Wilson said.

An Indianapolis City-County Council member visited in September, and Texas State Reps. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Sarah Davis (R-West University Place), and Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio) visited last week. City officials from Las Vegas also gleaned inspiration from the campus.

Haven requires a clean drug and alcohol test to enter its transitional housing campus, a policy that is not considered a “housing first” approach, but Wilson argues that one of Haven’s main functions is housing.

Haven has a team of 12 people that take on the “toughest cases in terms of mental health and get them housed,” he said. “They know how to get them ready and get them placed.”

Many people get housed by that team or a partner organization “before they even come to Haven,” Wilson said. “Our goal is to get people in a home. That’s what we do here.”

Ninety percent of the people Haven houses off-campus stay housed because of the supportive services they received at Haven or through another partner, he said.

Without that support – such as counseling or addiction rehabilitation – Wilson said he’s seen too many people come right back to Haven. 

What San Antonio needs is centralized, permanent supportive housing, he said. That is, housing that comes with a level of follow-up care such as mental health therapy and check-ins with case managers.

The issue is money. Housing and wrap-around services are expensive, he said.

Last year, the City spent $9 million on homeless mitigation nonprofits, the bulk of which went to Haven. This year, an additional $560,000 was set aside in the 2020 budget to fund recommendations that come out of a future strategic plan. An additional $500,000 was allocated to Haven for Hope to expand its “emergency overflow” program  for families.

In the 2020 budget, a total of $8.1 million is designated for Haven and campus partners for the 2020 fiscal year. Other local nonprofits included in the City’s budget are funded through federal grants and programs.

Bexar County gives $1 million to Haven each year. For the first time this year, the County allocated an additional $100,000 in federal funding to Haven.

Housing First, not ‘Housing Only’ 

Last week, two developments relating to homelessness in San Antonio – a “housing first” village gaining momentum in the East Side and movement on a comprehensive strategic homelessness plan – could change how the City deals with some of its most vulnerable residents.

On Thursday, San Antonio’s City Council approved a nearly $130,000 contract with San Francisco-based consultant Homebase to develop a comprehensive homelessness strategy. The analysis will identify the gaps in services and provide recommendations to fill them.

That strategic plan could lead to a transition towards more housing-first and affordability programs, said Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger, who oversees the City’s Department of Human Services. “We’ll have to see,” she said.

Once a person has housing, it makes it easier to address the underlying causes of a person’s homelessness: mental or physical illness, unemployment, domestic violence, or other issues, said Steve Berg, vice president of programs and policy for the National Alliance to End Homelessness. That’s why the housing-first strategy has spread across the U.S.

“Trying to get their health [care while living] under a bridge is just not very practical,” Berg said. Instead, permanent supportive housing is proven to work to get people back on track. “We’ve recognized this for a long time. … People have tried everything else.”

About 80 percent of homeless people that are helped through the housing-first model are still housed two year later, according to a 2004 study.

But the idea is housing first, “not housing only,” Berg said. A cohesive network of care is needed to address the underlying causes of homelessness.

With enough funding, these networks can help 130 people move off the streets into housing every day in a big city like Los Angeles, Berg said. “But then every day 150 more who lose their housing end up knocking on the door of the system.”

A key correlation to increased homelessness nationally is higher rent and housing costs, Berg said, and a loss of affordable housing stock.

Where there are some elements of the housing-first strategy in San Antonio, they are scattered across the city and isn’t considered to be a tenet of the City or County’s approach like it is in other places like Dallas, Austin, or Houston.

Chris Plauche, the volunteer director of Catholic Worker House, a day shelter, is leading an effort to establish San Antonio’s first housing-first campus.

Tentatively called Towne Twin Village for the drive-in theater that was once there, the campus is slated to house 250 older homeless people in RVs, tiny houses (300-350 square feet), and studio apartments on about 17 acres near Loop 410. Like Haven, the village will host partner organizations to provide supportive services on site.

A site plan shows the layout and amenities at Towne Twin Village.

The City’s Zoning Commission voted Tuesday to recommend that City Council grant final approval. The Council vote is scheduled for next month. If it’s approved, Plauche said, the Housing First Community Coalition will finalize its purchase of the land.

Plauche, also the director of the coalition, has volunteered at the Catholic Worker House since 2007. She’s familiar with the gaps that the homelessness network faces. The growing population of chronically homeless people are usually the hardest lives to stabilize, she said; some have mental and physical health issues, and most can’t work.

“We could fill [the village] up in a day with seniors,” she told the Rivard Report. “The idea is to provide dignity for those last years of life.”

The Towne Twin Village in San Antonio drew some inspiration from the 51-acre Community First! Village in Austin.

The Cost of Homelessness

Beyond simply getting homeless people off the streets, permanent supportive housing has financial benefits for cities and ultimately taxpayers, Berg said.

Cities like Austin are doing a better job of adding up the costs that the homeless population, especially the chronically homeless, add to public health, safety, and criminal justice system budgets, he said. These budgets are typically siloed – making the true cost of not helping a homeless person hard to calculate.

After analyzing their patient bills, many hospitals are finding that “so many of their high-cost patients are homeless,” he said. “[Nationally] the medical industry … has become big fans of the housing-first approach.”

So has Adler.

“The 250 people in my city — and we know them by name — who are the most chronically experiencing homelessness, costs the community … $220,000 each,” Adler said, citing estimates compiled in a report by Austin’s Public Health department and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), a nonprofit that coordinates Austin’s ecosystem of groups that support the homelessness population.

“[We] can house those 250 people and substantially reduce those costs,” Adler said.

Caritas, a homelessness mitigation nonprofit in Austin, can house them for $17,000 per year, its President and CEO Jo Kathryn Quinn said, but finding affordable housing options in a city with ballooning property values is tough.

“Affordable housing is the one part of the equation that we feel like is sort of out of our control,” she said. And increased rents and housing costs mean landlords can be choosey about who they rent to.

Temporary shelter is a good starting point for many homeless people, said Greg McCormack, executive director of Front Steps Inc., which runs the City-funded Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) downtown.

“Austin as a community has fully adopted the housing-first philosophy,” McCormack said, but housing and shelters with low barriers for entry need increased staff and security to assist those struggling with mental illness.

The ARCH, a men-only temporary shelter at night that offers showers and other services to anyone by day, recently started requiring that those who stay overnight to participate in case management or shelter programming in some way. The shelter previously operated on a lottery system that had no requirements. But results were mixed, he said.

ARCH staff realized they needed to focus their limited resources on people who were ready to take advantage of those resources, McCormack said. It’s an “aha moment” that shelters need to be prepared for.

“If we’re unable to respond when that moment hits, they move on. … They start to lose faith in the system.”

At its peak, the ARCH housed 230 men at night. Since requiring program participation, it’s down to 130 to 190.

Since the ban was lifted on public camping, Austin has increased its outreach to those living on the street outside the ARCH to refer them to services, according to City officials.

Under pressure from the business community to revise its homeless policies, Austin City Council voted 7-4 Thursday to prohibit camping in certain areas, such as those close to business entrances and exits, according to media reports, but largely kept the camping ordinance in place. The dissenting votes were from council members concerned that the rules weren’t strict enough. On Friday, Abbott said the state would continue to “monitor” the results of that reform and said the Texas Department of Transportation could remove large encampments under highway overpasses.

A homeless man in Austin, Texas.

“[Homelessness] is the only really big social challenge that we know how to fix,” Adler said. Housing first, under the permanent supportive housing model, is the key, he said.

But preventing homelessness is the harder problem, Wilson said. From his conversations with Haven clients and those in the Courtyard, evictions and domestic violence are the two most common reasons people end up on the streets.

“How do you solve the infinite amount of problems and issues that are out there [that cause eviction and domestic violence]?” Wilson said. “Add onto that mental health, physical health, and lack of funding.”

Leadership and political will were the key elements in getting Haven off the ground, he said, and those elements remain today, he said. If Haven wasn’t here, Wilson noted, 1,700 people would be on the streets –negatively impacting the downtown environment and the tourism industry.

“I don’t think there’s been a better time where everybody agrees that we’ve got to protect San Antonio and we’ve got to help people,” Wilson said. “If homelessness grows and becomes more visible, it’s going to threaten our industries.”

The problem, as it is with most social ills, is identifying funding.

The South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) and Haven keep a close eye on state and federal funding bills that are related to homelessness, Wilson said, but they’re always looking for sustainable, long-term funding.

Along with funds from Greehey’s golf tournament, another $6 million to $10 million comes from other philanthropic donations. Roughly 40 percent of Haven’s annual budget is funded from local, state, and federal government agencies. But not all of that is guaranteed in perpetuity, Wilson said.

“I see that [tournament] going on for a long time, but nothing goes on forever,” Wilson said. “To raise six to 10 million is a lot of money for the homeless.”

Haven and other organizations can’t rely so heavily on private support indefinitely, Nirenberg agreed.

“The private sector has a vested interest in supporting [homelessness mitigation] and has shown that in investing in Haven for Hope,” he told reporters Wednesday, but it’s clear a more sustainable model is needed.

While San Antonio is spending more than ever on homelessness initiatives, Wilson said there is a need for more.

“[Haven for Hope] is full in arguably one of the best economic times in history,” Wilson said. “What is it going to be like in a recession or a [economic] slowdown?”

Wilson is working with elected officials and other homeless nonprofits to see if there is a tax or other revenue stream to fund their efforts in perpetuity, he said. That could take state and local government action.

“We’re exploring all those options,” he said.

For San Antonio’s homeless, the result of that exploration can’t come soon enough. Just east of downtown, the roar of cars traveling on Interstate 37 above where Mike has found a place to sit makes it hard to hear his low voice. It’s rush hour and he’s headed to get food from a nearby church. He’s not sure if he’ll go back to Haven.

“They really tried [to help me],” he said, but so far he’s been unable to overcome his addictions. Sometimes he sleeps in Haven’s Courtyard, but he said sleeping so close to others with addiction problems can trigger his own.

Mike is confident he can get back on track. He didn’t want his real name or likeness used for this article, because he has applied for a few jobs in and outside of San Antonio.

“I’m not a lost cause,” he said. “But I have a lot of problems.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...