Katie Vela, who has worked for South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) since it was founded in 2015, took over as executive director last month with a vision to end youth homelessness.

Backed by a $6.8 million federal grant, the #WESAY Movement to House all Youth and young adults is both an awareness campaign and a strategy for delivering services.

“By joining the Movement to House All Youth, community members can take part in this important endeavor for those in our community at risk of or experiencing homelessness,” Vela said, noting SARAH’s online pledge to collaborate and find solutions.

SARAH’s 2020 point-in-time count found a 45 percent increase in homeless youth and young adults since last year, up to 185 from 128.

Since receiving the grant last year, SARAH has developed a strategic plan to address the unique challenges of youth homelessness and formally launched its Youth Homelessness Demonstration Program, which is funded by the grant, on Tuesday.

The first funding round allocates nearly $5 million to five partner agencies, largely for so-called rapid re-housing programs operated by Endeavors, Thrive Youth Center, UTSA’s Bexar County Fostering Educational Success Housing First Project, and Providence Place.

The re-housing programs, which are called rapid because they are fully funded and can be done immediately, will find apartments or homes, pay rent, and provide intensive case management, Vela said, to make sure “they have ongoing support and are still connected to resources.”

“The permanent housing needs to stick in the long run,” she said, adding that can be accomplished by addressing the root issues people have such as mental or physical health issues.

Roy Maas Youth Alternatives will use $355,000 to establish a mobile outreach unit.

The mobile unit that Roy Maas is establishing will be the first in San Antonio that’s exclusively for street outreach for youth and young adults, Vela said. It will carry toiletries that trained staff can distribute along with information about counseling, education, and housing resources. “It’s exciting that they can offer some services out in the field and really meet people where they are.”

As the lead coordinating agency for San Antonio and Bexar County, SARAH advocates for the homeless community and distributes funding for direct service providers. It also gives those providers and local governments guidance to strengthen policies and programs.

The San Antonio Report interviewed Vela, 32, to talk about her new role and vision for SARAH. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

SA Report: What led you and SARAH to focus on youth homelessness?

Vela: Part of what we do at SARAH is bring community partners together to create an alliance around different issues. In the past, we’ve worked to address veteran homelessness through cross-sector partnerships – so the idea is to start the same initiative around youth and young adult homelessness. It’s a really diverse group we have that comes together in our youth workgroup and includes school districts, service providers, government representatives, and child welfare advocates. So we had a great structure in place to start talking about the issue.

One of the major challenges is getting true counts of youth and young adult homelessness. We have youth who are couch surfing or in and out of different institutions, and so it can be difficult sometimes to get a real number. So that was one of the major initiatives we started to work on. We formed a Youth Action Board, a group of youth and young adults who have experienced homelessness, and they are at the center of all of the policymaking and really driving what the needs are for the community. It’s been a transformative process for everyone involved.

We had a lot of momentum around this already when last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided an opportunity to apply for a grant for a youth homeless demonstration program. Agencies compete by showing you have a great foundation to create a system for youth and young adults to prevent and end homelessness. SARAH applied for that grant on behalf of the community but incorporated the Youth Action Board’s feedback and held stakeholder meetings with our key partners to put that together. It was really exciting; we got the largest grant in the nation in that round, which was $6.88 million dollars. And all of that is used for housing, drop-in center services, and you can really create the programming you want based on your community. And it also helps pay for the planning process.

So we’ve written and had our plan approved. Now we’re just working on allocating the resources and onboarding a bunch of new agencies.

Our Youth Action Board still meets every two weeks to review every step of the way. One of the things that the board said is this program really needs to be a movement – they want there to be a broader understanding in the community of this issue: how people can help youth and young adults, be more understanding of the trauma they’ve experienced, and learn about services they can be connected to. So that’s really where the idea of this movement came from. And we’re still in the early stages, but we’d like for people to become aware of the issue and sign on that they want to hear more and be engaged.

SA Report: The movement to effectively end homelessness in San Antonio had monetary support from USAA ($2.1 million). Is SARAH looking for partners in the business community to step up for the youth initiative?

Vela: Absolutely. What was really neat about USAA and the way they engaged in the work is that they weren’t just looking at each service provider individually, they were meeting with the partners and with SARAH to find the overall gaps and how do we fund things to make this whole system work.

Now when somebody is seeking shelter, instead of just immediately enrolling them into housing, we have the problem-solving conversation and some flex funds that can be used really for any purpose that we identify if it’s going to get somebody into housing – so even if it’s something like food for the family so that everyone can stay housed for another month.

We’d love to see that kind of support for youth and young adults as well.

SA Report: As the moratorium on eviction expires at the end of this year, many housing advocates are warning of a looming wave of evictions and homelessness in the wake of the pandemic. Is SARAH preparing for this wave?

Vela: With youth and young adults specifically, many have service industry jobs – so they’ve definitely been impacted.

It’s been challenging, especially in the beginning, when we were all learning about the Emergency Operations Center, CDC guidelines, and protective gear. How do we provide services in a safe way? I think the community has made so much progress and figured that part out. We also recognize that we didn’t have enough street outreach workers. Although there was coordination happening, especially downtown, we really needed a bigger structure for street outreach, where all outreach workers are connected and have standard operating procedures for how they get people into treatment and the shelter. The pandemic emergency response showed us where we had some weaknesses and needed to make improvements. So there’s been huge progress there.

Now, a lot of people are not yet at the point where they’re going to be evicted because of the moratorium, but they just have questions and they’re trying to prepare [for the possibility] they’re not going to have rent in January. We have a weekly partner meeting with everyone that does prevention services. So the County, the City’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department, and Department of Human Services, SAMMinistries, St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army – anyone who has programming to keep people in housing that can pay rental assistance. What we recognize is there’s funding available right now we’re trying to estimate if we’ll have enough for the need, but we also want to make sure that the access is really clear to the community. Where do I call, and then is it a streamlined process from there to connect you to a provider? Because right now we have several different agencies that provide that kind of assistance. So we’re really focusing on this access and making it streamlined and coordinated and easily understood by the community to prepare for January.

SA Report: Is SARAH the go-to place for people who are struggling with homelessness?

Vela: I think when you look at our system here, you already have some large collaborations. You have Haven for Hope, and their partners and connections and resources; the City of San Antonio also has some established programs and systems. SARAH’s relatively new, but even in the last eight months or so of the pandemic, we’ve put structures in place where we’re making decisions with the City, the County, and some key homeless service providers, like Haven for Hope. I think when it comes to the stakeholders who work together on the issue, we’ve established ourselves as the entity that can really coordinate and bring in resources and ideas from other communities and help with how to align funding by looking at data.

I do think a focus area for us will be taking the message of what we do out into the broader community. We don’t provide direct service, so we’ll need to succinctly explaining our role in community planning, allocating resources.

We have SA Homelink, a coordinated entry system that we created with our partners. If you’re experiencing homelessness or in need of shelter, it shows you some different places to go to get an assessment.

But even people who know a lot about this work, when they’re faced with someone saying, “I’m worried I’m gonna get evicted, I’m sleeping in my car,” it’s still not always 100 percent clear where to point them 24 hours a day. That’s another area we’ve really been working on during the last year.

SA Report: Could Homelink be used by an average person who wants to help an individual?

Just in the past few months, we’ve expanded the training and on-boarding process to become a Homelink assessor. We want to make sure it’s not just about asking the questions and referring, but it’s also about motivational interviewing, trauma-informed care, and the relationship you’re establishing as you go through the questions so that you can get the meaningful and accurate responses that you need to really be able to help someone.

So far, we’ve only trained service providers, but we have looked at some different systems that could use assessors whether it’s hospital or jails. As far as for community members, that’s something we could take a look at as we build out this system because I think that’s a common question: “If I see someone experiencing homelessness, what should I do?”

So the more we can give people the resources they need, I think that’s great because it takes all of us in the community. You never know when that moment is going to happen when somebody says, “Today’s the day, I’m ready to make a change.”

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...