Thursday was the annual holiday celebration at the downtown Haven for Hope, San Antonio’s nationally recognized campus that provides shelter and comprehensive treatment services for homeless people. Thursday also was a day to contemplate Haven’s future and long-term sustainability.

What happens, I wondered, when NuStar Energy Chairman Bill Greehey, 85, the force behind the Haven’s creation and the Greehey Family Foundation, can no longer provide his present level of giving?

Greehey has funneled tens of millions of dollars of his personal wealth to stand up and support the center over the last 12 years. NuStar has raised more than $50 million in direct support through its annual benefit golf tournament. Hundreds of NuStar employees volunteer thousands of hours to work at Haven for Hope each year.

All that generosity and spirit of giving culminated in the annual Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays party for nearly 1,500 homeless San Antonians on Thursday at Haven for Hope. It is almost impossible to capture in words the joy it brings people without housing and those who selflessly serve them.

The Haven for Hope would have no funding issues if every resident of Bexar County could spend a few hours there, as I do from time to time to remind myself that San Antonio, like all cities, must find ways to perpetually address homelessness. It is not a problem to solve, rather an enduring human condition to address with empathy and professionalism.

The long pandemic has only made the lives of homeless people even more perilous, not only here, but even more so in cities across the country that lack the comprehensive approach to homeless treatment that has won San Antonio international recognition. Go no further than Austin to see how different San Antonio would look without Haven for Hope.

Thursday saw 1,150 homeless people, including hundreds of children, join in the dinner and celebration on campus, while 300 more were served at the downtown hotel managed by Haven for Hope. A line of 16 buses ferried 187 school-age children from nine different Bexar County school districts to join in the afternoon fiesta. Homelessness, contrary to what some believe, knows no geographic boundaries.

Every single child received holiday gifts selected from their personal wish lists collected earlier by Haven staff and NuStar volunteers, all funded by Greehey. And then there was a Christmas stocking stuffed with more goodies for each child.

It is a deeply emotional experience to witness men, women and young children with nothing but hope to hang on to experiencing such an outpouring of giving and fellowship. It would take a very cold heart to dehumanize the gathered mass of homeless people — 1,450 in total on Thursday — when understanding is the called-for spirit of the season and, in fact, all year round.

Approximately half of Haven for Hope’s annual $30 million budget comes from philanthropy and private sources, a level that simply cannot be sustained, local nonprofit leaders say.

“Service to the homeless should be viewed and funded just like a public utility,” said one former Haven executive. “San Antonio cannot and will not sustain this level of charity after Bill Greehey. Public funding from the city and county should be increased to the level of need, and it should be guaranteed year to year.”

Winning increased city funding, which has been relatively flat for several years at around $5 million, and convincing county leaders to finally provide a significant level of annual funding, are considered key to the enterprise’s long-term sustainability.

Kim Jeffries was less than one month into her new job as CEO of Haven for Hope on Thursday as she gingerly steered a very expensive convertible red Ferrari, lent for the occasion, in the small parade that marked the start of the 12th annual Ho Ho Hope for the Holidays celebration.

Excited adults and families with children lined a campus street as the small caravan of cars, including a convertible carrying King Antonio XCIX, Bart Simpson, slowly made its way past the crowds. The Texas Cavaliers selected the Haven for Hope as its designated charity this year and expect to contribute $1 million or more from its annual River Parade, staged each year on the first Monday of Fiesta.

The Joyous Noise Choir, a band of NuStar Energy employees who can belt out gospel tunes and carols alike, provided the musical backdrop. That talented ensemble needs more exposure in the city.

The 300 Haven for Hope employees, one-fourth of whom were once homeless, were a big part of Thursday’s event. Even with entry-level hourly wages raised to $15 an hour, Haven, like most employers, is struggling to recruit qualified workers to fill empty positions, according to Jeffries.

Haven for Hope is the physical center, literally, the heart of the campus where 183 nonprofit and government partners provide services intended to transform the lives of homeless people. Nearly 6,000 homeless people who have enrolled in Haven programs are now living lives of recovery. Many began by detoxifying from drug addiction or receiving therapy for mental illness, or both.

For many, the image of homelessness is a mentally ill individual pushing a grocery cart filled with possessions along downtown streets. Yet Thursday’s gathering was a reminder of how many are mothers with children, left homeless by abuse, neglect, financial ruin or drug addiction.

“I don’t think San Antonio knows the scale and breadth of this client-centered enterprise; it is truly exceptional,” Jeffries said Thursday as she discussed her first weeks on the job. “One top of the top of mind question is whether this is sustainable. Is there a way to get a more consistent revenue stream in place of the philanthropy?”

Jeffries takes the helm of the Haven of Hope at a key moment, one where that big question will have to be answered, for better or for worse.

Disclosure: NuStar Energy and the Greehey Family Foundation are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.