About 35 years ago, Towne Twin Drive-In theater played its last movie on San Antonio’s East Side, and the land has been vacant ever since. But on Wednesday, about 100 people arrived at the site to celebrate the land’s new purpose: to house some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Towne Twin Village will be the city’s first example of a housing project where people experiencing homelessness can “come as they are,” whether they are struggling with drug addiction, mental health issues, or other problems. Here, they can receive housing and then access treatment and services on-site, said Chris Plauche, who leads the project. That’s in contrast to some other programs serving homeless people that require participants to be drug-free or meet other requirements before they receive housing.
“You don’t have to be clean and sober. You don’t have to have income,” Plauche told the San Antonio Report after the project’s groundbreaking ceremony at 4711 Dietrich Rd.
About $15 million has been raised for the project, which will be completed in at least two phases on the 17.3-acre property. Towne Twin Village will feature 100 “tiny homes” (less than 450 square feet), 80 apartments, and 25 RV trailers available for people 50 years or older who have been homeless for an extended period of time or periodically, according to the Housing First Community Coalition, the nonprofit formed to fund and manage the site.
The RVs will be ready before winter, Plauche said. About three to four “mini-neighborhoods” comprised of 12 tiny homes surrounding a common gazebo and picnic area are slated for completion by early to mid-2022.
Ultimately, the site will feature a clinic with physical, mental, and dental health professional services, an interfaith chapel, hospice and respite units, a food-truck pavilion, a community garden, an art studio, an outdoor amphitheater, and a new facility for the San Antonio Catholic Worker House. That will serve as a hospitality hub to provide meals, haircuts, other services such as laundry.
Beyond providing housing, the goal is to create a community, said Plauche, founder and director of the Housing First Community Coalition and director of the Catholic Worker House.
The housing complex will also host “social events to promote that sense of community and that sense of belonging,” she said.
Some units will be reserved for volunteers – called PALs (Please Alleviate Loneliness) –to support the community.
Residents will pay rent on a sliding scale according to their ability to pay. For those who have no income, the San Antonio Housing Trust has committed $264,000 to subsidize the rent for 18 residents for two years.
To fund the project, the City of San Antonio allocated $5.4 million through its Inner City tax increment reinvestment zone, Bexar County committed $4 million, the Sisters of the Holy Spirit donated $1 million for predevelopment and a chapel wing, and the Housing Trust contributed $829,000 to build the first tiny homes. Other donations have been made by local philanthropists and other individuals.
The village will apply for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants for services, case management, and rent subsidies, Plauche said. The village will launch Build-A-House or Adopt-A-Home fundraising initiatives that will allow individuals to design and decorate a tiny house or help pay a resident’s rent.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Commissioner Tommy Calvert (Pct. 4), Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan (D2), former Councilwoman Patti Radle, and prominent philanthropists and businessmen Gordon Hartman and Mark Wittig spoke during the groundbreaking ceremony that opened with a rendition of “Amazing Grace” and a poem by San Antonio Poet Laureate Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson.
“We’ve got some digging to do; digging into the root of this society, breaking the curse of poverty to enrich our community,” said Sanderson, establishing a theme of comments about “digging in” to the work ahead. “By caring, we are providing for the hearts, minds, and souls of every individual that steps foot on the places where we stand. God, send your angels and your architects to construct healing in this land. We’ve got some digging to do. … Are you ready to dig?”
The speakers praised Plauche for her passion and persistence for the village that was 12 years and several partnerships in the making. The community coalition looked at properties as far away as a dude ranch in Bandera and as close as Cattleman’s Square on the near West Side before it found, purchased, and rezoned the former drive-in property in 2019.
“We’re standing at the right location because of persistence – because people had passion and compassion to make a difference,” Hartman said.
Plauche first heard about the concept of permanent supportive housing projects as part the “housing first” approach to mitigate homelessness in 2008 and has worked to bring the concept to San Antonio ever since.
What makes this project different from homeless shelters is that it’s permanent housing with wrap-around services for those who may have cycled in and out of shelters but who remained homeless.
It’s not meant to “compete” with Haven for Hope, Plauche said.
Haven for Hope is San Antonio’s largest homeless shelter, which features transitional housing and hosts dozens of support services on site, often connecting people to off-site housing as well.
“I think that ‘housing ready’ [model] works really well for people who are recently homeless,” she said. “When you’ve been chronically homeless, there’s just so many things you’ve got to do. … I think ‘housing ready’ and ‘housing first’ each have their own set of possible residents or clients. And you know, what works for one may not work for the other and vice versa.”
Aging adults remain homeless longer than adults under the age of 50 and they are more likely to have chronic illnesses, according to the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH). The agency’s 2021 Point-In-Time Count showed that 15% of individuals in shelters, or 229 people, were chronically homeless. That’s up by 66% compared to the 2020 count.
The 2021 count showed a 10% decrease in the total local shelter population, down from 1,658 to 1,499, a drop SARAH officials attributed to a federal moratorium on evictions.
The current location of the Catholic Worker House, a day shelter in the near East Side, will likely remain open after its second location opens at the village, Plauche said.
Getting the village up and running – and full – “is not gonna be easy. … You want to reach out to the most vulnerable and neediest and sometimes, it takes a lot,” Plauche said. “But that’s the beauty of Catholic Worker House: they come to us every day.”
When Aaron Green was homeless in 2012, he found Catholic Worker House through word of mouth as a place to get free meals.
“I just really liked it because it was a place where you could eat a meal and sit out in a pavilion and hang out,” Green said. “I just started cutting people’s hair for free while I was down there.”
Eventually, he became a full-time volunteer there and has since found a home after he landed a job driving day laborers to assignments. Green now sits on the Housing First Community Coalition board.
His experience at Catholic Worker House “humbled me a lot of ways, serving people like me,” he said, adding that he hopes the village will amplify that sense of community.
Andrews-Sullivan, whose district includes the Towne Twin Village, said she wants to see more developments like it across San Antonio.
“We know if you can do it in one place, we can do it in another place,” she said. “And those conversations are already happening.”
She recalled coming to the drive-in movie theater with her family growing up in the early 1980s.
“We were watching The Incredible Shrinking Woman, but we’re not shrinking anymore,” she said. “We are growing at a [fast] pace to meet the needs of so many.”