Jeanne Talley and Kay Swinarksy sat on the vinyl wood floor Thursday, doing the tedious work that some find themselves doing when a friend or family member moves into a new home: assembling furniture.
“We didn’t bring a hammer, so I’ll just use this,” Talley said, using a wooden peg to force the structure of a shelf into place.
But these women and their friends, volunteers with the Holy Spirit Catholic Church, have never met — and may never meet — the person who will live in this brand new, roughly 450-square-foot home.
The group volunteered to furnish two homes in the first cluster of 13 colorful, tiny houses at Towne Twin Village, San Antonio’s first single-site permanent supportive housing project. Towne Twin will ultimately house more than 200 seniors who have been chronically homeless in either the tiny homes, RV trailers or apartments on the property located at 4711 Dietrich Rd. on the East Side of town.
Built on the site of the former Towne Twin Drive-In movie theater, the first 14 residents will start moving in next week, said Towne Twin’s executive director, Edward Gonzales.
“We want to make sure that we get it right,” Gonzales said. “Transitioning from the street to a home is difficult in itself,” and residents shouldn’t have to worry about having to find utensils or a couch.
Volunteers will be working through the weekend to make sure all the home essentials, — including dining ware, towels, soap, televisions and microwaves — are in place. The furnishings are purchased or donated by volunteers, who outfit an entire home.
“I could live here!” said volunteer Linda Kenny, 75, as she unboxed a shiny 3-in-1 breakfast station that includes a toaster, coffee maker and griddle. “The homes are so beautiful — really so nicely done.”
When she was growing up, Kenny’s grandparents lived across the street from the drive-in. She remembers sitting with her family on a berm separating the theater from the neighborhood.
“We’d sit up there … on a blanket and we’d watch some movies — we couldn’t hear them, but we were little, we didn’t care,” she said.
Now she finds herself back at her old stomping grounds, this time helping her vulnerable, unknown neighbors move into unit No. 106, painted in blue and red sections.
She has volunteered and donated to help people experiencing homelessness for some years now, Kenny said, because they “just touch my heart.
“I just can’t not help.”
The only requirements for someone to be eligible for a permanent home at Towne Twin are that they need to be 50 years or older, have been homeless for a year or more and have a disabling condition. They must be able to take care of their basic personal hygiene needs and will be required to sign a lease, though they only pay 30% of their income, if any, that often comes from government subsidies.
Towne Twin Village is looking to house the “most vulnerable” out of that subset, which is an estimated 400-500 people in Bexar County, according to the complex’s lead care coordinator Claudia Pharr, who spoke to the San Antonio Report earlier this month. The Village’s housing is targeted for “people who live in encampments, not necessarily people who are coming to the shelters and resource centers for help,” she said.
Towne Twin Village’s 204 homes, RVs and apartments, which will be completed in phases over the next few years, will put a “huge dent” in helping this population, Pharr said. But they can’t house them all, so Towne Twin needed a way to prioritize who would get one of these potentially life-changing homes.
Over the past year, Housing First Community Coalition, the nonprofit behind Towne Twin Village, and outreach workers from several agencies who work directly with the unhoused population developed a selection process for Village residents.
To decide who got a placement, outreach workers from the Catholic Worker House, SAMMinistries, Christian Assistance Ministries, Center for Health Care Services, the city’s Department of Human Services, Corazón San Antonio and Haven for Hope all presented up to three of their clients’ cases to a committee comprised of staff from those agencies.
The outreach workers shared their clients’ personal and medical histories, plus extenuating circumstances, such as if they have experienced domestic violence, Pharr said. The committee then ranked each client according to the most need and vulnerability, using those narratives as a guide.
Seventeen clients were presented during the first round and six were selected.
“Four of the six have severe mental illness … we have a couple of folks who actually are amputees and have to use wheelchairs to get around, and then some folks who are visually impaired,” Pharr said. “That is such a high level of vulnerability.”
The other eight residents moving in next week are unhoused clients of SAMMinistries, which worked out a case management program with Towne Twin to reserve those spots in exchange for some funding.
At least one of the first batch of new residents will live in one of the more than a dozen RV trailers parked across the street from the tiny home clusters.
Moving residents in has been delayed, in part by construction and supply chain issues, officials have said. The original goal was to have the first residents moved in by January of this year. But Gonzales and his team are hoping this timeline will help them learn what works and what will need to be tweaked.
“I want to learn from the first group and then once we have the first group kind of settled, we’ll know [better] what we want to do with group two,” said Gonzales, who previously worked for the city’s housing and human services departments.
He expects that procedures and policies will continue to evolve at Towne Twin, so he’s keeping flexibility top-of-mind.
“I have learned that you have to be agile in this type of environment,” Gonzales said. “You have to start off with policy … but when it needs to be changed, we should change it.”
A delicate process
That flexibility also extends to residents as they move in, Gonzales said Thursday, standing in the center courtyard of the first nearly completed tiny home cluster.
Some of the residents who have been selected don’t have phones or reliable schedules, so their outreach workers will need to find them to let them know they have a new home.
They can bring their current belongings with them or leave them behind, as one resident plans to do, Gonzales said. “He’s saying: ‘I’m gonna kind of start fresh. I have faith that the things that I need are going to be there. And if I need something else, then I’m going to work with case managers to get that.'”
Supportive services such as food, mental and physical health counseling and treatment and dental care are will be available on the 17-acre site. Residents are not required to participate in any programming to live there, but each will be assigned a care coordinator who will check on them each day.
Residents may also bring pets; there will be two small dog parks on-site, one inside the residential complex and one open to visitors near Dietrich Road.
Eventually, the Catholic Worker House, whose founder Chris Plauche led the vision for the village, will move into the campus’ Dorothy Day House of Hospitality to provide hot meals, showers, laundry, clothing and host a barber shop and nailcare salon.
The House of Hospitality and adjacent medical clinic, which will be open to residents and guests in need of care, are currently under construction. The residential areas are surrounded by a security gate. Guests of residents are allowed to stay only a few nights per month.
In the meantime, most services will be provided at the Transportation Pavilion, which has a small kitchen, or the multi-use center and chapel, Pharr said.
“The Center for Health Care Services will be providing our mental health care in one of our RVs, actually, we’re making it into a little telemedicine clinic,” she said.
Philanthropy and public money
Construction of the entire campus is expected to cost nearly $41 million, Gonzales said.
The first $12.3 million phase of the project has been largely fully funded through private donations.
The City of San Antonio and Bexar County are poised to award the Housing First Community Coalition $12 million to fund the construction of phase two, which is currently underway, plus two years of operating costs.
That funding “gives us some breathing room so that we can do the operations in the way that we intend them to happen,” Gonzales said.
It will also allow Towne Twin to focus on capital fundraising and seek federal grants for the third and final phase, which will include four, two-story apartment buildings, will provide an additional 80 units and is expected to cost $11.5 million.
Beyond private and public funds, revenue will also come from rent.
Residents will pay no more than 30% of their income, which in some cases may mean they pay nothing, Gonzales said.
But the typical Towne Twin resident will qualify for Social Security disability payments, which is about $800 per month. “They may not all receive it right now, but they’re probably all eligible for it,” he said — and care coordinators will work to make sure they receive the benefits they are owed.
On Thursday, those care coordinators were busy helping volunteers unpack boxes, set up bed frames and tidying up the tiny homes — duties that were likely not explicit in their job descriptions.
“This is one of those nonprofit all-hands-on-deck times,” Gonzales said. “But everybody’s super excited about having residents here and being able to serve.”