Jeffrey Sullivan / Rivard Report
Most big cities grapple with homelessness as well as limited resources to mitigate the issue. Thus, many homeless individuals don't receive the assistance they need to break the cycle of homelessness and end up on the streets time and time again.
But the San Antonio Police Department has seen positive results after implementing "a compassionate, holistic approach" to homelessness, SAPD Assistant Chief James Flavin told the Criminal Justice, Public Safety and Services Council Committee Wednesday. During the meeting, Department of Human Services (DHS) and SAPD staff presented an update on recent efforts to address panhandling and reduce homeless encampments across the city.
Part of the new process involves identifying encampment areas and deploying a strong outreach team made up of DHS staff, H.O.P.E officers, and Haven for Hope staff that effectively communicates with homeless individuals about restoration and cleanup efforts underway or on the horizon. DHS and SAPD also coordinate with multiple City departments, the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH), government organizations, the faith-based community, and the private sector.
"We're definitely not where we want to be, but I think the [Point In Time] count numbers compared to other Texas cities do show that the problem with homelessness is improving in San Antonio," Flavin told the Rivard Report.
The Point in Time count measures the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in a city on a single night. According to San Antonio's 2017 Point in Time Homeless count, where 2,743 homeless individuals were surveyed, there were 1,641 sheltered individuals, 441 in streets and encampments, and 661 in unsheltered safe sleeping areas on a single night. Other Texas cities like Houston and Dallas saw higher numbers.
SAPD officers and DHS staff told the committee – which is chaired by Rebecca Viagran (D3) and includes Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Mike Gallagher (D10), and Shirley Gonzales (D5) – that the new holistic approach is working.
"Almost every district is suffering from this ... I appreciate this effort and wish we could triple the folks working on this," Gallagher said.
"It's taken us several outreach visits to make that happen, building trust and rapport ... after three visits they we're more receptive to our services," DHS Assistant Director Edward Gonzales said. “[We've also made] tremendous strides and program enhancements for ID recovery.”
Without proper identification, many homeless people can't get the adequate services they need, Edward Gonzales said, but through innovative ways like fingerprinting, SAPD has managed to move forward with ID recovery.
"I think it's important to treat everyone with dignity," Viagran said. "Plugging in our faith-based communities [to this effort] is a good opportunity, so [they] can see what is happening and how we can work together on the root of the problem."
DHS will propose a proactive encampment outreach program as part of the proposed 2018 budget, which would allow the inclusion of other city departments like Transportation and Capital Improvements, Solid Waste Management, and the Development Services Department in cleanup and outreach efforts. The funds would also make more visits to encampments possible.
"Right now [encampment visits are] just complaint-driven," Edward Gonzales said. "Through the budget process, we can look at two encampments a month, identify priority areas, and touch each council district throughout the year with those two encampment visits."
City code enforcement officers could educate private landowners who have encampments on their properties, Edward Gonzales said, as well as local businesses like thrift stores and donations stations where homeless individuals and panhandlers tend to settle.
"I appreciate the cross-departmental approach to tackle this concern," Treviño said, adding that it is also important to address hygiene and medical needs at encampments.
Having an efficient outreach program is part of the equation to help the homeless, SARAH Program Manager Luke Leppla told the Rivard Report Wednesday, "but you need the housing component." And while the City has done a good job of processing assistance for people who ask for need help, Leppla added, chronic homelessness is increasing.
"Unsheltered homeless [people] suffer from a lot of trauma," Leppla said, so SARAH'S challenge has been how to make resources available to those who don’t want to live in communal housing. Permanent, supportive housing is the scarcest resource, he said, so the City should deepen its efforts to provide such housing initiatives.
SAPD also works in collaboration with the business community, nonprofits, and neighborhoods throughout the city to implement strategies that address the underlying issues of panhandling. Currently, SAPD is pursing a public education campaign on panhandling that focuses on public awareness and discourages street donations. Flavin said panhandling arrests in San Antonio have decreased, while trespassing arrests have increased.Councilwoman Gonzales said one of the main problems she has observed in her district is vacant properties or lots that get taken over by homeless people, and asked about possible avenues to solve the issue.
"We have to have the authority to move them away from the property," Flavin said. "We're trying to contact those people and let them know what's going on on their properties. A lot of these vacant properties, you don't know who owns [them] until you look it up. We're doing outreach to get them on board to sign Criminal Trespass Affidavits, which is a tool that we're hoping to use to give us a little of authority to clean some of that up."