A small team of consultants came to San Antonio last week to attend and host a dozen meetings with homelessness shelters, faith-based organizations, nonprofits, philanthropists, and other groups.
Their mission: to identify strengths and gaps in services for homeless – or nearly homeless – people in San Antonio and develop a strategic plan addressing what can be done to mitigate the problem and what’s in the way of getting people help.
If left unchecked, San Antonio could join other major cities in the U.S. such as San Francisco that routinely make headlines for skyrocketing homelessness, said Patrick Wigmore, deputy managing director of Homebase, a nationally recognized public policy consultancy firm that specializes in homelessness. The company’s headquarters are in San Francisco.
“It’s not even at a breaking point [in San Francisco] – it’s broken,” Wigmore told more than 60 interfaith leaders and members of various local congregations on Friday. The meeting, led by the City’s Faith-based Initiative (also known as Compassionate SA) and the Department of Human Services, was held to inform Wigmore – and ultimately the strategic plan – of what’s working and not working on the ground in San Antonio today.
The strategic plan is a chance to learn from the mistakes and triumphs of other communities to provide short- and medium-term recommendations, Wigmore said. Each community is unique, and so are the strategic plans that Homebase produces.
“Most communities that come up with a 10-year plan realize it’s not going to happen,” he said, because a lot can change in a decade. San Antonio’s plan will “break up the problem into bite-sized pieces.”
Over the next few months, Wigmore and his team will continue meeting with organizations and individuals that make up San Antonio’s homelessness mitigation network.
City Council unanimously approved a nearly $130,000 contract with Homebase in October. The report is expected to be completed and presented to the Council in early April.
“There are a lot of resources in the San Antonio area that churches offer. How do we best coordinate those resources?” Wigmore asked the group.
Various faith leaders highlighted identification recovery programs, affordable and supportive housing, physical and mental health programs, and other initiatives as things that work. Some of the main challenges to expanding much of that work is funding and broader collaboration among service providers.
The Rev. Ann Helmke, the City’s first faith-based liaison, and a team of volunteers are already working on the latter. The City’s Faith-based Initiative established the San Antonio Community Resource Directory, a nonprofit, to provide a comprehensive online database of resources provided by faith groups, nonprofits, the City and others.
By working with churches and congregations in City Council District 3, Helmke’s team was able to identify areas in the South Side where food banks were underutilized and where they were needed, Helmke said, and other districts have replicated that.
“Working together in geographical proximity” has made the biggest difference, Helmke said.
Once the strategic plan is complete, the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless will act as a kind of implementation and coordination arm of the homelessness services network, said Brenda Mascorro, executive director of SARAH.
For the strategies to be effective, Mascorro said, organizations need to make sure they’re not overlapping services or competing against one another.
“Why compete when we can work together?” she said. “The answer to homelessness in Bexar County and San Antonio is community.”
Haven for Hope, the city’s largest shelter, is a piece of that answer, but it can’t be expected to do it alone, she added.
Much has been said about the City of San Antonio hiring Homebase to develop a strategic plan to mitigate homelessness. Some, including Councilman Clayton Perry, questioned the wisdom of hiring a firm from San Francisco, a place that has the exact problem San Antonio wants to avoid.
Wigmore is from Texas and has family in Buda, he told the Rivard Report. He lives in New York and has assisted dozens of similar strategic plans and other initiatives related to mitigating homelessness in places like Sonoma, California; Chicago; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Houston; and Minneapolis.
San Antonio can learn a lot from what’s not working in San Francisco, he said.
“The macro issues that plague California also plague San Antonio,” he said, including rapid growth, affordable housing shortage, and mental health system gaps.
“[Homelessness is] really polarizing. It tears a community apart,” Wigmore said, noting the vitriol when the City of Austin decriminalized camping and sleeping in public. “The challenge is so daunting – even just knowing where to start. It requires assistance and taking a look at the big picture.”
Federal funding for affordable housing and homelessness mitigation services is not expected to increase, he said. “More and more communities are realizing they need a local solution for homelessness.”
If a plan is going to be successful, it has to have funding and support behind it, he added.
“I don’t try to produce anything that’s not feasible or that doesn’t have broad support,” he said. “If there’s a key stakeholder in any community that is not onboard and will not support key aspects of the plan, [it won’t work]. I try to be a consensus builder – typically there’s more than the community agrees on than disagrees on.”
There will be dozens more community input meetings in the coming months, Wigmore said. He expects a draft will be complete in March.