Dozens of homeless camps are hiding in plain sight throughout downtown San Antonio. Under bridges and overpasses, the inhabitants of these camps are largely unseen during the day, but the cigarette butts, used syringes, dirty mattresses and piles of trash are tell-tale signs of life on the street.
For nearly a decade, City Public Works, San Antonio Police Department and Haven for Hope officials have collaborated to perform periodic cleanups of these so-called "camps," in an effort to reduce crime, garbage and chronic homelessness. They gather every two weeks for a general downtown cleanup, and every month and-a-half to clean up specific areas.
City and Haven representatives met Tuesday morning to clean up three bridges along Cameron Street. They filled four dump trucks with garbage, informed homeless individuals that they were living in violation of City code and told them how to access Haven resources.
"For me, this is a regular routine, everyday," said Rev. Ron Brown, Haven for Hope outreach manager. "You can call it maintenance, but I keep track of where everyone's going."
Brown said he is familiar with nearly every homeless camp and person in San Antonio. He knows how emotional it is for them to lose what few and meager belongings they have to the cleanup, but also knows that leaving piles in tunnels and bridges is a public health hazard.
When Haven for Hope opened in 2010, the City-funded shelter was expected to serve as a one-stop shop for homeless education and rehabilitation programs, and a place for individuals and families to get back on their feet. The SAPD tightened its enforcement of loitering laws and homeless camps that used to flourish in the downtown-area brush and forest have since been cleared. More than five years later, Haven is often at capacity.
"There's not enough emphasis that (Haven) is a transitional program," Brown said. "This was not meant to be permanent. The younger people come into the program, the harder it is to get them out. People just get used to it."
SAPD Officer James Shirley has worked with San Antonio’s homeless population for 18 of the 20 years he’s served on the force. Homelessness in San Antonio is better than it was a few decades ago, he said, but there's only so much city officials can do when it comes to people who want to live outside.
Drug dealers are a problem in this area, Shirley said, and they often target homeless individuals, offering them money or drugs, in exchange for drug drop-offs throughout the city.
While the police try to identify individuals who need help, Brown is responsible for getting them to enter the programs at the shelter.
“It’s hand in hand,” Brown said.
Homeless Comprehensive Plan was approved by City Council in December 2015 that created “impact teams” within SAPD, which includes a mental health unit officer, paramedic, mental health specialist, and outreach worker. The work is similar to the City's existing outreach, but team workers will approach homeless persons individually to connect them with services that can get them off the street. If necessary, they'll take them in to Mental Health Court for processing into rehabilitation/counseling facilities. Longer term strategies of the plan include:
- Increasing police presence at Haven for Hope’s Prospects Courtyard, the free sleeping area outside the temporary living and homeless service center’s main campus. Administration is also looking into changing some of the rules on allowing married couples without children to stay together and adding more activities/resource promotion in the park.
- Exploring options for incentivizing treatment and shelter through the justice system.
- Strengthening the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless partners and resources.
- Coordinating and realigning priorities with federal agencies to focus on chronic homelessness.
- Increase permanent housing subsidies.
Starting outside the Soap Works Apartments, police called out to homeless men huddled under the bridge before telling them it was time to leave. The men were given time to take what they could carry of their belongings before they walked out onto the sidewalk. Public Works employees used pitchforks to push large piles of garbage into a pile, before a bulldozer was used to scoop out the trash and load it into dump trucks.
“I guarantee they’ll be back by tonight, but we still have to clean up," Shirley said. "If we don’t (clean now) it’s going to get so bad that you’ll just have trash piling up everywhere.”
Albert Garcia has lived under the bridge for seven years, but this is the first time he has been home when the police came through. He spends his days picking up cans.
“I don’t know where I’ll sleep tonight," he said. "I don’t want to go to Haven for Hope, last time I was there, I woke up with no shoes.”
Shirley, who is among the police officers working at Haven, admits that the shelter has its limitations. When Haven first opened, he said, the courtyard was filled with people who were dealing drugs.
"We’ve cleared out the majority of that, it’s a lot safer now," Shirley said. "We’ve got more people going in there now. At least giving it a shot again."
Kenny, a young veteran who has lived under the bridge since he left his home in West Virginia, wasn't interested in learning about the shelter or any Veteran's Affairs programs.
“There’s so much waiting, so many delays,” he said. "I don't want nothing to do with the shelter, I hear bad things."
Brown offered both men several bus passes, and told them they would be welcome at the shelter any time. Many individuals turn down help at first, he said, but it's even harder to reach people who struggle with mental illness.
When people lose their routines and the things that used to define them, "that’s when they start using drugs, drinking, escape reality try to get some rest," Brown said. "If it’s not caught in time, it becomes a part of their psyche. They don’t want to be around any one who might help them because they don’t trust anybody. It makes it real hard to help."
There are success stories coming out of Haven for Hope. Brown ran into a former Haven recruit, who has since graduated and lives at the Soap Works Apartment, located just feet away from the bridge. They made plans to hang out in the coming weeks.
"It's great to see him doing so well. It's moments like that, that make it all worthwhile," Brown said.
Under the second bridge at Cameron, Brown and the officers recognize a couple who had been living at Haven for Hope. They were told to leave Haven, after defending themselves during a fight the day before. Haven requires that anyone involved in a fight, even if it is in self defense, must leave the shelter for a week.
Brown told the couple to head back to the shelter, and said he would make sure they were admitted.
"We hope to get rid of that policy," he said. "It's not really fair."
There's nobody around by the time officials reach the third bridge, but it's clear that about a dozen people are living there. There's signs of recently-smoked synthetic marijuana near a copy of The Bible.
"I've seen a lot of people, and they always come back to faith," Brown said, as he flipped through the book. "They need something to believe in."
Officials make their final stop at the overpass, where a woman known as"Maria the Shopping Cart Lady" can be found, collecting trash in rusty shopping carts. Officials agree that she has mental issues, but "if they’re not hurting themselves or threatening to harm others, then there’s nothing you can do," Shirley said.
Each entity has its limits, and combined efforts are starting to make a difference, but officials at the cleanup said it doesn't feel like enough.
"You're never going to stop this completely," Brown said. "All we can do is help. I help the best I can, but I can't help everybody."