SAMMinistries Marks 35 Years Serving San Antonio’s Homeless

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(From left) SAMMinistries client resident Lillie Espino and SAMMinistries CEO Navarra Williams share a laugh in the library.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

(From left) Lillie Espino and SAMMinistries CEO Navarra Williams share a laugh in the SAMMinistries library.

When you meet Lillie Espino, it’s hard to believe that she spent the last two years living in her van. She radiates positivity, lifting the spirits of others through encouraging words.

Espino now lives in a one-bedroom apartment on San Antonio’s North Side. She lights up when she talks about what it’s like having her own space and feeling safe for the first time in years, and brightens even more when talking about Zach Marcotte, the case manager with SAMMinistries who helped her secure her apartment and outfit it.

“That young man has so much potential,” Espino said. “He changed my life.”

Marcotte works in one of the five homeless prevention programs operating out of SAMMinistries, which was founded in 1983 in response to the death from exposure of a homeless man outside the First Presbyterian Church in downtown San Antonio.

To honor its 35th anniversary, SAMMinistries is hosting a 35-hour donation drive on Wednesday, with a goal of receiving 350 individual donations that will go directly toward homeless prevention programs.

The drive will run from noon Wednesday to 10 p.m. Thursday.

“Over the years, our organization has changed the lives of people throughout the city, and in some cases completely changed their entire life trajectory,” said Navarra Williams, president and CEO of SAMMinistries.

SAMMinistries spearheaded in 2004 the first homeless prevention program targeting San Antonio families at risk of being evicted for past-due rent or utilities, and has continued to expand its programming, Williams said, noting the organization is introducing a new homeless prevention program in October.

“We have always been a big presence in preventing homelessness. We help the most vulnerable people when they need it the most.”

Espino became homeless when symptoms from diabetes became so severe that she was unable to work. While she receives Social Security disability payments, her monthly income was not enough to pay rent on her own. Extended periods of living with her son left her feeling like she was a burden, and he eventually told her she needed to move out.

Over the next two years, Espino’s health worsened. Living out of her van meant not eating a proper diet, making it difficult to manage her diabetes. She also had surgery to remove a tumor, after which she stayed with her son before again returning to her van.

After being placed on a waiting list for affordable housing, Espino was referred by the San Antonio Housing Authority to SAMMinistries.

“I knew that I couldn’t live in my van another year,” she said. “I was in a dark place, like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t keep myself clean, and I was really sick.”

When Marcotte met Espino he was able to quickly guide her through applying for the organization’s program for chronically homeless people with disabilities. The program pays for permanent housing and allows participants to remain indefinitely, if needed.

“There’s a different story for everyone we help, and we try to meet them where they are at,” Marcotte said. “Many people currently receiving help from SAMMinistries were found after [SAMMinistries employees] trekked out to look for them under bridges and highways.”

The organization’s staff of 80 is supported by thousands of volunteers who help families on their path to self-sufficiency on a total budget of about $9 million, which includes funding from donations and federal and state grants. SAMMinistries helped house more than 5,200 San Antonio residents in 2017.

Espino is one of 150 people SAMMinistries helps through the program that provides shelter indefinitely. Program participants are not required to work, and instead are asked to stay out of trouble and keep in weekly contact with a case manager, whom they meet with regularly to work toward personal goals.

When the Rivard Report met with Espino, it was at the organization’s Transitional Living and Learning Center on the city’s Northeast side, which serves as home to 40 families as they work to overcome homelessness, and includes administrative offices for case management and other services, including mental health treatment.

Click through the gallery below to see more images from SAMMinistries.

Espino told the Rivard Report that she had never heard of SAMMinistries before she found herself homeless, and that she tells as many people as she can about the help she received from the organization.

“If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t know how I would have survived it at all,” she said. “Homelessness is a dark place. You lose your dignity and your spirit, for sure.”

3 thoughts on “SAMMinistries Marks 35 Years Serving San Antonio’s Homeless

  1. My name is Maria Alvarez, and my two boys are Cody HardCastle and C’Jay Alvarez. We are from Roswell New Mexico. My boy’s and I moved here to San Antonio 2015 to build a relationship with my real mom and sister, but it didn’t work out as plan. Five days living with my sister we got into an argument late at night while having dinner. My sister along with my mom said the boys and I needed to leave. My sister wanted us to leave right then and there but I said no not until the morning. When morning came I thought my sister would forget about the argument and we would just go on with our day, but it didn’t happen that way. My sister along with my mom wanted us to leave. So we did, not knowing nothing about San Antonio. My boy’s being scared asking me what are we gonna do? Where are we gonna go? What are we gonna eat? I had my car here in San Antonio before I sold it. I drove around not having a whole lot of gas in my car and my boy’s asking me Mom, do you even know where you are going? I didn’t have a clue except to just drive. When I started running low on gas I would drive to a gas station and ask people if they could help me with gas feeling low, embarrassed, depressed, and all these other different feelings that I was having, but I knew I had my boy’s and that I needed to do whatever I could do for them. The main thing was to be strong for them. It was hard. We slept in our car for almost two weeks but than I sold it cause I needed the money. Didn’t get awhole lot for it, just 128.00 dollars only cause I had pawn my car title back in New Mexico to be able to use for gas to get here to San Antonio. After not having my car my boy’s and I were on foot each one of us holding bags, backpacks, suitcase, pillow, and three small kid blankets still trying to figure out what to do, boy’s were missing out on school until one day when we were at Family Dollar sitting there the three us. A lady had brought us some food and some drinks than started telling me about Haven For Hope and other shelters. So we ended up going to Haven For Hope. We were only able to stay there fours day only cause we weren’t a resident of Bexar Country, but I’m thankful cause we were able to shower and eat and stay out of the cold. After the four day’s was up Haven For Hope help me and my boys to be able to stay at the Salvation Army by calling them and asking if they had room for a family of three. After staying at the Salvation Army which I’m grateful that we were able to stay there for a month. When it was almost time for our exit date Salvation Army told us about Samministries. My boy’s and I are very grateful and bless that we were able to stay there at Samministries. We stayed there for a year and seven months. Samministries help me to apply for work, help me to do a resume. Samministries staff helped me not to give up that if I have come this far to keep going. They helped me to get my self-esteem back also they helped my boy’s with counseling also helped them in the after school program with homework. Samministries also helped me to get my High Diploma also helped my boy’s I to apply to get on SAHA. Now we are going on almost a year that we have been in our place with the help of everyone. I’m also going on a year that I have been working and also been promoted and my boys are very happy that the struggle is over.. Thank you Haven For Hope. Thank you Salvation Army and Thank you Samministries for all that you have done We are very grateful and bless now my boy’s and I are trying to start a care packages so that we can help others in the downtown area.

    • Congratulations on your successful transition out of homelessness! That’s the way that our agencies work together to help families get back to self sufficiency. Thank you for sharing your story!

      Navarra Williams President & CEO SAMMinistries

    • Maria,
      It’s so wonderful to read that you and the boys are doing well and are now able to give back to others. Your family and families like yours are the reason we come to work everyday. We may have helped you, but you had it in you all along to succeed.

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