City to Initiate New Approaches to Homelessness

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Chief William McManus walks through the hallway leading to a a city council meeting. Photo by Scott Ball.

SAPD Chief William McManus walks through a hallway in City Hall to present SAPD's plan to reduce homelessness. Photo by Scott Ball.

The City’s police and human services leadership has agreed upon six new approaches to address and reduce homelessness in partnership with the Haven for Hope and its network of service providers. If approved by City Council on Dec. 17, San Antonio for the first time will have rules that allow individuals and groups to feed the homeless.

The Homeless Comprehensive Plan, first presented to City Council on Wednesday, followed months of interdepartmental and organizational work sparked by several factors. One was Joan Cheever’s crusade for compassionate charitable feeding rules. Another was Police Chief William McManus’ promise to address the issue when he recently ended his voluntary retirement and returned to his leadership post. A third factor is the growing national movement of citizens demanding that local government do a better job of addressing the root causes of homelessness and the urban ills of vagrancy, panhandling and petty street crime.

“It seems to be what’s happening on a national level right now,” McManus said after the meeting. “We’ve certainly been going at it the wrong way … citations and arrests aren’t working.”

Two people sleep on the streets in San Antonio during the January 2015 homeless count. Photo by Scott Ball.

Two people sleep on the streets in San Antonio during the January 2015 homeless count. Photo by Scott Ball.

Until now, the City lacked a coordinated front among Bexar County, and local charity and service organizations, especially those involved in the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) that provide opportunities and assistance for families and individuals struggling to get back on their feet.

Melody Woosley, director of the City’s Human Services Department, presented the plan to Council.

While total number of homeless persons in 2015, counted every January, has decreased by 12% since 2010 – from 3,580 to 2,891 – when Haven for Hope opened on the near-Westside, the number sleeping out on the streets has increased by 26% in the last year, Woosley said.

The most publicly visible, immediate strategy is the creation of two “impact teams” within SAPD, which will include a mental health unit officer, paramedic, mental health specialist, and outreach worker. Team workers will approach homeless persons individually to connect them with services that can get them off the street.

“We’re not saying we’re never going to arrest (homeless people) again,” McManus said to the Council. But there will be a more systematic way to connect them to resources so that they have a better chance avoiding the streets and/or jail.

He knows some homeless individuals have been arrested “hundreds and hundreds” of times. For those with mental illness or chemical dependency that may be a danger to themselves or others, McManus said the Impact team will be taking them in to Mental Health Court for processing into rehabilitation/counseling facilities.

The challenge will be to find the beds in such facilities to back that policy up, he said, adding that he and his staff will be looking into solutions to make a recommendation in mid-2016.

A cyclist passes by while dinner is served from The Chow Train. Photo by Scott Ball.

A cyclist passes by while free dinner is served at Maverick Park by The Chow Train food truck. Photo by Scott Ball.

This “boots-on-the-ground approach,” McManus said, will also allow police officers to form more personal connections to the city’s homeless population and create a database of encounters to keep track of individuals and what services are most needed.

The other five immediate strategies are:

  • 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.
  • Explore options for incentivizing treatment and shelter through the justice system.
  • Strengthening SARAH’s partners and resources.
  • Coordinate and realign priorities with federal agencies to focus on chronic homelessness.
  • Increase permanent housing subsidies.

McManus and Woosley said there is a growing consensus among the unsheltered homeless that Prospects Courtyard is unsafe, while others complain there are too many rules.

“Prospects Courtyard has the most minimal rules of any of the shelters in the city,” Woosley said. No alcohol, drugs, or weapons are allowed in addition to standard rule of law. The only requirement is to obtain a state identification card within 30 days of entering.

“I can see why people might feel unsafe,” McManus said, recalling his walks through the courtyard and stories told to him by people staying there.

Councilman Robert Treviño (D1) spent the night there months ago, and said he didn’t feel threatened.

“Despite that it’s designed for 400 people and (typically serves) 700 people,” Treviño said, “my experience was the opposite of feeling unsafe.”

The Charitable Feeding ordinance would strip away most regulations required of commercial food truck operators and all costs associated with obtaining food handling/management certifications for individuals and organizations that give away food. The ordinance will require “charitable feeders” to:

  • Provide notice of a feeding event to the Health Department within 24 hours;
  • Remove undistributed food from site;
  • Have one person on site with a food handler’s or food manager’s certification, except when serving prepackaged foods or whole fresh fruit or vegetables.

“There may be some charitable feeders who do not want any restrictions, but we can’t compromise public health,” Woosley said.

The ordinance is expected to win Council approval on Dec. 17.

The number of homeless veterans in the city will be “functional zero” by March 31, 2016, meaning all veterans that have lost their homes, or are on the verge of becoming homeless, will be able to access short or long-term housing quickly. San Antonio joined more than 225 cities in The Mayor’s Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, a national campaign, in March 2015 and has since identified 849 homeless veterans that need housing. So far, 679 veterans have been placed in permanent housing while 35 are in the process of receiving permanent housing, 64 are in temporary or “transitional” housing, and 71 have found emergency shelter, Woosley said.


*Top image: SAPD Chief William McManus walks through a hallway in City Hall to present SAPD’s plan to reduce homelessness.  Photo by Scott Ball.  

Related Stories:

Chow Train, Bike Club Give Area Homeless Holiday Care Packages

McManus to Lead SAPD, Hit Ground Running With Homelessness Plan

City Council to Consider Homeless Feeding Policy

Joan Cheever May File Lawsuit Against City

City Dismisses Joan Cheever’s Homeless Feeding Citation

8 thoughts on “City to Initiate New Approaches to Homelessness

  1. I have noticed a huge rise in the homeless population around the San Pedro area near the 5 Points neighborhood that trash the area and aggressively panhandle etc. Haven for Hope is such a unique operation that other cities throughout Texas and beyond are loading their homeless onto busses and sending them here and telling them about Haven for Hope. Our city needs to start sending out the message to the rest of the state (and nation) that that is unacceptable.

  2. I am always skeptical how certain numbers are obtained, such as, the number of homeless and those sleeping on the streets. “While total number of homeless persons in 2015, counted every January, has decreased by 12% since 2010 – from 3,580 to 2,891 – when Haven for Hope opened on the near-Westside, the number sleeping out on the streets has increased by 26% in the last year, Woosley said.” The city was able to count the number of homeless to a person (2891)? I find that to be impossible. I feel more credibility would be placed if the numbers were stated as estimates vs. actuals. I’m not sure why the number of homeless sleeping on the streets has increased (curious as to what the actual/estimated numbers were during last two counts). If our homeless population is decreasing, I don’t agree with the reader who said that other cities are sending their homeless to San Antonio. Not sure why Haven for Hope requires a state ID within 30 days of entering. If a homeless person has a warrant out for their arrest, I’m sure they would be reluctant to obtain an ID card or ID themselves in any manner. Something must be wrong with our shelters or the homeless can’t find them for the number of homeless sleeping on the street to rise. Who would want to sleep outside when they can sleep indoors? Maybe a few, but I suspect most would want a sheltered place to sleep if they could find it and it was welcoming to them. My thoughts.

    • Not sure about the rest of the city, but the 5-Points neighborhood has definitely seen a rise in homeless people in the area. As for the busing-in comment; ask one of our downtown police officers, they will corroborate my statement because that is where I heard it from.

    • Ken:

      The story text links to an article about how they count, here: Hundreds of volunteers perform the count with support from SARAH, Bexar County, SAPD, etc. It’s not an exact science, they may have missed some people, but it’s not a guess.

      The question about why some would choose to sleep in the streets when there are shelters available is certainly a complicated one. I don’t know the answer. Many shelters don’t have room, some homeless individuals are intimidated by shelters or perhaps don’t to give up drugs or alcohol to enter, some have serious mental issues. The latter of which seems to be the most challenging in a society that hasn’t yet to grasp the concept that health care for one person benefits us all.

      A point brought up by this new programming is that there seems to be a strategy shift, nationwide. HUD recommends a “housing first strategy” and (the mayor pointed this out during the meeting), Haven for Hope is a $100 million investment in a “services first” strategy. There is interesting case study of housing first working very well in Utah: — “The old model was well intentioned but misinformed. You actually need housing to achieve sobriety and stability, not the other way around.”

      • Iris, not sure if my reply went or not so sending again. Thanks much for the clarifications and additional info. I was unaware of the “housing” vs. “services” strategies. Thanks again. Ken

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