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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.”
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.
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.