Outside of a survey that on average would take two minutes to answer, Brandon Oats had a lot to say. He was leaving a worship service after a free supper with supplies in hand Thursday night at the Church Under the Bridge, near the Hays Street Bridge, when a volunteer politely stopped him.
“Would you like to take a survey?” she asked.
Oats didn’t hesitate. He found an empty chair and answered a few basic questions as part of the annual point-in-time survey. Heeding guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), communities nationwide conduct a count of their homeless population within a 24-hour period in late January.
Bexar County coordinated the local homeless survey this year with the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH), a nonprofit umbrella organization that is positioning itself to become the center for local HUD programs and activities affecting San Antonio’s homeless population.
After finishing his survey, Oats shared his story. A military veteran in his 30s, Oats said he hasn’t been homeless for very long. He found temporary work through a staffing agency but bad luck and misperception, in his mind, has kept him from finding steady work.
“I’m motivated. I want to work, I want to help myself,” Oats said, adding he’s met other homeless individuals in town he feels are either taking advantage of the help they receive or simply not willing to work themselves out of their situation. Regardless, Oats said society lumps all homeless people together, regardless of circumstances.
“I get associated with them. I don’t want to be,” he added.
As services at the Church Under the Bridge concluded and more homeless individuals streamed out of the facility, most took advantage of the surveys presented by a team of about one dozen volunteers hailing from various local agencies and organizations that help homeless and low-income populations.
Questions covered a person’s basic demographics, along with their household and youth needs and military/veteran status (if applicable). The survey also sought to get a sense of the circumstances surrounding homelessness – why are they homeless, for how long and what are they doing to find employment?
Those taking the survey walked away with a small bag filled with new socks, travel-sized hygiene items and even bite-sized treats; Snickers and cereal bars were among the favorites.
It was a scene repeated throughout Thursday around town. Hundreds of volunteers, split up into teams, streamed out from the Salvation Army on West Elmira Street on Thursday night with copies of the two-page survey, assignments, and maps. Actually, three counts took place.
The first happened in the morning as teams, mainly from veterans support organizations, went into established homeless encampments. According to Dianne Talbert, church director and SARAH board member, San Antonio Police officers accompanied the morning count teams into those encampments.
“Since day one, (the San Antonio Police Department) has provided us a few officers each year,” Talbert said. “This time the entire police force is working with us to prepare (and) identify encampments. Police Chief (Anthony Treviño) is obligating his force to make sure we’re safe and to help us find everybody. It’s an important partnership.”
During last year’s survey, county officials counted 1,970 sheltered and 922 unsheltered homeless individuals in the San Antonio region.
Why take a point-in-time count?
“In order to provide data for HUD, for our funding, for shelter programs and other services for homeless,” Talbert said.
“The Continuum of Care can use the local information to determine service gaps. So if people get too much of one service or not enough of another, that can be addressed. It helps us to look at 2,200 people and (see) if 1,000 of them said they can’t get hospital visits.”
The second count took place early in the evening, which involved the survey teams trying to track down homeless individuals in 50 to 60 areas, major roads and highways around downtown and beyond between 7 and 10 p.m. Staff and volunteers at homeless shelters also conducted their own internal count.
“The shelter count involves a count of beds in this shelter and that shelter, and which ones are occupied at that time,” Talbert said.
Then came the count of the unsheltered homeless people around downtown.
“If someone is found asleep, we don’t wake them, we just get a visual count,” Talbert explained. “We just (mark) down male or female, estimate their age and so forth, but they don’t do a survey with their demographics. If someone is awake and willing, they could answer the survey.”
It has taken local agencies and organizations, unified under SARAH, seven months to plan this year’s count. Planning and the methods of implementing the survey are improving year to year, Talbert said.
Charles Johnson with the Housing Authority of Bexar County has volunteered with the local point-in-time count for seven years. It’s the second year the Church Under the Bridge has served as a survey location. She made suggestions to her team of survey takers on how best to ask the stated questions.
“Let the person answer, don’t lead them into a certain kind of answer,” Johnson said. “We want the numbers to accurately reflect the responses.”
Tammye Trevino was one of Johnson’s team members. An administrator from the HUD Region VI office in Fort Worth, Texas, Trevino said she was eager to take part in her first survey.
“Locally, Mayors (Julián) Castro and (Ivy) Taylor have been committed to addressing the problem of homelessness, especially homelessness among veterans,” Trevino said. She appreciated the coordination among the agencies and organizations in this specific effort to put a number on San Antonio’s homeless population and to determine how to serve it better.
“HUD can’t do it alone. SARAH can’t do it alone. (San Antonio Housing Authority) can’t do it alone,” she added.
Joe Peterson was one of the individuals who took the survey from Trevino. Peterson has been homeless for 10 months. The East Coast native came to San Antonio for a variety of reasons, but just like Brandon Oats, misfortune followed. Much of his remaining possessions were stolen from him, he’s been in jail, but hasn’t touched drugs or alcohol, he said.
Peterson said he’s been on the job hunt.
“That is starting to look up,” said Peterson. “This (count and being homeless) is all new to me. But if this count helps somebody, it’s worth it.”
“He (Peterson) isn’t the typical homeless individual,” Trevino pointed out. He hasn’t been homeless long. Those are the types of individuals we want to help before homelessness becomes chronic.”
On a busy night where volunteers from another church helped to serve post-worship supper to many homeless individuals at Church Under the Bridge, Assistant Pastor Andey Gray appreciated the count effort.
“One of the great things about the point-in-time count is you’re not going to catch everybody. Not everyone wants to be counted,” he explained.
“But we have one day set aside to count people, to enumerate them, and understand how big of a problem this is in our society. We, as a society, tend to marginalize this.”
Gray continued: “It helps to bring this to the forefront. We need, as a society, as a culture, to come together and address it faith-based or not faith-based, to address the issues that lead to someone becoming homeless.”