When Ron Brown was asked what he likes most about his job, his answer was simple, but genuine.
“Being able to find someone and help them,” he said. “Yeah, that’s the most important part. Getting to know someone new, and try to figure out what’s going on with them.”
Brown is the outreach manager and campus ombudsman at Haven for Hope, and on Thursday night he was one of more than 500 volunteers who embarked on a mission to count the city’s homeless.
The census is part of the annual Point in Time count, an effort to measure the number of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people in a city on a single night. The count, undertaken locally and across the country in U.S. cities, serves as a reference point for homeless shelters and advocacy agencies. It also is an important indicator for cities seeking vital federal funding for programs and services that address homelessness and its root causes.
“(The count) is important so that we can have the resources and the funds that we need to do work that we need to do,” Brown said. “That’s the first thing is to be a friend to the homeless, and then use the resources to move people on to living a better life.”
San Antonio has undertaken an annual count since 2009. Last year’s recorded one night homeless population totaled 2,891 individuals.
The Point in Time count is managed by the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, the City of San Antonio, and Bexar County. Thursday night’s count started at the downtown Salvation Army at 515 W. Elmira, with more than 50 police officers escorting small groups of volunteers to various parts of the urban core to conduct the census, and if possible, survey some of the homeless individuals.
Executive Director for the Alliance Bill Hubbard said the census is a valuable tool that helps local organizations fighting homelessness track improvements or setbacks.
“(The count) provides us with a measuring stick to compare how well we might be doing from the year before,” Hubbard said. “It’s a shot on one night, not statistically accurate necessarily, but it does provide us with a comparative analysis to prior years and gives us a measurement of how communities, how San Antonio, how Bexar County is doing compared to other communities of the same size.”
The Point in Time count is required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hubbard added, which provides $7.5 million in grant money for homeless programs to the city and county governments.
Over the years, that money has helped people like Brown connect with the city’s homeless, both inside and outside of shelters, and is the reason why Brown is on a first-name basis with many people who live on the streets. Brown encourages those he meets to check out the programs at Haven for Hope.
Thursday night, Brown drove a group of eight volunteers around Monte Vista, the neighborhood assigned to the group, to take stock of the homeless community in the area. Among the group were Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Haven for Hope Chairman Bill Greehey.
Greehey, one of the city’s best known business leaders and philanthropists, was a driving force in the establishment of the Haven for Hope in 2010, leading groups to study homeless and treatment centers across the nation and eventually donating millions of dollars to elevate San Antonio’s shelter and comprehensive treatment center to become a national model. He continues to serve as chairman of the nonprofit Haven for Hope board in addition to his day job as chairman of NuStar Energy and overseeing the Greehey Family Foundation.
“These are people who’s lives were lost,” Greehey said Thursday night, “and we never knew we could change so many lives as we have. There are so many interesting stories.”
The streets, perhaps unsurprisingly, were mostly empty, so Brown suggested an alternate route.
“Let’s go see my friend, John,” he said, smiling.
It was under a bridge near a golf driving range where Brown and his passengers met John, a man who had been living there for more than five years with his friend Jack and dog, T-Rex. John was friendly, intelligent, and sober. He also was in no hurry to leave behind his life under the bridge.
Brown said his job requires patience. It takes time for someone to want to make a change.
“It’s a long process,” he said. “You have someone who has been out on the streets for 10 or 15 years and they’ve lost hope, family, and everything, and to be able to trust someone again is a big step for them.”
As the night went on, the Monte Vista census only tallied four or five people, leaving the total count for Brown and his team around eight.
It is unclear if that number points to a diminishing number of homeless due to successful programs, or if it indicates that the unseen edges of the historic neighborhood are no longer attracting many of the city’s homeless residents. Each person the group encountered was given a bag with shampoo, soap, toilet paper, and a toothbrush.
Knowing how to connect with homeless people is a practiced art, one Brown has mastered. It’s part compassion, part patience, part knowing how to communicate in non-threatening ways to people who are often emotionally fragile.
Sammy, one of the homeless men we encountered on our rounds, said he was born in Tripoli, Libya and grew up in Corpus Christi. He hesitated when we offered him supplies.
“Honestly, I like to try to do my own thing, I don’t really like handouts,” Sammy said. He reluctantly accepted the bag. “It is a little embarrassing, but I try not to judge myself.”
The group wished him well and moved on into the night.
By 10 p.m., Brown had dropped off his first shift of volunteers and was preparing to take out a second group of volunteers to continue the count elsewhere in the city. The total numbers for the night weren’t collected yet, but Brown was optimistic. He said he knew that this year would bring better results than last year.
“It’s making a difference,” he said. “People want to get help now.”