How do people in an evolving urban neighborhood such as Dignowity Park help homeless individuals and grapple with the root causes?
That was the question posed to DreamWeek San Antonio panelists Jan. 11 at San Antonio Central Library.
Participants said there are plenty of ways for a neighborhood to use its assets, collaborate and address homelessness.
“We have to be partners in the fight against homelessness,” said Brian Dillard, Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association president. He moderated the panel discussion, which you can watch below in its entirety.
The Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association is so serious about addressing homelessness in its community that the organization formed a subcommittee dedicated to the cause.
According to San Antonio’s point-in-time count done in January 2016, more than 2,800 individuals were counted across Bexar County as homeless, living on the streets or in shelters. But likely, the number is several hundred in terms of chronically homeless - individuals who are constantly living on the streets and have been doing so for some time.
The challenge for a city is that many resources are used to address homelessness, from food, clothing and shelter to health and mental care. And, in many cases, homeless individuals are incarcerated for a time. Or paramedics are called to help an individual who is sick or been injured on the streets.
“Their lifespan is shortened by homelessness, and they’re the most vulnerable of us,” said Melody Woosley, director of the city’s Department of Human Services.
“They’re the ones we reprioritize our assistance to because it’s really a matter of saving lives.”
Ron Brown is outreach manager for Haven for Hope, which has become a nationwide model as a one-stop-place for homelessness sheltering and services. Brown said it’s not just downtown that experiences homelessness, and that individuals can be living on the streets all around the city’s urban core.
Homeless individuals, or those at risk, can be seen panhandling at major intersections or camping behind a retail strip, for example.
Brown said it’s vital for organizations such as Haven for Hope to be proactive and show homeless individuals citywide that, “There is hope, there is someone out there looking out for you.” Haven for Hope provides homeless individuals with food, medical care, clothing and other things, such as bus passes.
San Antonio Police Officer Monty McCann said people who want to help the homeless must not see them as antagonistic or as a nuisance. The police department formed the HOPE (Homeless Outreach, Positive Encounters) Team.
The HOPE team collaborates with public and private service providers in the community. Crisis Intervention Trained (CIT) bicycle patrol officers go out into the downtown area and approach homeless individuals to help determine their most pressing basic needs.
If possible, the officers connect the homeless individuals with social workers, case managers, resource leaders, professional counselors, spiritual leaders and others who could help them with long-term self-improvement. In some cases, the HOPE team - which for now is McCann and another officer - deal with the same homeless individual more than once.
“Sometimes, we spent a lot of time working with an individual, which in our peer group, we get a lot of criticism from,” McCann said.
He added the typical perceived approach from many in the law enforcement community is that it’s a waste of time and resources for police to help the homeless get the help they truly need. But McCann called the efforts here worthwhile.
“So, we spent a lot of time with an individual because we see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he added.
“Building a relationship is very important when helping someone,” said Brown. He added that homeless individuals often want more than food or clothing. They want someone who can relate to them, and talk them through their issues.
“We don’t operate by numbers, we operate by relationships at Haven for Hope,” Brown said.
Housing first solutions are another component, said Gavin Rogers, family and youth outreach minister at Christ Episcopal Church.
While it’s not for all homeless people, Rogers said a segment of the population need that crucial basic need addressed first before anything else.
“Housing will help people that need a house more than they need treatment,” he added.
Woosley said there are a rising number of housing-first solutions around San Antonio, and the city could look at how to bolster the blend of tools to combat homelessness, such as alternative housing and human/social services.
Dillard said housing first sounds great, but some neighborhoods may not warm up to the idea of such a thing happening in their backyard.
“It’s education on your part, it’s education on our part,” answered McCann.
McCann added that no neighborhood can be immune to a homelessness-related challenge, even if only a few individuals are affected.
“It’s a community issue that needs community solutions,” he said.
McCann explained housing first can only be part of the larger solution, which includes services and ways for the homeless individual to help him or herself.
Rogers said homeless individuals are not any different from anyone else who has various struggles in life. It’s just that, for the homeless, bad choices or extraordinary circumstances helped contribute to their situation.
“When we start seeing each other as equals, as a common humanity, that’s going to push us over the edge,” Rogers added.
Rogers noted its human nature for many people to ignore homeless individuals, straining even not to make eye contact with them on the streets.
“We’re afraid to be vulnerable with our homeless friends,” he added.
Pastor Andey Gray, board chair for Church Under the Bridge, said when anyone else gets out to meet the homeless, they will come to understand human life at its most extreme.
“These people are in survival mode,” Gray said. “We get them out of survival mode when they don’t worry about where their next meal is going to come from or when they’re going to get nights of warmth.”
The panelists agreed churches and other faith-based organizations have a part to play in their own neighborhoods. It’s more than providing food or clothing or serving the spiritual needs of the homeless. They could also direct homeless individuals to safe temporary sanctuaries and community social service providers.
Woosley said the city has hired a faith-based liaison, who will begin work in February to coordinate efforts among the city, non-governmental agencies, churches and faith-based groups to help the local homeless.
Bill Hubbard, executive director for South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, said the city has begun a pilot program based on coordinated entry.
Major local service providers, such as Haven for Hope, are using coordinated entry. It’s an intake method that helps homeless people move faster through the system, by reducing the amount of time they spend going from program to program before finding the right match. Coordinated entry reduces the number of new entries, and improves data collection.
“If we brought the power of the faith-based community into that coordinated process, I’d be out of a job in a short period of time.” Hubbard said of the method’s potential
While San Antonio has made strides in reducing the number of homeless veterans, there are other parts of the homeless community that need help.
Homeless youth and those in the LGTBQ community are two examples. Hubbard said many local children and teenagers have been counted as living alone homeless, living with parents on the streets or in vehicles, or “couch-surfing” with families.
Some youths are thrown out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or identity. Some young girls are tossed out after getting pregnant. Many youths end up in sex trafficking.
“We’ve got a hidden youth problem that needs to be addressed. This is our next generation of chronic homeless,” Hubbard added.
Hubbard admitted that, as a youngster, he held an homophobic attitude.
“I’m actually very ashamed of that part of my life. I’ve found that people are people,” he added.
A few organizations such as The Thrive Center serve LGBTQ community members who are experiencing homelessness in one way or another.
Education and early prevention is another key, the panelists said. Brown suggested helping students be aware of how bad life choices could easily lead to them becoming homeless.
McCann said school counselors should get more involved if they see a struggling student who may be at risk of becoming homeless.
He said that can be difficult because some youths who are living on the streets or in vehicles with their parents are afraid of acknowledging it to authority figures - school staff, for example - for fear they’ll be taken away from the only family they know.
As a whole, Woosley said, all those who are able and compassionate to do so can help the homeless. They must do more than provide services, they must provide ideas and understanding.
“It really takes an entire neighborhood,” she said. “People don’t become homeless because they’re lazy or they don’t have anything better to do or it’s romantic to sleep under the stars. It’s almost entirely because they’ve been traumatized at some point in their lives either through military system, foster system or abusive homes.”
Hubbard suggested that if Dignowity Hill can find a comprehensive, grassroots way to fight homelessness, other neighborhoods can do it. McCann said it takes everyone working together.
“Don’t let your gifts sit on the shelf. Offer your gifts to the community,” he added.
**Cover Image: DreamWeek panelists discuss how collaboration can fight homelessness. Video still from previous webcast.