KSAT Explains: The growing visibility of homeless encampments, debate over how to compassionately handle them

In Episode 36 we hear from people experiencing homelessness and those fighting every day to help them change that

SAN ANTONIO – You may have seen them: tents set up near bridges or overpasses. Pop-up communities created by people living on the streets.

It is a sensitive topic — homelessness and how to address it — and it is far from a new problem. For more than a decade, KSAT has been covering how homelessness has changed in San Antonio and the resources that are available in our community.

But a new debate has emerged when it comes to homeless encampments, and the arguments over what to do about them have gotten louder.

In May, 57% of Austin voters chose to bring back a homeless camping ban. About a month later, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill banning encampments into law. Here in San Antonio, encampments have been banned since 2005.

With a new law banning homeless encampments, the end to the federal eviction moratorium, and rising rent and home costs, preventing and combating homelessness has never been a more pressing issue. But it’s more than a policy debate. It’s lives at stake.

In this episode of KSAT Explains, we took a closer look at the debate over encampments by talking to people experiencing homelessness and those fighting every day to help them change that.

(Watch the full episode on demand in the video player above.)

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Increased visibility

The emerging debate about whether encampments should be allowed has been fueled by the growing visibility of encampments in communities across the state, including here in San Antonio.

But does increased visibility equal a major increase in homelessness in San Antonio? The data says no.

For the past several years, the number of people living in shelters and on the streets has remained relatively steady. Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that in 2020, 2,932 people in San Antonio were experiencing homelessness - 1,274 living on the streets, or unsheltered homeless. That total number rose just over 2 percent compared to 2019.

The data may surprise you. To many people, it certainly seems like there has been an increase in the number of tents that have popped up across town under bridges and in empty parking lots.

Rex Brien, director of rapid re-housing and prevention services at SAMMinistries, attributes some of that to the pandemic. Shelters had to reduce capacity to prevent the spread of infection, and some smaller agencies shifted from serving the homeless population, to serving the whole community.

“Remember the lines from the food bank,” Brien said. “The folks we work with felt that impact, too.”

Another reason for the increase in visibility is likely due to the fact that the City of San Antonio has not been clearing encampments as frequently, due to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That guidance advised against clearing encampments, or abatement, to avoid the spread of the coronavirus in emergency shelters. Data from the City of San Antonio shows that 274 encampments were counted across the city from March 2020 to July 2021.

“There’s also fear about going into shelters and programming, and being around other people,” said Katie Vela, executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, or SARAH, the designated nonprofit that coordinates homeless response for service providers across San Antonio and Bexar County.

Since we spoke to Vela, the U.S. Supreme Court ended the federal eviction moratorium. It’s something that SARAH was preparing for even then.

“We’re launching a housing surge to try to house as many people experiencing homelessness as possible in the next few months to ensure our partner agencies have capacity to be ready to serve that need we expect to see in a few months,” Vela said.

How will the state ban affect San Antonio?

A new law that goes into effect in September makes camping in unapproved public places a Class C misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $500.

But here in San Antonio, a similar policy has been on the books since 2005, according to the City of San Antonio’s Department of Human Services.

“Because we have a local ordinance, and because no community has solved homelessness completely, we support leaving it up to localities to create those policies and do what works in your community and your region,” Vela said. “There is a consensus among our partners that we’d like to let the local government create ordinances with our local voters. That would have been our preference.”

Data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that in 2020, 2,932 people in San Antonio were experiencing homelessness - 1,274 living on the streets. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

While local homeless providers don’t love sweeping mandates handed down from the state, Patrick Steck, assistant director with the city’s Department of Human Services, doesn’t anticipate the ban will change much in San Antonio.

“It is at the officer’s discretion, just like any other Class C misdemeanor or a speeding ticket, that sort of thing,” Steck said.

Still, the topic of penalizing people for living in encampments is a controversial one. Some argue it criminalizes mental health issues and poverty, two of the leading causes that result in people finding themselves on the streets.

“If you get a citation for living in an encampment, what’s the likelihood you can pay that citation? Very little,” said Nikisha Baker, president and CEO of SAMMinistries. ”Then you go on from that citation and it amasses additional fines, late fees and so on and so forth until it’s insurmountable.”

But others argue abatement, or clearing these encampments, is necessary, as they can pose public safety and health risks.

Steck said a lot of times a criminal element doesn’t come from residents of the encampment, but outside influence.

“That is what causes a lot of concern for us when we see especially larger encampments,” Steck said. “Is that criminal concern of that concentration of sort of vulnerable folks living on the streets.”

According to Steck, the city’s approach to abatement has always been to lead with outreach, by helping to connect those living in encampments with the services they need. When officials come across an encampment, the Department of Human Services, or DHS, visits to assess the situation.

If, during that assessment, they find the situation is a health and safety concern, they schedule an abatement. This is typically done with the Public Works Department. Part of the preparation for abatement includes giving people living in the encampment notice before clearing the area.

“The folks there always have at least 48 hours notice before this happens,” Steck said. “Typically even more notice is given.”

“Personally I feel a little boxed in in a house,” said Jonathan, a man KSAT met while visiting an encampment near downtown San Antonio. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

A KSAT crew visited one prominent encampment under I-37 near downtown in early August to talk to some of the people who live there. We heard a lot of stories.

One man named Jonathan said he hadn’t been there long. He told KSAT he had been staying with friends, moving from house to house before winding up in the encampment.

Another man we met told us his criminal history made it difficult for him to get back on his feet. He said he hasn’t been in trouble with the law since 2013, but his past felony conviction still prevents him from finding work.

He also told us that he’s learned to not judge people so quickly while living on the streets.

“I had a view of the people down here until I ended up down here,” he said. “And then I got down here, I met a lot of these people, and I’ve come to realize I was wrong. The way I was thinking was wrong.”

He told us that he has been to Haven for Hope before, but right now he feels content where he is.

“This is where I’m supposed to be right now,” he said. “I’m okay right now.”

“It’s been a rough last couple of months,” this man told us after we met him living in an encampment near downtown San Antonio. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

In mid-August, not long after we talked to DHS, that encampment near downtown, which was on land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation, was cleared. It seemed to take local homeless providers by surprise.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation told KSAT that San Antonio’s DHS was informed of the abatement a week ahead of time.

But DHS sent KSAT a statement from the director of the department, Melody Woosley, that said:

“DHS was not informed ahead of the abatement. We have coordinated with TXDOT on several encampments and this time they did not coordinate with me or DHS Homeless Services staff on the date and time of their abatement.”

Woosley’s statement also said that she spoke with Tim Parker, the department’s engineer for the Bexar County metro area, and that he apologized to them for the oversight.

This is just one incident that illustrates how complicated a city-wide coordinate response to homelessness can be.

“Working together as street outreach providers, and collaborating and being on the same page, that’s key right now,” Brien said.

Confusion aside, even people who work as homeless service providers have different thoughts on the effectiveness of abatement and ticketing.

“Homelessness is not meant to be comfortable. If we’re keeping them comfortable there, why would they ever go into a shelter,” said Morgan Handley, associate director of Corazon Ministries. “In a shelter they have structure, they have rules. They’re never going to want to transition into something else if we’re keeping them comfortable in their tents.”

But Baker attributed some of the hesitance people experiencing homelessness feel about going into a shelter to distrust of a system that’s burned them in the past.

“The work that we are doing in terms of building relationships and rapport with the unsheltered is much more beneficial than a ticket or citation,” Baker said.

Just one week after the encampment was cleared in mid-August, we went back out to the spot under the highway where it had been. No tents had gone back up yet, but people had already started to trickle back into the area.

Watch the video below to hear directly from outreach workers on the job about how they’re trying to make a difference and the challenges they face daily.

What homelessness looks like in San Antonio

When it comes to the people living on the streets, every person’s background and circumstances are different. The outreach workers we talked to said that is one of the most challenging parts of addressing homelessness.

In mid-August, a KSAT crew shadowed a SAMMinistries outreach team. We met a couple named Felix and Rhonda. They used to live in a trailer along Roosevelt Ave., but eventually, their home became unlivable and for the past month they’ve lived on the streets. Most of the couple’s belongings are in storage, and they travel with only what’s necessary.

They want to get back into housing, but it hasn’t been easy for them. One major challenge is having enough cash for the upfront costs of renting an apartment: an application fee, the security deposit, first and last month’s rent. They just don’t have that much money saved.

And they’re not the only ones struggling.

According to the 2019 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census, about one in five residents in the San Antonio-New Braunfels metro area live in poverty. And data from the 2019 National Low Income Housing Coalition shows that the minimum wage of $7.25/hour is only a third of the estimated amount needed for a two-bedroom apartment in San Antonio.

Another contributing factor to the lack of affordable housing is San Antonio’s growing population. Higher demand for housing is leading to an increase in rent and mortgage prices.

For now, Rhonda remains on a waitlist for housing. She has to check in with SAMMinistries or the City’s of San Antonio’s Homeless Hotline every 30 days to make sure her case remains active and her name remains on the list.

Finding housing could take days or months, but despite the challenges, Rhonda and Felix remain positive about their future.

“We’re survivors, but we want to do better and we want to have something else,” Rhonda said.

Gina Jones is a SAMMinistries success story. (Copyright 2021 by KSAT - All rights reserved.)

SAMMinistries has been serving those experiencing homelessness and those at risk for 38 years. Gina Jones is one of their success stories.

Today, Gina lives in an apartment with her cat. But the apartment hasn’t always been home. Three years ago, after a break-up, she found herself living on the streets.

“I just kept walking up and down San Pedro and seeing a lot of other homeless people, started to do drugs,” Gina said.

She lived in a now-cleared encampment under a bridge along San Pedro near Jackson Keller for about a year. Her memories are fuzzy due to addiction, seizures and trauma. Like so many others who end up living on the streets, Gina struggled with mental illness.

The South Alamo Regional Alliance for the homeless, or SARAH, is the designated nonprofit that coordinates homeless response for service providers across San Antonio and Bexar County. The organization collects data from all providers they work with to get a better idea of who experiences homelessness and why. From Jan. 2020 to Jan. 2021, they found that of the 2,013 people engaged through street outreach projects, 71 percent reported a mental health condition. It’s one of the many reasons why street outreach is crucial.

For Gina, her life changed forever in June 2019 when SAMMinistries outreach workers found her.

“It took them four times before I really woke up,” Gina said. “And that’s only because they kept going to visit me.”

They never gave up on Gina, and they eventually helped her find her apartment through their Permanent Supportive Housing Program.

Gina’s home is now decorated with art that she’s created. It’s become a hobby and a way for her to cope with stress and anxiety. Although she’s been in housing for almost two years, SAMMinistries is still in her life. A case manager continues to build on the relationship, helping Gina on her journey.

“I’m not anybody special, but to them I am,” Gina said. “I would never let them down because I wouldn’t be here ... without them.”

Solutions to fix homelessness

An issue this complicated is difficult to address and there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Despite the challenges, homeless service providers in San Antonio keep pushing forward.

“In this job, you have to find the little wins. We carry a lot of heavy stuff,” said Handley. “You have to find the little wins. Otherwise it’s going to be very dark and you’re going to wonder, why do I do this every day?”

And while there’s no easy solution, there is a common goal for providers: helping those in need get off the streets. “Housing is what ends homelessness. if people can get into a safe, stable and affordable housing, then we can start working on other issues that maybe that come along with them,” said Brien.

With that in mind, the San Antonio city council voted in June to lease a downtown hotel to SAMMinistries to operate as a low-barrier shelter, or a shelter that doesn’t have the same requirements as other facilities.

This type of shelter can help people suffering from drug addiction, people who have emotional or behavioral health issues and registered sex offenders. But sometimes accepting help is hard for people who have been living on the streets for years.

“What you’re seeing is people who have been through a lot of traumatic experiences. They’ve lost their homes, they’re disconnected from family and they feel like they want to give up,” said Vela. “We know it takes a while for that moment to come where someone has renewed hope and wants to take that step for a change.”

And once a person accepts help and shelter, the next step is making sure they stay housed. Data from the city’s Dept. of Human Services shows that in 2019, a total of 773 of 3,072 people who had successfully exited the city’s homeless response system had returned to homelessness.

Providers and outreach workers say the best way to help is to volunteer with or donate to organizations that have been working with this community for years to build relationships.

“So many of these people have been disappointed by life. The system is tough. It can be really hard. So if we have a relationship with them, then we can convince them it’s worth it to wait. It’s worth it to participate,” said Dawn White-Fosdick, Christian Assistance Ministry President and CEO. “We can explain that It may take two or three months, but stick with me and being there day-in and day-out is very helpful.”

If you’re interested in volunteering your time or donating money, the following organizations provide services for people experiencing homelessness in our area:

- The South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless

- SAMMinistries

- Christian Assistance Ministry

- Haven for Hope


About the Authors:

Brina is the Executive Producer of the NightBeat and KSAT Explains. She has been with KSAT since 2015. She is a Houston native and proud to call San Antonio home.

Lexi Salazar produces KSAT Explains, a weekly, in-depth streaming show that digs into the most important issues facing San Antonio. She previously produced the News at 9, San Antonio's first streaming-only news program.