City struggling to keep homeless outreach team staffed

4 of 11 positions are - or soon will be - vacant

A year and a half into existence -- a city team that has the job of connecting to San Antonio's homeless population is filled with vacancies. Three of the city's 10 council districts are, or are about to be, missing their homeless outreach coordinator. And, an 11th position for downtown has never been filled. KSAT's Garrett Brnger tells us more about what may be keeping them back.

San Antonio – Charged with helping get the city’s chronically homeless population off of the streets, the city’s homeless street outreach team is having trouble getting, and keeping, outreach workers on the job.

Starting in 2021 following some smaller-scale pilot programs, the outreach team has 11 positions -- one for each city council district and another for downtown. But in the little over a year-and-a-half since the first team members started, the city said it has had five resignations from the team.

After the outreach worker for District 3 leaves next week, the city said it will have three contiguous council districts with open positions, plus the downtown position, which it has never been able to fill.

“Knowing this field and knowing that it’s a new program, I’m not concerned at the moment. We are listening to this team about their challenges. They all really care about the work a lot, very deeply, and so that’s a good thing,” said Patrick Steck, the Department of Human Services assistant director overseeing the program.

Steck said the city has extended job offers regarding the three vacant council district positions, but as of a Tuesday morning interview with KSAT, the city was still waiting to see who would accept.

He attributes the staffing issues to a variety of factors. The outreach positions are broken into two tiers - clinicians and specialists. Specialists require a bachelor’s degree and some relevant experience, Steck said, while the clinician positions require higher level qualifications, like a master’s degree in social work or licensed professional counseling degree.

The job market is tight for the candidates who qualify for the clinician positions, he said.

“We would post the position for months and get two applicants, which is very unusual,” Steck said.

WATCH: Day in the life of a city homeless outreach team member

They hit the streets, woods and tunnels in search of the homeless.

Eventually, he said, the city started looking for more specialists instead. Rather than six clinicians and five specialist positions, he said they switched to seven specialists and four clinicians.

One of those clinician positions is in District 4 on the South Side and currently sitting empty.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia, who represents the council district, said she has been sharing District 3′s outreach worker since the one in her district left in late March - a situation she calls “entirely unfair.”

“We have the two largest areas. We should actually have two each, in my opinion,” she told KSAT.

Rocha Garcia and other council members voiced their concerns in the council’s initial budget discussion.

“I will be losing my outreach coordinator. So the southern sector, at the end of this month, we will not have a homeless outreach connect because he found a better paying job,” District 3 Councilwoman Phyllis Viagran said. “This is unacceptable.”

Steck said the imminent departure of the District 3 outreach worker was preceded in the past month by the team member for District 5. The resulting vacancies in Districts 3, 4, and 5, he said, were a “bad coincidence.”

However, he said the city does also contract with SAMM Ministries to do outreach work, and they primarily work south of downtown.

The city also contracts with Centro San Antonio to do outreach work in the downtown area, though the city still hopes to eventually fill that position.

The current pay range for the workers is $45,281 to $67,922 for specialists and $54,790 to $82,185 for clinicians, according to the city.

The current budget proposal calls for pay bumps between 7 to 12% for almost all civilian city employees, though it’s not clear exactly where the outreach workers would fall in that range.

Whatever their title or pay, it’s a tough job.

“There’s a lot of stress in the job. You’re seeing a lot of people who have experienced significant trauma in their lives. So processing that takes a very unique individual, unique perspective,” Steck said.

Despite the issues in hiring and retaining staff, Steck believes the team has been successful and has given the city “good insight” into the needs of the unsheltered homeless population.

“Being able to see almost in real time that kind of what’s going on out on the street and how we can adjust and respond to that -- that’s been a key value for us,” Steck said.

About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.