SAN ANTONIO - Since returning to SAPD last year, Chief William McManus has taken a new approach to dealing with the city's homeless population, pledging to help them instead of trying to arrest the problem away.
"We used to use a traditional approach on homeless which was to arrest them, give them citations. That isn't effective. That doesn't work," McManus said when he announced a new initiative to reach out to the homeless.
A big part of that involves the city's homeless shelter, Haven for Hope. But has the shelter become a haven for crime?
KSAT 12 News requested all of the calls for service to the shelter by SAPD over the past two years and found officers responded to 1,877 calls between Jan. 1st, 2014 and Dec. 31, 2015. Of those 730 days there were only 87 days police were not sent to Haven for Hope.
Some in the homeless community said they've seen plenty of crime occur in and around the shelter.
John Dominguez said in the 11 months he's lived at the Prospect's Courtyard he's had personal property stolen and witnessed numerous assaults and drug overdoses.
"In a way it kind of feels like you're in the streets because they still let in all these individuals who like to steal and hurt and do drugs and all that and they still let them come in this place," Dominguez said. "It's really not that safe if you think about it because people still get beat up, people still get hurt."
Data provided by SAPD revealed officers spent a lot of time at the shelter.
Over a two-year period they responded to hundreds of non-emergencies like 911 hang-ups and other minor problems. But there were plenty of serious calls too, including 318 disturbances, some with guns and knives, numerous drug related crimes, 178 thefts and more than 200 assaults.
Shelter spokeswoman Laura Calderon said the numbers provided by SAPD don't tell the real story of what's going on the downtown campus where roughly 1,500 homeless spend their time every day, many of them suffering from mental illness and chronic addictions.
"We see a lot of erratic, negative behavior and so that results in calls to the San Antonio Police Department," Calderon said. "There are a lot of situations that require emergency detentions, so what that really means is that person is either trying to harm themselves or harm someone else. So, we have to call SAPD in order to have that person detained so that they don't follow through on what they're threatening to do."
Calderon, said many of those calls for service were made by staff members who discovered someone was wanted by police or they found contraband during the check in procedure.
"When someone comes in they may be trying to bring in drugs and so when we confiscate drugs we call SAPD, they may be trying to bring in weapons, we call SAPD. When someone badges in here, information pops up on that computer screen and it will tell us if there's a criminal trespass warrant for that person, it will also tell us if SAPD wants that person," Calderon said. "While we don't want to create or add to anyone's homelessness and push people out, we also have a responsibility for the people that are here to keep them safe and secure."
In addition to requiring residents to be registered to gain access to the campus and courtyard and passing through a rigid screening process that includes metal detectors, the shelter also has a staff of 40 security officers known as Life Safety Officers. The LSO's are responsible for screening the residents and responding to problems as they arise. All of them have passed courses in crisis intervention training, deescalation, anger management, and crowd control.
"So our LSO's try to handle the situation as much as they possibly can while on the ground," Calderon said. "We've also hired three SAPD officers who come here and work in our courtyard on their off duty hours. The good thing about those officers is that their routine SAPD work, they patrol this area so they're very familiar with our population."
Christopher VanLoan said he's lived at the Prospect's Courtyard for the past four months and he's been impressed with all the help he's received.
"I don't see too much crime in there, there's not really a lot of violence," VanLoan said. "If anybody flares up and does something stupid they tend to take care of it. People may complain, but security does a good job, they keep everything in check."
To combat theft of personal property from the courtyard the shelter got rid of plastic bins that were easily broken into and replaced them with hundreds of lockers.
The shelter also has 550 cameras placed throughout the campus that allows a dispatcher to see what's going on in any part of the shelter at any time which often resolves many complaints.
"Our dispatcher can go anywhere, in any building, in any part of the campus and review something," said Art Vela, director of security. "Sometimes we have allegations of sexual assaults so SAPD gets involved. We review the cameras and see that no assault has happened here on campus to date."
While there have been several deaths at Haven for Hope over the years Calderon said none of them involved violence. All of them have been from natural causes often related to years of chronic homelessness and addiction.
Calderon said the shelter expects problems to happen but the campus is still safer than the streets.
"By in large it is a safe environment. We work very hard to maintain that safety but when we see something we take action," Calderon said. "Part of what motivates us is that we want to have a safe and secure environment because so many of the people who are here have experienced some type of trauma and they feel afraid. They feel unsafe so it is really part of our mission to give them a place that they feel comfortable where they can work on transforming their lives and working themselves out of homelessness."
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