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Hope for the homeless



If you’re homeless on the streets of San Antonio, beaten down by the heat, the omnipresent dust, the drought-dry fountains, and the near-constant hunger, hang in there. Early next year, Haven for Hope, the one-stop mega-shop for all your needs, will open just west of downtown. This not being much of a walking town, transportation will be provided. On its 37 acres, you’ll find housing, medical and dental care, optometrists, job training, a salon, child care and public-school enrollment, a bank, a kennel for man’s best friends, hot running water, and three square meals a day — all courtesy of the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, who are as tired of carting your ass to the drunk tank and running it off of the wide granite ledges at Travis Park as you are of being hauled and prodded.

Ditto you downtown merchants who look forward to a morning that doesn’t begin with the pungent aroma of human piss or a ceremonial clearing of abandoned bedding. Haven is, by all estimates, going to be a game-changing facility for San Antonio. Based
on successful homelessness-eradication initiatives in cities such as San Diego and St. Louis, it brings together on one “campus” dozens of social-service agencies, including the Alamo Colleges, CentroMed, Goodwill Industries, the San Antonio Food Bank, SAMMinistries, and Catholic Charities. But integrating previously far-flung services isn’t Haven’s most progressive component. What has the potential to truly revolutionize the homeless cycle is the programming, which encourages Haven residents to transition to stable, independent housing and employment with a system of (mostly) carrots and (a few) sticks.

Homeless clients will be able to participate in Haven’s program at three levels. At the entry level, you’re sleeping outside in Prospects Courtyard — no responsibilities, no commitment, come and go as you please (with caveats; read on). Haven will feed you and you’ll have access to showers and laundry machines. Behave well enough and show up regularly, and you can move to the indoor courtyard area. Outreach staff will work the courtyard crowds, looking for individuals who are ready and willing to become Emergency Members. Emergency Members live inside in a group dormitory and sign a contract promising to work 40 hours a week, but it’s not indentured servitude. Work can include receiving counseling, job training, and dealing with other obstacles to employment and housing. Emergency Members eventually work their way up to Emerging Member status, which includes private living quarters, more amenities, and the job and housing hunt proceed in earnest. Haven’s goal is to graduate 60 percent of its clients annually — making room for another crop of upwardly mobile dispossessed. Success is defined as a full year in a job and a domicile.

At Dallas’ The Bridge, a 15-month-old homeless facility similar in concept to Haven `see “Bridge to somewhere,” September 2`, Managing Director Jay Dunn says clients take an average of four months to work through the transition program, but, he notes, “not everyone enrolls in transition services early.”

“The far-out deadline `for completing Haven’s transition program` would be two years,” says former District 5 Council Member Patti Radle, who was instrumental in the development of Haven for Hope. “In Florida, the campus is open-ended, `and` the average stay is 53 days. ... People who get into the program are going to be motivated.”

But for procrastinators who malinger at one of the program levels, motivation is built in. Haven members work with case managers who design individual service strategies, and meeting the strategy’s goals are key to obtaining amenities, such as access to the onsite gym and salon. Members must attend the meetings and self-improvement opportunities to which they’ve committed, otherwise, “They lose their privileges on the campus,” says Haven Chief of Staff Meghan Garza-Oswald. “In an extreme case, Haven can turn off a resident’s food card.” The first place he or she will go if that happens, Garza-Oswald says, is to his or her case manager, who will help them get back on track.

Enrolling in Haven’s transitional programming is voluntary — you can come and go indefinitely in Prospects Courtyard — but sleeping at the campus isn’t. During Haven’s first six months of operation, staff and volunteers will reach out to SA’s homeless population and encourage them to come to the facility. That campaign will be accompanied by the virtual elimination of the city’s various street ministries, some of whom will move their mobile food donations to Haven, others that Haven expects to essentially drive out of business by eliminating demand. Distributing food to the homeless, while “well-intentioned and admirable,” says Garza-Oswald, ultimately enables them to remain on the street. Centralizing the free food at Haven will help bring in 60-77 percent of San Antonio’s homeless within the first six months, she estimates. After those first 180 days, San Antonio’s finest will issue formal invitations to the stragglers, by enforcing the city’s panhandling and vagrancy laws: Get a ticket or get arrested, or accept a lift to Haven.

“I have to admit to having a level of discomfort with that, because I’m a person who supports individual freedoms,” Radle says. “But you have to take into consideration our businesses.”

Garza-Oswald is unapologetic about Haven’s obligation to the local tourist economy: “We made a commitment to our city and our community that we will help clean up our streets.” Of course, even if people check in — willingly or otherwise — to Haven’s overnight campground, they’re free to leave the next day, so Haven is “kind of structuring the program to keep them there,” by offering food, showers, and laundry sequentially rather than all at once. “We don’t want them to go back out into the community.”

The Bridge’s Dunn says their recruitment tactics are nonconfrontational. The Bridge has worked with mobile food providers to encourage them to distribute at their facility rather than off-site, and downtown property owners and police “engage and refer” homeless individuals before resorting to more traditional law-enforcement methods. “We don’t want to be coercive or controlling,” he says, “but we want to provide opportunities for people to find what they’re looking for.” Between word-of-mouth among the homeless and positive-message outreach, The Bridge is getting on average five referrals a night, down from 75 an evening when the center first opened.

“We still have homeless on the streets in central Dallas,” Dunn says — 50 people per night, roughly, that The Bridge is unable to “engage.” But they’re working with 750 inviduals a day, and during the campus’s first year of operation, they placed more than 400 individuals in off-campus transitional housing and helped more than 900 find employment.

Haven’s transformational services are key to the model’s success — otherwise it’s just a fancier version of the emergency-shelter mills that reliably restock our streets with exhausted, undernourished souls every morning. One former homeless-services professional who asked not to be named worries that Haven may function like a gold-panning sieve: The most competent and stable individuals will be brought into the transitional program, while Prospects Courtyard turns into a semi-permanent holding pen for people who need the most help — the severely mentally ill, and those whose addictions cover up a profound psychosis. The Courtyard is operated by the City — not by the non-profit Haven — which will most likely contract with either Corazón Ministries or Haven itself to provide services and outreach to the campers.

“My concern is that `Haven` would cherry-pick the cream of the crop — people that are very high-functioning — and put them in the program to be able to report high numbers of success,” he told the Current.

Radle talks about “long-term coaxing” of the Courtyard population. “It may take a long time to want to come on campus,” Radle says, but once a resident agrees to become an Emergency Member, mental-health counseling and treatment can count toward their 40-hour work week. For instance, “It might take weeks or months to get their meds in order.”

Yet, she acknowledges that even with Haven’s extensive resources, “there are people who are never going to be independent unless there is another system. Our whole society has to step up on the issue of how to handle long-term mental illness.”

Dunn says that Haven and The Bridge are philosophically very similar, but a key way in which they differ, at least on paper and until the doors open, is in offsite community partnerships. The Bridge has fewer beds than Haven, and demand far exceeds their supply, so they coordinate sleeping arrangements with local emergency shelters.

Haven sees its mission as replacing, rather than partnering with, the old model of homeless service, which Garza-Oswald characterizes as “socialistic — no rewards, no consequences.” Because the program is designed to be transitional, helping people move out of the homeless lifestyle, she says, Haven’s bed capacity is adequate: almost 1,000 inside the facility, with room for 500 campers outside. But, she promises, Haven “is never going to turn anyone away.”

Greg Blasko of the Church Under the Bridge, a faith-based organization that provides food and preaching under the I-37 overpass on the northeast side of downtown, thinks that Haven won’t be able to meet the demand.

“There’s more homeless than they can take care of,” he says. This year’s annual Point in Time homeless census tallied 3,303 individuals in the San Antonio area. “I think `Haven is` going to provide a very valuable service, taking in that guy who wants to get off the street.” But Blasko believes that the Church Under the Bridge will still serve a core group of homeless who don’t fit into Haven’s paradigm. To enter the Haven campus, for instance, individuals must pass a breathalyzer test (although they can crash in Prospects Courtyard even if they’re inebriated). And although Haven for Hope offers family housing for couples and single adults with children, couples must be legally married to cohabitate at Haven.

“There are a lot of couples out there who have bonded together who aren’t married,” Blasko says. (Haven will marry willing partners, and that nondenominational chapel is available, but Radle, incidentally, sounded surprised by this policy. “It’s one of the things I need to ask more questions about,” she said. “How did we come out on deciding what is a legal marriage?”) Blasko also thinks Haven’s concept is insensitive to the preferences and habits of many of the city’s homeless residents. “There is a huge disconnect between the homeless that live on the East Side and the West Side. Our people don’t go over `to the West Side` because they think it’s dangerous.”

The Church is currently raising funds to build on a plot of land donated to the organization just east of downtown, where they plan to open a seven-days ministry serving 200-250 people. In response to Haven’s view that feeding individuals on the street supports their homelessness, Blasko says, “They’re going to get food one way or another. ... I don’t view it as ennabling, because I’ve seen what happens if you don’t feed them.” Blasko — whose brother is schizophrenic and spent time on the streets when he wasn’t on medication — is careful to emphasize that he thinks Haven will have a very positive impact in the community, but like Radle and Dunn, he says it’s important that Haven be seen as an incentive and a resource, not a punishment or a threat. “My biggest fear is that the City will use this as an excuse to say if you don’t go over there, we’ll force you out of this city.”

If Haven sounds eager to corral our homeless in its new city within a city, it’s understandable: A lot of money has been invested in the campus’s construction, and more will be required to operate it each year. As of press time, Haven was just $5 million shy of its capital-campaign goal of $99 million, which covers just the hardware and real estate: dorms, a commercial-grade kitchen, a state-of-the-art dental clinic, a health clinic, a non-denominational chapel, and the job-training and personal-improvement center. A projected $6.5 million will be needed to operate the facility annually, which includes building maintenance, security, job training, and any other services Haven provides directly.

Because each of the organizations Haven is partnering with brings its own funding to the table for its portion of Haven’s mission, Haven must be careful not compete for donors — a situation that can strain relationships, as it has to some degree at the Bexar County Family Violence Prevention Center, which applies to some of the same funding sources as its partner agencies. Garza-Oswald says Haven won’t make that mistake.

“If I went out there as a development officer, I would crush their budgets,” she says, which would be counterproductive since Haven’s model relies on them for key services.

Haven’s current budget will be met by city, county, and state funding that is still being finalized, $600,000 from the United Way, and more than $2 million from the New Hope Golf Classic private-sector fundraiser. If Dallas’ experience is any indication, the budget will only increase, and rapidly. When the Bridge opened in 2008, Merten reported, it was immediately hit with twice the demand they’d predicted. And while the cost for each individual served has remained at the expected $25 per day, Dunn says their current $7.5-million annual budget is $750,000 larger than originally anticipated.

Haven will most likely receive $3-$3.5 million from government agencies toward its annual operating budget, money that its advocates say will be more than recovered in cost diversions from hospital, jail, and, court fees. The record at Haven’s Restoration Center, which has been open since April 2008, promises great results both for Haven’s clients and for the public’s return on investment.

The Restoration Center reported that in its first year of operation it served 519 homeless individuals who would otherwise have been processed through the legal and hospital systems multiple times, saving the County $5.1 million and the City $1.4 million. Since then they’ve blown past those numbers, says Kathryn Jones, director of substance abuse services. In August alone, 350 individuals enrolled in the sobering unit, bringing their total so far to more than 2,000. More than 1,800 clients have worked through the five-day detox unit, and 800 people have signed up for the 90-day outpatient program, which provides transportation, addiction counseling, lunch, and job-hunting support.

Fifty-percent of the clients who completed the outpatient program are sober today, says Jones, but she expects that number to increase dramatically when Haven opens next year. “The outcomes are going to be so much greater,” she says, “because they’ll be living in a drug-free environment,” adjacent to the Restoration Center. “The support system is not as complete as it will be when Haven for Hope opens up. ... When you can tie sobriety to getting a job, a GED, the incentives are tremendous.”

Jones says that a random sampling of 200 individuals who passed through their sobering unit revealed that they had racked up more than 9,600 jail days between them in the previous two years. During the Restoration Center’s first 15 months, they cut that down to 1,200 days.

“It saves the City, it saves the County, it saves the hospital system,” says Leon Evans, CEO of the Center for Health Care Services, one of the Restoration Center’s major partners. In addition to taking in homeless who are pubicly intoxicated, the Center has trained the Sheriff’s Department and the SAPD to recognize signs of psychosis, and they are now diverting approximately 600 people a month to CHCS’s mental-health program — individuals who would otherwise be arrested or dropped off at a hospital emergency room.

Individuals who the system refers to as “chronically homeless serial inebriates,” who have been subsisting on the streets for 10 or more years, pass through the sobering unit an average of three times before they consider enrolling in the detox program. They average two trips through detox before they make it into the 90-day outpatient program, “which is when you begin to see sobriety set in,” Jones says.

But repetition and short-term failures aren’t an impediment to success, it’s part of the path, says Radle. “It’s a piece of the mission dealing with that,” she says. “I think the challenge will be keeping the spirits up for the good work that will be done. We aren’t the cure for everything, but we are the opportunity that’s going to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Are you in or are you out?

If plans to use police to “encourage” homeless residents to check in at Haven, or to promote marriage among consenting adults give you pause, consider that some of Haven’s other policies are pretty progressive for an institution that plans to process and serve hundreds of homeless people each day. Transgender individuals who have had gender-reassignment surgery and/or hormone treatments will live with their adopted gender group. Undocumented workers automatically become residents of Haven for Hope, which is under no obligation to report them to Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, and can help them work toward citizenship. Individuals with HIV/AIDS will be treated no differently than other Haven members, and their status will only be made known to service providers who need to know, such as dentists. Haven cannot provide housing or program assistance to homeless teens, but they will refer them to one of their partners, such as Stand Up For Kids.

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