- Michael Barajas
- 55-year-old homeless resident Kenneth Smith at Prospects Courtyard.
Kenneth Smith and I sit at a table in the center of Prospects Courtyard, the front doorstep to downtown’s sprawling Haven for Hope homeless services campus, as the late-afternoon sun starts to fall and the cold sets in. With the faint smell of alcohol on his breath, he ruminates quietly of the coming nightfall – violence, drugs, danger, another night of just trying to survive. “Shit’s gonna break loose,” he says. “It’s gonna break loose in here real soon.”
A messy divorce and an on-the-job injury pushed Smith to the streets over a year ago, he says. At 55, he speaks tirelessly of wanting work: construction, work as a garbage man, bussing tables, anything. A punishing job market and homelessness, complete with its physical and mental scars, have kept him in and out of Prospects and on the streets, sometimes begging downtown’s workers, tourists, and residents for food and cash, anything they can spare. Tears well up in Smith’s eyes as he lifts up his right sweatshirt sleeve to sport a poorly healing gash. Attacked and stabbed by a band of men two weeks back, he says, he lost his backpack and nearly all of his belongings, along with the $109 he’d managed to save up. He shakes his head recounting the day-to-day, saying he’s exhausted and sometimes contemplates hurting himself. Outreach workers at the Courtyard say that like many living on the streets, Smith shows signs of mental illness, possibly schizophrenia.
“I start hearing voices. I feel like people are talking to me, even though I’m hiding under my covers,” he says. “It feels like Satan’s doing this.”
Over the past five years, the city has rolled out a new model for dealing with individuals like Kenneth Smith. Since paving the way for Haven for Hope’s construction in 2007, the city has funneled millions to the 37-acre one-stop-shop shelter, treatment center, and job-services campus, which opened in the spring of 2010 to give the city’s homeless a clear road to recovery, all the while promising to clear the inner-city streets of solicitation from the destitute. With city funding of Haven topping $6.5 million this fiscal year, Prospects Courtyard, run by the Center for Healthcare Services, is now set to embark on an 80-bed mental health unit for male courtyard residents to hit one of the root causes of chronic homelessness, mental illness, housing men for three to four months who volunteer for intensive psychiatric care and substance abuse treatment. Center officials say nearly 3 out of 4 of those who sleep at Prospects have some type of mental illness. Plans are now in the works to build an outpatient mental health clinic in the courtyard for the rest who come to Prospects looking for help.
“We could just keep growing [Prospects Courtyard] but that doesn’t solve the problem,” said Allan Cross, director of the Center’s homeless transitional services. “How do we engage them and get them into treatment? Well, there are barriers to that. This helps remove those barriers.”
But if Haven’s programming has been the carrot drawing this hard-to-service population to the northwest corner of downtown, a crackdown on panhandling, outdoor camping, and vagrancy has been the stick, pushing the homeless into Haven’s arms, some advocates say. Now, as the holiday season approaches, the City, at the behest of Haven officials and downtown business owners and residents, is pushing for tougher measures to shoo the downtrodden out of downtown, clearing the River Walk for tourists before the Christmas lights begin to sparkle. To the Express-News editorial board last week, Haven President and CEO George Block advocated a “tough love” approach by police, saying the problem will be solved, “for the most part, when we stop feeding the beast.”
“I guarantee that if police drive them off high-traffic areas, three weeks from now, they will not be on the River Walk, they will be in Austin,” he told the paper.
Like Block, San Antonio Police Chief Bill McManus and some on City Council insist downtown is plagued by “professional panhandlers” harassing locals and tourists alike – individuals, as McManus put it, who’ve “got some spare time on their hands, and they go out and stand on the corner to beg for money.” Other longtime advocates for the homeless warn of what they call the growing criminalization of homeless behavior, saying such measures corral them one of two ways: into Haven or into the criminal justice system.
“What are you going to do? Give someone a $500 fine who can never pay it, then eventually put them in jail?” asked Rev. Taylor Boone of Travis Park United Methodist Church, another haven for the homeless in San Antonio. “There’s no easy solution to this, no one-size-fits-all,” he said. “A lot of these people have serious mental health issues, and above all, they don’t trust the system. They’ve been screwed by it over and over again.”
It’s just after 6 p.m. on a Tuesday night, and people are starting to gather underneath the downtown I-37 overpass, waiting for a free hot meal. Nearby, inside a small Christian Assistance Ministry warehouse, temporary home for the Church Under Bridge, pastor Dennis Cawthon delivers a fiery sermon to a small seated crowd. Most, however, circulate outside. Some crowd together in small groups, talking, laughing, and taking drags off cigarettes. Behind me, one elderly man, bearded and disheveled, mutters incoherently in a sharp, high-pitched tone.
Following his sermon, Cawthon tells me how things have changed for the Church Under the Bridge since members began feeding the homeless in 1996. Five years ago, he says, they were forced to leave their small building across from the Pearl Brewery complex when the lease ran up, relegated to feeding under highway overpasses (as well as a short stint at a downtown police substation). “I remember homeless people used to tell me this was the best city in the world to stay if you had to live on the streets,” Cawthon said. “But about five years ago, I started seeing this marked change in the City’s attitude toward homelessness. … There was still compassion there, but they wanted to institutionalize them. That was the new approach, and groups like ours don’t seem to fit that model.”
City officials routinely reference the “paradigm shift” that came with the planning and eventual implementation of Haven for Hope. In 2005, the City started drafting its own 10-year plan to tackle chronic homeless, and the idea of centralizing services at one campus was born – a center for comprehensive treatment and transformation to break the cycle of chronic homelessness, rather than relying on outside churches and shelters to simply feed and house them overnight.
Thus started a tense period for groups like Church Under the Bridge as San Antonio planned and prepped for its Haven-for-Hope rollout. With the shifting approach, stories began to circulate that activists and organizations handing out food and clothing under bridges were being threatened with hefty fines, some for serving downtown’s homeless without mobile food-vending permits from the health department. For Cawthon, with Haven serving as the lynchpin to City plans to clean up downtown streets, a clear goal emerged: eliminate feeding in the streets, centralize meals at Haven, and the homeless would move accordingly.
“More and more, we were getting run off the street,” he said. “I’ve been told by police that there will be no more feeding programs on the street for the homeless, that that’s the plan.”
Church Under the Bridge, Cawthon says, eventually underwent a “forced evolution of sorts,” increasingly focused on spiritual ministry and church services, looking for a centralized location where its transient congregation wouldn’t be hassled. “We saw that we were never going to make headway as a soup kitchen,” he said. The organization is now set to move into a new building on the East Side later this month, where operations are expected to become more restrictive with more rules.
“There’s no question the effort has been to move people up to Haven,” says Boone at Travis Park UMC, which runs the homeless outreach program Corazon Ministries. Around 2006, he says, Travis started pushing the City to open up bathrooms in city parking garages, saying, “We were the only place in the downtown area where people could use a bathroom, that is unless they could talk their way into somewhere.” The City wouldn’t budge. “So we started saying people could sleep on our grounds,” he said. Travis eventually opened up a day center for the homeless, complete with hot meals and showers.
The move sparked pushback from the City and alienation from downtown business owners and residents, Boone now admits in retrospect. “I guess I don’t blame them. Travis Park has kind of become a center for homeless people, and that makes some uncomfortable. … Even in our own personal congregation, there was tremendous change, and over time we lost a lot of people.”
By 2010, with Haven slated to open its doors, the homeless services landscape started to dramatically change as services centralized. Some $400,000 per year in City funds propping up Travis’ homeless day center went instead to Haven for Hope. The day center eventually shuttered, and the church had to scale back its daily lunches, Boone said.
Downtown’s First Baptist Church then closed it’s MANNA kitchen, which had served daily meals to hundreds of homeless individuals daily for decades, conforming to the city’s request that it move under the Haven umbrella – many on the streets still lovingly recall “Miss Winnie’s.” Christian Assistance Ministry’s day center on Alamo closed after its contract with the city ended. SAMMinistries closed its 350-bed Commerce Street shelter and its smaller Dwyer Avenue shelter, moving onto the Haven campus to run its new $2.5 million dormitory program.
Perhaps one of the more controversial moves by the City was the shuttering of Living Stones Ministries, a homeless shelter that also ran a three-days-a-week mobile food van.
But as the former patchwork of services shift toward Haven, Boone claims the problem is growing, that his ministry, and others, are seeing an influx in homelessness – more young people without work, more families, more untreated mental illness. “What we’re seeing now is a significant increase in homelessness, that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer,” Boone said. The Center’s own numbers show Prospect’s is now holding as many as 700 people each night, roughly 300 more than originally anticipated, while dorms at Haven are maxed out at capacity. “There’s no question that we’re seeing more families, more young people that can’t find jobs, and I’d say 50 percent of the people, even if they’re mentally ill, are looking for work,” Boone said.
As with most shelters, rumors and discontent mark conversations on the street about Prospects Courtyard. Complaints range from the inconvenient (there’s never enough food) to the far more serious (allegations that drugs and violence plague the place at night).
James Campos, 30, has been living on and off the street since he was teenager, a situation he attributes to an abusive home, sexual assault as a child, and on-and-off drug and alcohol addiction. Campos travels with his 25-year-old girlfriend, a transgender woman named Rachel, and both claim guards at Prospects harass them whenever they swing by for showers, a meal, or to use one of the Courtyard’s storage units – presumably because they’re gay. “Man, in my opinion, I want those guys shut down,” Campos said. “We’re always messed with. One guard straight up calls us faggots.”
More serious, though, is his and other’s contention that the courtyard takes on a prison-like atmosphere once the sun goes down, and that assaults are commonplace. “We don’t feel safe sleeping there. Not at all, man,” Campos said. Nearby, just after getting food in the line at Church Under the Bridge, a 34-year-old Navy vet who began living on the streets last month and wished to be identified only as “T.C.,” said one stay at Prospect’s made him fearful of ever going back. “They put bad people next to good people,” he said, shaking his head. “There’s fighting, there’s raping, there’s sex offenders there. I can’t stay there.”
Still, officials insist the stories are overblown, “urban legends” and rumors that have taken on a life of their own. Cross says they may stem from a fear of institutionalization, adding, “Some people simply don’t want to be here because we do have some rules.” Complaints over a prison-like atmosphere are unfounded, he says, citing that people are free to come and go as they please. Outreach workers with the Center say they forward any complaints they hear to management and security, but still insist that conditions inside Prospects are pristine compared to the former SAMM shelter, or to a night on the streets.
Trinity University’s most recent Point in Time survey, a yearly study of San Antonio’s homeless population, shows that nearly 40 percent of the city’s homeless have been on the streets or in and out of shelters for more than a year. Roughly 22 percent don’t own a government ID, making it even more difficult to connect them to government services or medical treatment. A large portion, according to the report, are disabled, suffer from a mental illness, or both. About 62 percent report being employed, but don’t earn enough to afford stable housing. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed for the study blame loss of job or income for making them homeless.
Gregory Franchetti, 47, has spent the past two weeks in and out of Prospects Courtyard, saying he lost his job earlier this year. “I couldn’t find work, I lost my apartment, and I just didn’t know what else to do,” he said. “In the blink of an eye, you can be on the street, you really can. I didn’t think that could ever happen to me. …I didn’t save my money, didn’t invest in the right things, ended up blowing it on gambling, things like that.”
“People are hungry, they do things they shouldn’t do. They’re hungry and they’re desperate. It doesn’t mean we’re bad people, but we start self medicating,” he said. “I’m no exception.”
A similar situation landed Stuart Heltne, 45, on the streets three years ago, when, fired from a welding job, he could no longer pay his bills. Steady work never came, and he was evicted from his apartment, his van eventually repossessed. “I never thought I’d be out here this long,” he said. “I just want to work.”
Over the past month, City Council, with prodding from fed-up downtown business owners and residents, has eyed stricter so-called panhandling laws, designed to crack down on aggressive solicitation – following or intimidating potential donors, harassing or making physical contact, or continuing to beg for goods after the someone’s already said no.
The new ordinance, proposed by Council’s Public Safety Committee, doubles the areas where panhandlers are automatically cited, regardless of how nicely they ask for change, expanding no-solicitation zones around ATMs, entrances to banks and check cashing facilities, bus stops, busses and crosswalks from 25 feet to 50 feet. The ordinance also adds several other items to the no-solicitation list: restaurants, outdoor patio and dining areas, public parking garages and pay stations, as well as parking meters.
In addition, the new ordinance would ban asking for money or “another thing of value” around “charitable contribution meters,” or the repurposed parking meters placed throughout downtown collecting change for Haven for Hope. Haven CEO Block has been one of the voices pushing for the tightened ordinance. (Haven’s current pamphlets for its donation stations declare, “Put a stop to panhandling. Make a change with your spare change.”) Boone, Cawthon, and others worry the ordinance, in practice, aims to create a no-homeless zone downtown.
By the time the measure went to Council last week – sans a second half banning solicitation from roadways, which some on Council still want to see passed in some form by the end of the year – District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal, a former civil rights attorney, was sufficiently uncomfortable with the panhandling language. “When we’re dealing with situations like this, with policies like this, we have to strike a balance between our legitimate interest in providing a safe environment for businesses and residents and visitors, as well as making sure that whatever we do is done in a way that is humane and fair.”
The biggest issue, he said, is a piece of the ordinance that’s already written into city code, prohibiting individuals from asking for “another thing of value” – the language, he insisted, is overly broad, possibly criminalizing behavior like asking for a cigarette, food, clothing, blankets, or maybe even a job. “I don’t think the city has an interest in prohibiting that kind of behavior,” he said, adding, “And I don’t necessarily believe that the population that would be the subject of this provision, that fining them does a whole lot, or that increasing the fine does a whole lot.”
If people already can’t afford the necessities of life, then what does such a fine accomplish, he asked.
Seemingly perturbed by Bernal’s recommendation to remove those four words, several other councilmembers criticized him for trying to change the language outside of the Public Safety Committee process. Bernal, whose downtown district is the obvious target of the tightened panhandling laws, doesn’t sit on the committee. While Council voted to send the ordinance back to committee to review any possible changes, it was clear many at the dais didn’t take Bernal’s concerns all too seriously, wanting the ordinance passed quickly and as is.
“I think there’s this misconception that everyone out there that’s panhandling is destitute, and that’s simply not the case,” said Chief McManus, brushing off questions of potential unintended consequences of the ordinance. “They’re not looking for a sandwich, they’re not looking for a cold drink. They’re looking for money and in most cases they’re going to use that money to purchase drugs or alcohol.”
Others insisted aggressive panhandling is increasing. According to Municipal Court records, the city citations for such behavior remained relatively flat over the past three fiscal years, with 351 last year. But since the start of this fiscal year last month, the city has already issued 41 citations for aggressive panhandling.
“I’ve had people come up and say, ‘Hey, I need your shoes, gimme your shoes,’” said District 8 Councilman Reed Williams. “It’s crazy, but it’s happened.” Looking out to Marco Barros, CEO of the San Antonio Area Tourism Council and a major proponent of the ordinance, Williams said, “Your folks need some relief. We’ve got some tremendous trouble.”
After Council’s meeting, I spoke with Olga Kucerak, who lives at the Majestic Towers downtown. She spoke of panhandlers preying on downtown tourists, residents, and business owners. “Sometimes they’re aggressive, intimidating, name calling, spitting. … We’re not talking about homeless just wanting food. We see intimidation, violence,” she claimed, saying she carries Mace in her purse. When pressed for an example of such violence, she said, “This homeless man followed me for nearly a block and called me names. … Why should I have to worry about carrying Mace?” and referenced a YouTube video that reportedly shows two homeless men fighting on the River Walk.
In a common refrain for anyone who wants something done in this town, Kucerak insisted cracking down on panhandling is key to Mayor Julian Castro’s “Decade of Downtown”: “For the ‘Decade of Downtown’, people have got to feel safe.”
Safety. It’s the primary concern for many of those stuck on the streets or in shelters.
Kenneth Smith, sitting in Prospects last week, told me he sometimes roams downtown, looking for well-lit, populated areas. “You gotta be careful not to talk to the wrong person or the wrong crowd,” he said. “Sometimes I’d rather stay moving. … Walk to a restaurant and ask for some food or wait in a parking lot.”
He was increasingly nervous with dusk approaching, telling me, “When you leave here, people are gonna start fighting. I see some guys slappin’ the hell out of their women. I hate it. … I can’t be the middle man and go stop that, it’ll put me in danger.” His eyes darted back and forth. “I pipe up, and some guys just stare me down, threaten me. They say, ‘Fuck you, old school.’”
“I just live one day at a time.”