Shared from the 11/3/2019 San Antonio Express eEdition

City right to seek help on homelessness

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Haven for Hope is a model for addressing homelessness, but more work is needed.

Since Haven for Hope opened its doors to the homeless nearly a decade ago, more than 5,000 people have moved through its transformational campus into permanent housing. Nearly 8,000 have advanced from its safe-sleeping courtyard into other forms of housing and residential care, and the downtown homeless count has decreased by 80 percent.

Nonetheless, the City Council recently approved a $130,000 contract with HomeBase, a San Franciscobased consultant, to develop a new homelessness strategy. Haven CEO Kenny Wilson welcomes the help.

“I think it’s a realization of what’s happening in other cities,” Wilson said. “It’s a national crisis.”

We agree. Homelessness is surging across the country in tandem with housing prices. Cities such as Seattle and San Francisco are scenes of increasing squalor. In Austin, progressive leaders relaxed ordinances regulating where people can camp, leading to a higher visibility of the homeless despite their numbers remaining relatively flat there (The city later partially reinstated those laws.). All of this has led to conservative political attacks — particularly from the governor — that often do more to vilify vulnerable populations than to help them.

The situation is somewhat different in San Antonio. While homeless encampments remain illegal here, Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales in many cases has stopped prosecuting trespassing charges. This has led to fewer arrests of the homeless. We support that approach, as does Wilson at Haven. Rather than preventing homelessness, a cycle of arrests only leads to a revolving door between jail and the streets. Arrests of the homeless are sometimes necessary: when there’s a threat to public safety, for instance. But merely policing homelessness is not a solution.

It does nothing to address rising housing prices, poverty, mental health and drug abuse. All are factors correlated with homelessness.

Policing also does not address the recent increase in families who are homeless. Although a January point-in-time count showed a 6 percent drop in the local homeless population, from 3,066 last year to 2,872, the number of homeless families increased to 274 from 232 last year.

Wilson has seen the same dynamic at Haven. At one point this summer, overflow at the campus included 52 families, or 200 people — so many that Haven set up beds in its chapel. Many of these families were homeless due to evictions and domestic violence, he said.

Such a holistic approach has made Haven a beacon across the state. On a recent morning, a group of officials from Dallas toured the campus, where the homeless are offered a wide range of resources. For the second year in a row, the number of homeless people in Dallas and Collin counties has increased.

“We’ve come to steal ideas,” joked Cara Mendelsohn, a member of the Dallas City Council.

Gov. Greg Abbott has also touted the campus, tweeting recently: “Haven for Hope in San Antonio works.” Unfortunately, in his zeal for Austin to reinstate its camping ordinances, the governor has also trafficked in stereotypes and untruths while capitalizing on the controversy to attack progressive policies.

Abbott shared a tweet that falsely blamed homeless people for causing a traffic accident. In another tweet, he highlighted a video that shows a man throwing metal poles at a car in downtown Austin. He blamed that incident on “Austin’s policy of lawlessness” even though the video was originally posted more than a year before city leaders rolled back ordinances. The man’s family later asked the governor to delete the tweet because he wasn’t homeless.

Easing the pain of homelessness ought to be above politics.

Haven has received criticism for not embracing a purely “housing first” strategy, instead requiring a clean drug and alcohol test before participants enter its transitional housing campus. But its expansive and evolving outreach to the city’s most vulnerable inhabitants is commendable and appropriate.

By seeking more guidance from experts, San Antonio is ensuring it stays on a productive path as it continues to face an intractable problem while serving as a national and state model.

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