What San Antonio Is Doing For Its Homeless Problem


I recently visited Haven for Hope, the nation’s largest homeless recovery program based in San Antonio. It is not normal to call a visit to a homeless program an “amazing experience”, but you must understand: Haven for Hope place is truly a unique place.

A few years ago, several wealthy San Antonio businessmen and community leaders got together and rallied support for solutions for the city’s growing homeless population. With a warm southern climate and few freezing winter days, it was becoming a little too welcoming. Alcohol and drug abuse was increasing, the downtown was not a friendly place.

As these community leaders built support for a central campus to fight homelessness, team leaders first traveled around the country, visiting 30 other organizations and collecting the best ideas for San Antonio. With their creative juices flowing and $101 million in funding, they purchased a dilapidated collection of downtown warehouses and tasked an architect with designing a remarkable facility that combined as many of the innovations as possible.

The campus opened a few years ago and it is…well, magnificent. (That’s another word not usually used to describe a homeless center.) Haven for Hope’s campus includes housing, community services, job training, alcohol and drug abuse recovery, a womens shelter, and a veteran’s center sponsored by a large local employer.

The Haven for Hope staff I saw, from security guards to volunteers, to top level executives, seemed passionate about the mission. As the largest community homeless initiative of its kind, Haven is becoming a model for other cities around the world.

  • Here are some top things that stood out to me:
    Haven for Hope focuses on transitioning homeless people to housing and jobs. Clients are expected to make progress toward this goal of getting off the street and into reliable housing.
  • The facility can house up to 1000 people. Priority is always given to families with children, and several units are always left vacant to accommodate a surprise arrival of a family in need.
  • The city of San Antonio has a problem with drunken citizens and tourists. The old approach was the police officer would take the tipsy to the ER, and sit with them until they sobered up. This involved clumsy paperwork, medical personnel, and important night hours when the officer was relegated to sitting in a hospital room. Each incident, as I recall from the tour, cost the city $4000. The alcohol detox facility changed all of that. Now, officers have a convenient place to deposit drunk denizens, fill out a streamlined form, and return to patrolling the dark streets. This innovation alone has saved the city $50 million since the facility opened.
  • Sometimes, homeless people do not want help and need a safe place until they are ready. For these people, Haven built Prospects Courtyard, a triangular, cement-paved yard adjacent to the fenced campus. Sheltered by a long, carport-style roof of corrugated metal and cooled by giant fans, guests are welcome to sleep here on provided mats by Haven. Small black footlockers are also available for guests to store in a safe, locked place at night. There are only two rules: you cannot hurt yourself and you cannot hurt anyone else.
  • Prospects Courtyard is also a place where Navy Corpsman at the nearby Fort Sam Houston Medical Center come for training in how to recognize and interact with people who have substance abuse issues.
  • When guests in the Prospects Courtyard are ready for help, the intake building is waiting for them.
  • Every person entering Haven for Hope’s gated area is given a plastic ID card. Some people have even lost their identity and forgotten who they are. H4H has procedures to help them regain this important piece of their personal history.
  • Once given a badge, they enter the fenced area through a metal detector and bag search. They have to surrender all drugs and weapons to enter.
  • The badges allow the operations staff to metricize and link success to known inputs. When a guest receives care, their card is swiped. All of this data is collected and creates an extensive case file to track what services the guest is using. This can also let administrators and donors know what services their dollars are providing.
  • For a homeless mother in most cities, getting help would look like dragging cranky children on a giant scavenger hunt across the city, waiting in long lines in drab government buildings to talk with listless bureaucrats who point you to another agent on the opposite side of town who asks you for some paperwork you never received. Haven for Hope is different. One of the most fascinating ideas here was co-locating representatives for all of the major social and community services. One of the beautifully renovated buildings is a sprawling warehouse that has been transformed with office cubicles with high walls and frosted glass doors. Classical music plays softly overhead, and 60 community and government services agencies work together to offer everything that mother needs in one place. In an open conference area, pharmacology students from a nearby university gain valuable experience while discussing medications and drug abuse.
  • Rather than rely on clumsy government systems, Haven encourages community volunteerism and faith-based groups to assist in many places. Volunteer doctors provide medical and dental care. Counselors are standing by to help. There is even a group of “listeners”, whose job is to lend an ear to people who just need to talk.
  • Groups like the YMCA supply child care for mothers taking GED classes or distance learning courses. Volunteers staff an after-school teen room providing a safe place for teens to hang out.

Haven is a remarkable place, birthed out of a collective community vision to actively reduce San Antonio’s homelessness problem. I have no involvement with them at this time (maybe volunteering in the future!), but as a resident in the city, it’s really encouraging to see people working together to provide a holistic approach to homelessness recovery.

If you’re planning to visit San Antonio, you should plan to tour the facility. You can find out more on their web site, though it can take quite a while to hear back from them.

This is a video on the approach they use.

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