More than two dozen Houston city officials, staff and state lawmakers took a trip to San Antonio on Tuesday, looking for ideas and inspiration from the Alamo City in tackling the improving but ongoing issue of homelessness in the Bayou City.
Seven Houston City Council members, new Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Harris County Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez were among the group touring San Antonio’s Haven for Hope Center.
About 1,700 people live in dorms on Haven for Hope’s secured, alcohol-free and drug-free campus, while anyone with pets can keep them safely in a kennel. Outreach teams bring in people from the streets on a daily basis, though there are restrictions, including a ban on sex offenders.
Once on campus, the residents are assigned a case manager and are surrounded by a team of more than 200 employees from 35 agencies on-site, who can help not only with mental health and substance abuse issues, but also help residents get benefits, job training skills and finding employment.
“It’s all right here for what you might need all the way from the local to the federal level,” said State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston). “It’s really a hell of a deal.”
“This is awesome,” said Dwight Boykins, City Council Member for District D, who believes the center is the type of all-in-one resource Houston doesn’t have. “This is what mayor turner’s talking about. Providing a one-stop shop with services to be able to deal with mental illness, homelessness, the whole nine yards.”
That includes treating Kush, a big issue in Boykins’ district, which includes Midtown and Hermann Park, where a mass overdose in June prompted massive anti-Kush enforcement efforts by the city.
Overall, substance abuse is one of the most common reasons people end up on the streets, including Larry Schexnayder, who said he suffered from a drug addiction and was “walking the streets, living under bridges” before coming to Haven.
“By Haven, I found out about anxiety and depression,” said Schexnayder, who shared his story of recovery with several members of the delegation.
Schexnayder is one of the more than 2,000 residents and counting who have graduated and moved on to permanent housing.
“Just as we walked up here, a gentleman said, ‘I got a job! I’m moving off campus!’” said Kenny Wilson, President and CEO of Haven For Hope. “That’s what we’re about here.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had been anticipating taking the trip to Haven For Hope for months and was planning on being present Tuesday. However, fog kept his flight from Houston grounded.
Instead, Mayor Turner joined a roundtable discussion at San Antonio City Hall by phone, talking with leaders from both cities, including San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor and Police Chief William McManus. They discussed the logistics and cost of operating the center, as well as strategies for dealing with panhandlers and “criminal transients” versus the truly homeless.
“We spent years trying to arrest the problem away. It's absolutely futile,” said Chief McManus, who added that when it comes to helping the homeless, “The Haven has been a godsend, really.”
Haven For Hope opened in 2010 at a cost of just over $100 million. Officials say it costs $21 million per year to run, $ 3 million of that paid for by the city, with about 60 percent of the cost covered by private donations.
Houston officials said Tuesday there are currently about 3,600 homeless people in Houston, a 50 percent reduction from 2011, with just over 1,000 unsheltered.