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Pushing Haven option, Council mulls more restrictions on homeless residents

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

55-year-old homeless resident Kenneth Smith at Prospects Courtyard.


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.”

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