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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.

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.

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