Every year at the end of January, volunteers in cities across the country spend a single night counting the number of people experiencing homelessness. The information collected is used to better understand what causes homelessness and get a snapshot of how many people may be living on the streets.
San Antonio conducted its count on Thursday from early in the morning until midnight in several phases with an army of more than 400 volunteers.
Many of them began at the offices of Centro San Antonio just before 10:00 p.m. For the next two hours, these volunteers split into groups of five and combed the streets of downtown.
Brenda Mascorro, executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH), said it was not an exact count but a look at a single night.
“It’s important because we can at least have an idea of how many folks we have on any given night,” she said, “and we are also able to compile a report for HUD so we can get some federal resources and funding for our initiatives to end homelessness in our community.”
They counted people who were unsheltered or sleeping on the streets of downtown. A county-wide count was performed earlier in the day, and homeless shelters in the city – like Haven for Hope – already counted the people who would sleep on its campus that night.
“The reason we started at 10:00 p.m. is because that’s the time when Haven for Hope ends their services, so the folks are either in or out, and so we want to make sure we capture all the folks that are out,” Mascorro said.
Rex Brien, director of Rapid Rehousing and Prevention Services with SAMMinistries, homeless services nonprofit, led Team Six for the downtown count.
“If we come across somebody who is experiencing homelessness, we’ll ask them if they’re open to participating in the survey,” he explained. “We have an app that we can go down and ask them questions. With that data we can pull some things, [like] basic demographics, why they’re homeless, if they have insurance, if they have substance abuse issues, mental health issues. Basic information but still good data for us to be able to get some use out of it.”
Crystal Torres and Heather Summers were on the team. This was their third time participating. They combed through bags with supplies to give out to the people they might encounter.
“It looks like you’ve got some beef jerky, some gum, Little Debbies, fruit snacks, crackers,” Torres said.
Volunteers loaded into trucks and moved out to an area near the downtown library along Interstate 35 and North St. Mary’s. A San Antonio police officer guided the group and looked ahead for people.
One of the first groups the team found were three people directly above the lower level of I-35. Traffic was constant even late at night. Large trucks rumbled both above and below the separated freeway.
Torres and Summers spoke to two men who were camped out for the night. They gave them the bags of supplies and pulled out their phones to ask them questions.
Summers asked a man his age. He said he was 33.
Nearby, Branco Ponomariov, a professor of public administration at UTSA, spoke with a man named Nacho.
“Where are you going to sleep tonight?” Ponomariov asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
In another part of the underpass, the team saw a man named John, a veteran with his discharge papers. They told him he was eligible for VA benefits.
“Do you by chance have a DD-214?” one of the volunteers asked.
“Yeah, it’s in my bag,” John replied.
The group spoke to about 10 people in about 90 minutes within a radius of a few blocks. They saw another half-dozen people already asleep.
Each person they spoke to had a different story. Summers spoke to one man wrapped in a sleeping bag near the side of the highway.
“The kid I just talked to is 22,” Summers said. “[He] came out of foster care, had nowhere to go, so he had to go to the streets. Whenever I’m out here and I meet with these people I see all the flaws in the system.”
The crew returned to their starting point around midnight. By the end of the evening, Torres said it was always an eye opening experience.
“It’s just really sad to think that we get to go home and just relax,” she said, “and that’s their every day and it’s a little heart breaking but I feel like with the work that we’re doing there is hope to help everyone get out of those situations.”
The 2019 count for San Antonio found 2,800 people experiencing homelessness. The year before had about 3000. The numbers and data from San Antonio’s 2020 point in time count are expected later this year.