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San Antonio Officials Force Out Houseless People From Downtown Camps

About a dozen tents sat precariously close to the edge of a 30-foot drop into interstate traffic in downtown San Antonio on Friday morning. Now, they are gone — and it isn’t clear if they will be back.

City of San Antonio workers and police officers told a dozen people they had to move out of the camp under Interstate 35 at Quincy Street and Main Avenue on Friday. It was the second houseless camp clearing in three days. The workers and officers also removed a large group under I-37.

“They’re only telling us promises that they're gonna help provide us with the services that we need," said Tomanique Grant, who camped in the area for nearly a year. "But what are we supposed to do in the meantime when you keep promising these things and not carrying them out?”

San Antonio police officers talk to Tomanique Grant, who has been camping underneath I-35 for almost a year. | Paul Flahive
Paul Flahive | Texas Public Radio
San Antonio police officers talk to Tomanique Grant, who camped underneath I-35 for almost a year.

He said he has been homeless his entire life. He, like many at the camp, were uninterested in what workers told them as they packed their belongings into makeshift bags.

“[The offers of assistance] is not being received very well this morning, but it is a process,” said Nikisha Brown with SAMMinistries, which provides services to the homeless.

The city has money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for rapid rehousing, which could enable someone to live rent free in an apartment for as long as a year, based on their assessment.

Providers on the scene said at least one person accepted a housing referral, meaning they may move to Haven for Hope. The facility had 977 residents last week.

Grant dismissed the idea of the shelter, but he didn’t explain why.

Overcoming the mistrust of providers is one of the goals to helping houseless people, said one city employee. But that it was a difficult proposition for workers to make as they rousted people from their makeshift homes.

It was an even more difficult idea to offer to many who have been through the system before.

“What I would say is that the system is hard to navigate for smart and educated folks. So that makes it complex for others," Baker said. “But there are partners in the work who are willing to walk alongside. And that makes it easier. That makes it manageable that makes it feasible.”

Most of the campers, awakened by outreach workers on Friday morning, packed their things without argument. Groups of two moved their belongings in different directions. One packed his belongings in a cart he made from the gutted plastic body of an industrial shop vac. When he was done he began helping others pack their things.

Two women on the verge of tears seemed dumbstruck by what was happening and declined to talk to TPR. They packed their things into bags and tubs. Light rain fell as the two moved the pile of belongings up the street, pausing at a covered VIA bus stop until the rain subsided.

According to the city, outreach workers had visited the site three previous times to inform people the campers would need to move.

After campers left, city workers with shovels, rakes and heavy equipment began removing what remained. Personal belongings and clothes were piled in large dump trucks and taken away.

What happened at San Antonio's District 1 Office

The city operations to remove encampments also riled up a San Antonio councilman who said his own field office, around which several houseless people camped, was also a target on Friday.

Early in the morning, before the I-35 encampment was taken down, District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño said the city had planned to abate the property of his field office at Vance Jackson and I-10. He said pushing people out was not the way to do this.

"This is all wrong,” Treviño said. “We’re setting the most egregious example of how to treat people. This is not compassionate SA."

San Antonio's District 1 Councilman Roberto Trevino holds a news conference in the back of his field office on Vance Jackson Road and I-10
Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
San Antonio's District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño holds a news conference in the back of his field office on Vance Jackson Road and I-10

About seven people were present at the field office either sleeping or awake around 5 a.m. George Hernandez, 49, was a frequent guest. He’s been homeless for about three years and said he stays there with his wife for support.

“They helped me get my paperwork going so I can get started. They helped me with ID recovery Monday. They’re going to get a bus pass so I can get out here,” Hernandez said.

About 30 people arrived at the field office to protest the plan to remove the campers. Some held signs that read “Stop The Sweeps” and “Housing For All.”

Treviño said his field office was slated to be cleared based on a conversation with the city’s director of human services earlier in the week. Treviño claimed it boiled down to a decision by San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh.

In a statement, Walsh said that sites are only abated with support to other services if an encampment poses felony-level criminal activity. He added that he visited the field office last Friday and felt it needed to be addressed.

“I asked the Department of Human Services and outreach staff to work with the individuals to secure a place for them to get the assistance they need,” Walsh said. “We don’t just 'order' abatements without outreach and care. My direction was to address the need, safety, care and protection of all involved.”

Walsh said the city has been working with the group of people at Treviño’s field office since last summer.

“Criminal behavior at the encampment will not be allowed. We also will be enforcing no trespassing, camping, drug activity, defecating, urinating, and loitering at the adjacent Westfall Library, the parking lot and the grassy areas. It is essential for library users to feel safe and secure when using the library,” he said.

While Treviño spoke with protestors and members of the media, a woman expressed her personal frustrations at houseless people in the area. Linda Gomez said she's lived in the adjacent Dellview neighborhood for 13 years. It's about five blocks away from the District 1 office.

“It’s horrible what we [people in the neighborhood] have to go through,” she said.

Gomez said she understands houseless people need help, but she was also upset that she can't walk her dog past a certain part of the neighborhood.

“I cannot go to the store, I cannot go to Bill Miller’s [BBQ restaurant] anymore. I feel like you have left us; you don’t care about us,” she said to Treviño.

Jaime Nicholson, a social worker for the District 1 office, said they want to work with the residents of the neighborhood. They offered to set up meetings to show the services and plans available to people experiencing homelessness in the area.

Treviño acknowledged Gomez’ frustration.

“The last thing we ever want to do is dehumanize anybody especially if they’re saying that somehow they’re not being heard. I mean, imagine what a homeless person feels like,” Treviño said.

The encampment near the office was not cleared. Walsh said he met with Treviño, and they agreed that for the next two to three weeks the occupants at the camp will be allowed to remain.

“The City’s Department of Human Services will work with our partners and the Councilman’s staff to do intense case management and get the individuals who need help connected with the appropriate services,” Walsh said in his statement. “Our goal is to eliminate the need for the encampment in the coming weeks. We will continue to monitor the situation.”

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org
Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules