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Weather 'Wreaks Havoc' On San Antonio’s Homeless As Providers Step Up

Outreach workers talk with a man in a tent in downtown San Antonio
Paul Flahive
Outreach workers talk with a man in a tent in downtown San Antonio

Kenny Wilson, CEO of San Antonio’s largest homeless shelter, now knows how much water it takes to flush a toilet at his facility, about 5 gallons. He knows because since Monday, Haven For Hope has lacked nearly all its running water. And staff have been using common hardware store buckets en masse to keep up with the bathroom needs of their 1,500 clients.

“We weren’t even sure we could flush them without the water working, but out of desperation, we tried,” Wilson said.

These aren’t the garden-variety residential toilets. Those would take about a gallon, Wilson said.

These are the industrial, tankless type found at schools, stadiums, and other large scale, serious-bathroom-volume facilities. So now about 10 Haven staff are tasked with filling the buckets at the sole functioning faucet and transporting them across the sprawling, 22-acre facility.

“All day and all night they are using carts to move them,” he said.

The bucket brigade is just one example of the lengths service providers are going to in order to meet the needs of the homeless.

“It’s been exhilarating and inspiring and frightening all at once,” Wilson said. Inspiring because of what his staff endured. Frightening because of what their families were going through without them and also because what people living on the streets faced during this inclement weather.

The blistering cold, lashing wind and frigid damp that knocked out Texas’ power grid have challenged millions across the state, but none so much as the homeless.

An estimated 3,000 people lack shelter in San Antonio, according to a 2020 count. It’s likely a conservative figure, since it was conducted before the COVID epidemic.

Across the city, more than a dozen churches and nonprofits have tried to keep up with demand for shelter space. At Haven, that meant about a 100 staff signed on for the long haul. Concerned about road conditions, they showed up on Sunday packed to stay for days.

The organization rented three large generators — at a cost of $50,000 — with the expectation that Haven might lose power. It never did. Wilson said he never thought it would be the water.

Now days later, Wilson and many other staff have been sleeping in their offices to keep the place running.

“I was afraid you might smell me through the phone,” he said.

Rev. Gavin Rogers at Travis Park Church knows what Wilson means. His program, Corazon Ministries, does street outreach and coordinates shelter services when weather demands. The church opened its doors last week to overnight sleepers as temperatures started to fall. Then icy roads made the roads dangerous and volunteers cancelled.

“There's just four of us, and we're running a 24 hour shelter,” Rogers said. “We looked at each other and said, ‘I guess we're not leaving’ and we just stuck through it. And some of us didn't sleep for 24 hours, but we just made it work.”

The numbers at the church have swollen to nearly 60, with people sleeping in rooms across the facility. Rogers has been at the church nonstop for around eight days.

More people are coming in off the streets across the city as outreach teams from multiple nonprofits worked through some of the storms.

SAMMinistries street teams transported 22 in four days. Some they brought to Haven or a church shelter they had never spoken to before.

“Twenty-two in four days is huge for us,” said Nikisha Baker, SAMM ministries CEO.

The numbers have grown across the city to 503 people a night using the available overnight shelter services, according to city data.

Nikisha Brown (right) at the site of a homeless camp removal in February 2021.
Paul Flahive
Nikisha Baker (right) at the site of a homeless camp removal in February 2021.

The successes in outreach were tempered by the challenges to other programs. For instance, SAMMinistries’ transitional housing shelter — which houses about 35 families — lost water. They were able to get portable bathrooms, and they hoped to start transporting the families to the Convention Center to access drinking water.

As the challenges posed by the frigid weather ease, it isn’t clear what the impact to people living on the streets will be.

While San Antonio police currently haven’t attributed any deaths in the homeless community, Baker said the threat from inclement weather is very real for people living outside.

“San Antonio was ill prepared for this weather event,” Baker said. “Our infrastructure has struggled. People who have shelter have struggled. There's no doubt that it's going to wreak havoc on our homeless community.”

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org