Year later update on San Antonio homeless facility
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) - A year ago, a high-profile ceremony complete with taped drum rolls, confetti eruptions and butterflies swirling toward the sky trumpeted a major announcement: Haven for Hope, the city's $100 million transformational homeless center, was open for business.
The 37-acre center, three years in the making, was roundly celebrated as a major step toward interrupting the revolving door that sent homeless people from the streets to jail or hospital emergency rooms and back again.
Even more promising, it would offer society's outcasts a real chance to rejoin the human stream.
It featured a wrap-around approach city leaders hoped would ameliorate the situation downtown, where hundreds of homeless people routinely slept in doorways, urinated in alleys, camped under bridges and frightened tourists with aggressive panhandling.
One year later, the $100 million question is: Have things improved?
Certain statistics would argue yes. The number of homeless people downtown is noticeably lower. Every night, about 400 people stay at Haven for Hope's outdoor courtyard. Almost 200 clients have graduated from its transformation program on campus, and many of them now hold jobs and live on their own.
But 175 dropped out of the program, and even more, 263, left after briefly trying it, Haven officials said.
It may take time for the true efficacy of this grand social experiment to be known.
Initiated by business tycoon Bill Greehey, championed by then-Mayor Phil Hardberger and modeled on best practices of homeless centers across the nation, Haven seeks to address the root causes of homelessness by offering a slew of social services under one roof.
The "one-stop shop" was ballyhooed as an effective alternative to such temporary salves as emergency shelters and feeding programs.
Located west of downtown, Haven operates on a tiered basis: Most homeless clients start off in Prospects Courtyard, an expansive outdoor area where they sleep and receive a host of services. Special workers assess their needs. Prospects who volunteer for various tasks earn an indoor sleeping space.
More volunteering and compliance with required classes gets them onto the campus proper, where the true work of transformation begins. Members attend a slate of classes, do job training if applicable, undergo counseling and remain alcohol- and drug-free, among other stipulations. Along the way, those with mental illness and/or substance-abuse problems receive the care they need.
Homeless people who pass the transformation "test" - sobriety plus motivation - go straight onto the campus, if beds are available.
The first year "couldn't have gone any better," Greehey said, sitting in his NuStar Energy office. "Phil (Hardberger) told me he went to Travis Park recently, just to see if anybody approached him. No one did. He sent me a note that said, 'Congratulations!'"
"Haven for Hope has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams," concurred Hardberger, who counts the homeless center among the high points of his mayoral legacy. "People who didn't have jobs or places to live have reintegrated into the work force and gotten off welfare. We can make a huge difference in those actually willing to come to Haven and apply themselves."
Case in point: Xavier Orosco, 43, a long-time heroin addict and street person who's now drug-free and working toward an associate's degree at Northwest Vista College, with dreams of one day mentoring ex-cons.
He credits Haven for his redemption.
"The grace of God made this place available to me," he said, sitting near the landscaped common area on a breezy afternoon. "I have a future now. I have been transformed, like a butterfly. From now on, I'm gonna be this big tree where people can come get shade."
Elizabeth Ealim, 61, entered Haven last summer, determined to fly through the program and be out on her own in record time. She snared a receptionist job at a senior center and bulldozed through the required classes.
But she quit her job in October - there wasn't enough on-the-job training, she said - and still is at Haven.
"But once I get my benefits, I'm outta here," said Ealim, who plans to mix early retirement pay with a pending disability check to finance her life post-Haven.
But she has no regrets.
"They're treating us as individuals now," she said. "It's not like we're in a big fishbowl anymore. This is a good place to start a new beginning."
Not all homeless people are willing to come to Haven - not to the courtyard and certainly not to the highly structured transformation program.
Drive around downtown San Antonio and you can still spy homeless people living under bridges, loitering in parks and standing on street corners with their hand-lettered cardboard signs.
"We can't help everyone," Hardberger admitted.
About 20 percent of the overall homeless population is made up of chronic types who struggle with serious mental illness and usually co-occurring substance-abuse problems. They have proved the most resistant to Haven's lure of transformation, said Ron Brown, the outreach director who conducts daily excursions among the unaffiliated to try to persuade them to come to the center. On a recent night, a clutch of homeless people ate ministry-provided pork tacos out of the back of an SUV downtown.
"Haven's all nice when the TV cameras are on, but once they're gone it goes back to being a prison," said one grizzled man, who refused to give his name but allowed that unnamed forces were out to get him.
The ministry's leader, Brian Wicks, said his crowds have increased since Haven opened, reaching as high as 200 at Sunday services.
Homeless advocate Red Simpson, who has worked on the streets for 11 years, said Haven's sheer size makes it a bureaucracy.
"Many homeless people don't trust that situation over there, because it's so large it takes the personality out of the relationship," he said.
And for every Orosco there's likely a Charles Moose, who started out as a vocal fan of Haven but grew bitter after staff wouldn't give him a weekend pass to see his girlfriend or let him skirt curfew rules to study for his classes at San Antonio College or work at night.
"All they're doing is throwing stumbling blocks in my progress," said Moose, who was booted off the main campus for staying out past 10 p.m.
After several weeks on the courtyard, he reluctantly agreed to sign a contract and re-enter the program.
"They want to put Moose in a box, and Moose don't fit in no box," he grumbled.
A count done by the city in January 2010 found about 700 homeless living in the downtown area. A year later, the number had shrunk to 177.
"That's the most telling information," said City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who lives downtown and has noticed a "dramatic" difference. "As a transformation campus, Haven has been hugely successful, even as it's a work in progress."
Arrests of homeless in the downtown area, as well as the number of citations issued for quality-of-life ordinance violations, have gone down "markedly" in a year, said Peter Zanoni, assistant city manager.
It's estimated the center - which costs $10 million a year to operate and is funded by a range of sources - has avoided more than $15 million in costs that would have been incurred by keeping the homeless out of jail, hospitals and courts.
"We're saving lives and money," Greehey said.
Things have improved, agreed Marco Barros, CEO and president of the San Antonio Tourism Council, but flocks of homeless people still migrate to San Antonio from other states during the winter months.
Bill Brendel, general manager of the Crockett Hotel, said some of his fellow downtown business owners mistakenly believed Haven would prove a panacea and the homeless would disappear overnight.
"That just hasn't been the case," he said. "Some people just prefer to live on the street."
Haven boosters said the center wouldn't be big enough to hold all of San Antonio's homeless, about 3,000 on any given night, not including those who bunk with friends or relatives.
Hardberger said members who successfully graduate from the program free up space for those yet to come.
Since opening to men last April - women and families entered the facility in June - 198 adults have graduated from Haven's transformation program. Of those, 151 are gainfully employed. The rest receive government assistance, such as supplemental security income, due to age or physical or mental disabilities.
Some have entered Shelter Plus Care, a Bexar County housing program that provides added services to those with mental illness.
The number of people who have ascended from the courtyard to the transformation program - 554 - is just one greater than the number who left the program - 553.
Of those, 175 dropped out, and 263 left before they were committed to the process, said Shaun Lee, Haven's assistant vice president of outcomes management. As a result, Haven has changed the process so only those truly ready to change are admitted, he added.
Forty have re-enrolled in the program; another 75 who left without graduating are back at the courtyard.
Currently, 590 people are enrolled in the transformation program, where the average stay is 97 days, and 139 days for those who go on to graduate.
Greehey said transformation is arduous and can take people "three or four times" before they truly get it.
He isn't shy about claiming success for his brainchild, which he first envisioned after watching a local telecast on the homeless problem.
"Prior to Haven, the jails were full and they were talking about building new jails," he said. "Today, there are 80 open cells in the jail, and that has got to be (a result of) Haven for Hope."
A jail spokesman said such a connection can't be "quantified." A lower jail census in recent months could be a result of seasonal fluctuations, jail re-entry programs and other factors, he added.
Greehey also points to Haven's 110-bed, in-house drug and alcohol recovery program, instituted last fall when it became clear the short-term detox and voluntary outpatient program wasn't keeping members clean and sober. Of 207 people enrolled to date, 131 - or 63 percent - successfully completed the mandatory, 90-day program.
He cites that percentage as evidence Haven's success rate will be higher than the 60 percent average at other transformation centers across the nation.
To "succeed," a graduate must be living and working on his or her own one year after leaving the center. Ideally, Haven case managers will track clients for two years, said Greehey, since studies show many relapse into homelessness in the second year.
As for its own success, Haven has gained many "learning experiences" in its first year, CEO George Block said.
The first people to live at the courtyard complained loudly about the inadequacy of the cold food served.
"The theory was that cold meals would motivate people to come onto the campus" where food was hot, Block said. "The reality is a good chunk of people will never come on to the campus. And the things we thought would motivate people, they weren't what people wanted. The things that mattered most weren't even in our tool kit."
Today, 17 meals out of 21 on the courtyard are hot. The lure of a thicker mattress or bigger locker has been replaced by weekend passes, Spurs tickets and other more festive motivators. The highly publicized presence of illegal drugs in the courtyard has been "largely taken care of," Block said.
A new administrator was hired for the courtyard. Ed Coleman, the former facility director at the American GI Forum, took over in February, and since then, the tenor of the 457-person capacity courtyard has improved, said Leon Evans, CEO of the Center for Health Care Services, which runs the space.
"The whole culture has changed," he said.
Curfews have been relaxed for the 30 percent of courtyard residents who work, often at night. Shower times now are flexible. A new review committee offers gentler pathways for re-entry when someone commits an infraction.
Hundreds of children can be heard laughing and playing on the grounds.
This summer, Haven will break ground on a 140-unit affordable apartment complex on eight acres of its site.
For Sam Lott, so deranged and violent from long-term drug use that he was kicked out an emergency shelter twice and became a pariah even among other homeless, statistics don't amount to a hill of beans.
Now in the transformation program, he knows what Haven's done for him.
"This place saved my life," he said, clear-eyed and articulate at eight months sober. "These people are my family now."
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com