Helter shelter

After years of saving money and establishing themselves as productive residents of San Antonio’s Westside community, Rafael and Maricela Garza built their dream home — a beautiful coffee-colored, stucco house on Arbor Place near San Marcos Street which they moved into in April 2006.

Two months later, they gave birth to their first child. Across the street, Maricela’s parents, who have lived in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, brimmed with pride to see their youngest daughter succeed. With a strong support system around them, a newborn daughter, and economic stability, the Garzas were happily beginning their life as a family in a neighborhood they knew very well.

One year later, the Garzas are on the brink of uprooting their family and leaving. Soon, the neighborhood is going to change, they say, and not for the better.

“I thought we would be here for the rest of our lives,” Rafael said. “If we knew what they were going to put in our front yard, we wouldn’t have built our house here in the first place.”

Rafael is referring to Haven for Hope, a $30-million, multi-facility campus that will provide San Antonio’s homeless and the surrounding community with food, clothing, shelter, and an array of social services. The City broke ground for the 22-acre facility this past May and its grand opening is anticipated in December 2008.

For the Garzas, and a number of other neighborhood advocates, Haven for Hope is not a visionary plan to end homelessness, but a careless decision with public-safety ramifications that cannot be ignored.

“I’m disgusted with my city council,” said Rafael’s brother, Emilio, who also lives in the neighborhood. “I don’t have an issue with the homeless, but `the council` is hurting us as they try to help them.”


In the summer of 2003, former Mayor Ed Garza established the Mayor’s Task Force on Hunger and Homelessness, which was asked to develop a strategic plan to help the more than 25,000 people living on San Antonio’s streets. In Garza’s last two years in office, the task force took baby steps as the City appropriated just over $2.2 million between 2004 and 2005 to fund food-security programs and support existing day shelters. In one of his last decisions before turning over the reigns to Mayor Phil Hardberger, Garza and the city council unanimously adopted the 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness in San Antonio. Around that time, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness was putting pressure on communities across the country to initiate a tangible solution.

“The order from the federal government basically told `San Antonio` that if you’re going to be getting serious money, you better have a serious plan `to end homelessness`,” said Patti Radle, former District 5 councilwoman, who chaired Garza’s task force and is the vice-chair of Haven for Hope. “Yes, there was pressure, but it was a good pressure.”

Hardberger took on the challenge to end homelessness in SA when he took office in June 2005. Eight months in, he created the Homeless Council and committed the city to expedite its 10-year plan. He appointed Radle and Valero Energy Corporation Chairman Bill Greehey as the group’s co-chairs. They traveled to a number of locations, including Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Miami, four of more than 215 cities that currently have their own 10-year plans. They were impressed with the homeless campuses they saw, and envisioned a homeless shelter for the Alamo City.


Jason Mata, president of the Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association, had heard about the 10-year plan and Haven for Hope. As an employee for a local social-service agency, Mata admired the City’s commitment to help the homeless. He says, however, that he did not know the exact location of the facility until ground broke two months ago. According to a city ordinance passed in April, Haven for Hope will be bound by Arbor Place, Frio Street, Martin Street, and Colorado Street, just west of downtown.

“No one even talked to the neighborhood association to let us know what was going on,” Mata said. “We are usually told of those kinds of things, whether it’s a zoning issue or demolition of a house. But with Haven for Hope, we found out at the back end of everything. The whole plan seemed to have been done in secret.”

Radle says as the council member for District 5 at that time, she had her staff deliver flyers days before the groundbreaking to churches, businesses, homes, senior centers and even the Prospect Hill Neighborhood Association. The print-outs were an invitation to the community to attend a special meeting to discuss the proposed facility.

“Some City staff went door-to-door, north, south, east and west of the campus,” Radle said. “There was nice turnout at that meeting, but there were not a lot of community residents. But the information was out there.”

Mata, along with other residents in the area, said he never received the notice.

Taking a stance against the construction of Haven for Hope in their neighborhood, Mata and others formed the Westside Task Force, a group designed to oversee any developments on the West Side and notify the residents of plans that could affect homeowners.

“There was no true community input for the people that will be impacted the most,” said local activist and 2007 mayoral candidate Eiginio Rodriguez, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony and was disappointed when he took a quick survey of the people in attendance and found no Westside residents at the event. Rodriguez was appointed to the District 5 zoning seat by Radle, but he says even when he was on the commission he couldn’t get firm answers about plans for the complex. As of press time, the Zoning Commission is scheduled to consider setting a date at its July 17 meeting — perhaps as early as July 31 — to hear the case. But the public groundbreaking has left opponents with the impression that it’s a done deal. “Neighbors were coming out of their houses wondering what was happening,” Rodriguez recalled of the groundbreaking. “I explained to them what they were going to build there and no one knew about it. It was the saddest thing I had ever seen.”


Although many residents living in the neighborhood surrounding Haven for Hope are worried that their property value will decrease once the homeless shelter goes up (Haven officials say it will actually increase), it is not their primary concern. Despite 24/7 on-campus security and a San Antonio Police Department satellite office, citizens are bothered by the idea that hundreds of the city’s homeless — many of whom suffer from mental illness and drug addiction — will now be a stone’s throw from their front doors.

“They can’t just put this place in the middle of a residential area,” Mata said. “We feel any criminal activity that takes place around the shelter can spill into the neighborhood as well.”

Ruben Garcia says he knows first-hand what it’s like to live near the homeless. His house is only three blocks away from the SAMM Shelter, one of two city-owned shelters that will close once Haven opens. Those residents, along with the ones from Dwyer Avenue Shelter, will be transplanted to the new facility.

“I feel sorry for those homeowners over there,” Garcia said. “Every day I have problems with the homeless. You get those people that are day laborers and the people that are hanging out under the bridge; those are the people that give everyone problems.”

Radle says the community’s concerns are unfounded.

“People are afraid because the only image they have of a homeless shelter is the SAMM shelter,” Radle said, adding that the average stay for individuals and families at Haven will be three to six months. At SAMM, the homeless are asked to leave the following morning. “One of the many reasons we’re doing this is because what we are allowing to happen down at SAMM is wrong, undignified, and disrespectful to the human karma.”

Not even recent legislation such as SB 1238, which allows the city to regulate the consumption of alcohol within 1,000 feet of a homeless center, gives residents a sense of safety. If anything, they say, the bill will force this type of behavior to inch closer to their homes.

“All `the homeless` are going to do is walk to 1,001 feet and drink in the neighborhood,” Rodriguez said. “What about the schools and the parks and the senior-citizen housing in that area? Since they can’t drink near the shelter, they’re just going to go farther out and drink there.”

Community members are also troubled by the thought that the number of sex offenders could rise once transient traffic soars.

“They’re going to let anybody `into Haven`, no questions asked,” Garcia said. “You’re inviting a bunch of trouble because you’re going to start bringing in people with criminal records.”

Not true,  says Radle. Currently, there are 174 sex offenders living in the 78207 zip code, the area where Haven will be built. Of those sex offenders, eight were found to be living in homeless shelters and 12 were incarcerated at the Bexar County Jail.

“So the question is, where are the others?” Radle said. “They’re in our community.”

“The neighborhood is worried about `sex offenders` coming to the shelter when in reality there are 20 times more in the broader zip code,” added Robert Marbut, executive director of Haven for Hope. “It just seems a little hypocritical. They weren’t ever screaming or yelling about their neighbors or their cousins or friends or coworkers. Suddenly, they’re targeting literally a handful because they are homeless.”

Marbut says sex offenders who come into Haven looking for services will need to identify themselves as such. Although some community members are concerned that these sex offenders will be too close to neighboring schools and parks, the SAPD Sex Crime Unit says there are no rules defining the distance from a school or park a sex offender must live.


“If we are just building a shelter, then this is the biggest waste of money, effort, and time,” said Marbut.

Haven for Hope officials are attempting to steer clear of the phrase “homeless shelter” when referring to the future facility. Instead, they want the community to know that it is a transformation center. Along with designated sleeping zones for families, men, and women, Haven for Hope will offer dining facilities, medical, dental, and mental-health services, job training, comprehensive case management, counseling, and child care. These services will also be available to the surrounding community and general public.

“What happens during transformation is that there are people who start to see that they can get some direction in their lives,” Radle said. “They can find out about jobs, learn how to use a computer, get their GED. It’s not enough to just offer a bed for the night.”

Approximately 15-20 percent of chronic homeless people live a dispossessed lifestyle forever, according to officials. The City believes it can make a significant difference for the remaining 75 to 80 percent.

“Most of what you see in the city is episodic incidences of homelessness,” Marbut said. “Those are pretty easy to fix. It could be something like not paying a utility bill, a landlord-tenant dispute, domestic violence where both parties need to be separated. Mechanically, we know how to make these work. Then there are those who are in the middle and want a transformation. `Haven for Hope` can create a certain continuance for them.”


Only one house has been obtained by the city for the construction of Haven for Hope. Haven officials say they have no interest in expanding beyond 22 acres. However, the city ordinance for Haven for Hope names Arbor Place as the shelter’s northernmost boundary, when the campus currently only extends to Ruiz Street, two blocks south of Arbor.

“That leaves everything open to interpretation,” Rodriguez said. “Later, they’re going to be knocking down houses saying, ‘We’ve already told people that these were the boundaries.’”

Still, the Garzas may not be around long enough to see if Haven officials are true to their word. Rafael has stopped construction on his carport and garage until he knows just how safe his family will be once Haven is in full operation.

“They’re not telling us, ‘Hey, you have to get out,’ but they might as well,” Maricela said. “With time, people are going to feel forced out of their own neighborhood because of this place. I mean, this is our life. We have worked hard to get to where we are and they don’t care. Sometimes we feel like we don’t have anywhere to go. We feel lost.”

Haven officials have invited concerned citizens to join the Neighborhood Advisory Council, where they can help make recommendations to the city on matters pertaining to the facility. This includes meeting with community organizations that will provide services to the homeless. Currently, Marbut says, no one has shown interest in the council.

“If they really want to help they would get on the committee,” Marbut said. “But if their whole objective is to say, ‘Not in my backyard’ and sensationalize everything, then they’re really not helping the issue.” 

About The Author

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.