Nature v. nurture

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious. 1st Peter 2:4

Approximately four hours deeper into City of San Antonio v. Living Stones Ministry than anyone at the Bexar County Courthouse expected to be, attorney Sam Adams held up yet another photo and asked an increasingly testy Pastor Jimmy M. Spicer if he recognized it.

Yes, Spicer agreed, after examining the image, they were clothes donated to his church, which until March 16 had been quietly helping life’s hard-luck cases get back on their feet for almost two decades.

The tableau was striking: Adams in a natty blue bowtie and pastel checked shirt holding up a picture of used clothing in a vaguely accusatory fashion, towering over the white-bearded Spicer, who looked very much like Santa Claus on trial in Miracle on 34th Street. Faith was on the stand here, too. Spicer and his fellow missionaries believe that God has called them to serve the homeless, and because they minister to the soul as well as the body, that they can do an equal or better job than the City’s much-lauded $100-million Haven for Hope campus, which is set to fully open late this spring.

It was midday Monday, March 29, and the City was asking the judge to close down the shelter until Spicer obtained the proper certificate of occupancy and a zoning change, a months’ long process at best. Adams and fellow Assistant City Attorney Savita Rai argued that the facility was in such deplorable condition it was endangering the lives of its hapless tenants. “They do not have a Constitutional right to stay at a location that is a danger to them,” Rai told the Judge late in the hearing. But the prevailing impression in the courtroom audience — which included several of Living Stones’ 40 residents — is that the City’s real target was any method of dealing with homelessness that doesn’t fit their new model.

When the City of San Antonio approved the ordinances in April 2007 that set Haven for Hope in motion, it made two distinct, and not necessarily 100-percent compatible, promises: The new facility would provide a clear and manageable path back to work and home in an environment that respects human dignity. And it would clear downtown’s tourist-hungry streets of the ragged and unkempt. In those two core purposes, Haven reflects both our most noble and least generous instincts. In order to accomplish number two, Haven’s Meghan Garza-Oswald told the Current last fall, they planned to centralize food distribution at the new campus, and once Haven was operational, begin enforcing panhandling, vagrancy, and other ordinances to encourage the homeless to head to Haven and stay there. `See “Hope for the homeless,” September 9, 2009.`

Haven had already partnered with the San Antonio Food Bank, and the City planned to drive out of business the soup kitchens and mobile-feeding ministries that wouldn’t or couldn’t move their services to Haven by eliminating demand. It’s a formula that made even Patti Radle, the former District 5 Councilwoman and community organizer who helped spearhead Haven’s development, a little nervous.

“I have to admit to having a level of discomfort with that, because I’m a person who supports individual freedoms,” Radle told the Current at the time. “But you have to take into consideration our businesses.”

Greg Blasko of the Eastside ministry Church Under the Bridge was more blunt: “My biggest fear is that the City will use this as an excuse to say if you don’t go over there, we’ll force you out of this city.”

Blasko worried that despite Haven’s good intentions, they would necessarily leave a significant swath of the homeless population behind — both individuals who, more than one advocate has said, won’t go to the Westside campus, or to any government-affiliated entity and simple overflow. Haven’s final campus bed count will be 944, supplemented by room for 500 in Prospects Courtyard, the outdoor few-questions-asked camping area. Last year’s Point in Time head count, the official annual estimate of the homeless population, tallied more than 3,000 individuals in San Antonio. More than 2,000 were in emergency shelters, single-room occupancies, and safe havens, leaving a manageable 1,100 unsheltered — assuming many of those options, like Living Stones, are still available when Haven opens its doors. Back then, Haven was insisting it would be big enough for everyone, but it has since changed its mind.

“Anybody out there that has a facility, we’re looking to partner up,” said Prospects Courtyard Liaison Ron Brown this week. Of places like Church Under the Bridge and Living Stones, he says, “We want them to keep doing what they’re doing.”

Brown sat down with the Church Under the Bridge sometime after the Current’s 2009 article was published and worked out an agreement with CUB to accept overflow from Haven once its new church facility — which will include a volunteer-staffed commercial pizza oven — is built.

“It looks like it’s going to be a good partnership,” Blasko says.

The transition is not going as smoothly with other potential partners. A staff member with Corazon Ministries, the outreach program of Travis Park United Methodist Church, told the Current last week that it would dramatically scale back its services at the end of this week, including the 200-400 lunches it serves daily. Corazon’s contract with the City is coming to an end, and that money will now be directed to Haven.

“We’ve known about this for about the last year, year-and-a-half,” said the staff member, who asked not to be named.

First Baptist’s MANNA kitchen, which has been serving daily meals to as many as 200 needy for more than 30 years, is also tentatively planning to close after Easter Sunday, honoring the City’s request that they defer to Haven.

“That is the plan at this time,” said Richard Grant, First Baptist minister for pastoral care and senior adults. “There is a lot of uncertainty right now.”

With Haven’s grand opening pushed back yet again, this time in part by a water-main break that flooded conduit, many of San Antonio’s hungry could face a food shortage until May 22, when Haven’s Prospects Courtyard is scheduled to open.

“We don’t have a plan for that,” Brown admitted Tuesday, although he thought that perhaps the Christian Assistance Ministry Day Center on Alamo, which is closing at the end of May when its City contract ends, might pick up some of the slack. “We’re just as surprised as anyone about `Corazon` closing.”

But Assistant City Manager Peter Zanoni says “there’s not going to be a gap in services.” Corazon’s contract is month-to-month, he said, and although some of their core staff are signing on with Haven and begin training there Monday, Travis Park will refill those positions for as long as necessary.

Tim Butler runs the food program at Metropolitan Community Church, which serves food onsite Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. In February, they served 3,700 meals, he says, a number that’s probably up this month in part because of spring break, when many children are home missing out on free-school-lunch programs. “I’ve positioned us to be able to help as many people as possible,” he says of the uncertain days ahead.

“The majority of the ones we help are not homeless,” he added. MCC, for instance, supplements the diet of many elderly residents who live on restricted incomes. Perhaps for that reason, and because they serve onsite and don’t provide housing, MCC hasn’t been approached by Haven or the City. But Butler was familiar with the story of Anna-Marie Lopez, a local artist and activist who says she was warned to stop handing out food and clothing under the West Commerce bridge in late February.

“A few weeks ago the police pulled over when I was handing out food and said that I could not do that and if out there again I would be fined,” Lopez wrote in an email. “I believe he said from $200-$2,000.”

Butler had also heard about the City’s action against Spicer and Living Stones, which supported a three-days-a-week mobile food van before the City closed its kitchen in mid-March. “They hadn’t been running into that before,” Butler said. “From everything I’ve heard, `the City is` actively discouraging facilities from doing it offsite, even though Haven isn’t open yet.”

If panhandling and vagrancy ordinances are a stick the City can use to push the recalcitrant homeless to Haven, five-figure fines for serving food downtown without the required permit is the stick that could keep would-be street ministries in line. Groups or individuals who distribute food in the downtown business area, which covers all of downtown proper, must have both a mobile-vending permit from the health department and an additional permit issued by Downtown Operations. Assistant Downtown Ops Director Colleen Swain said no permits are available right now, and they are limited to very specific foods and distribution methods, such as raspa and hotdog carts. Tickets for operating a mobile food service without the legal paperwork can be issued by SAPD and park police.

“They’re planning on using the City food ordinances,” said Brian Wicks, whose Resurrection Ministries was inspired by Living Stones. For 12 years he’s been serving 50-100 “healthy, non-fat” meals on the streets Tuesdays and Thursdays to complement Spicer’s schedule. “I’ve been to some of `Haven’s` meetings. They’re trying to encourage us to drop what we’re doing and get on board with them. … I think it’s pretty obvious `the City` has an agenda to sweep the streets of ‘unsightly vermin.’”

The word on the street is that a no-tolerance policy goes into effect May 22 — the day that Prospects Courtyard plans to open, but Zanoni says that’s nonsense. The majority of the campus won’t be open until late June, he said, and even though Prospects Courtyard opens in late May, they will phase in homeless residents “piece by piece, area by area. It’s as much about an educational campaign as it is about enforcement.”

He attributes the fear of a government crackdown on street vendors and the homeless to the scope of the transition. “My belief is without precise information from the City, the gap is being filled in by generalities,” Zanoni said, although he didn’t rule out the possibility of a few officers or officials who are not “up to date.”

“To control the message in a time of change is difficult.”

Suspicious timing

Haven’s Ron Brown visited Living Stones last week, and although Spicer says Brown talked about partnering with his ministry the way Haven is partnering with Church Under the Bridge, Spicer found the timing suspicious: a week after the City’s Dangerous Assessment Response Team raided his church, and the same week the City first asked a judge to close his doors and relocate his residents.

“They were trying to butter me up,” Spicer said of the visit. “I could tell the City had talked to him.”

But Brown is also aware of the recent headlines in the daily, which have portrayed a City at war with street feeders.

“It’s not coming from us,” Brown says of the crackdown on Living Stones and the climate of apprehension among homeless missionaries. “I was coming out to address `Spicer’s` concerns. ... We’re in outreach mode.

“Our deal is the individuals camping out, sleeping in the doorway. We have to respect the business owner.” But, he added, “we want `the homeless` to be safe, period. ... That’s all Haven is: It’s a gated community. We’re not a jail; they can come and go as they want.”

Danny Keifels, a builder and Sunday-school teacher who brings volunteers from Boerne each Friday to assist with Living Stones’ mobile food distribution, testified at Monday’s hearing that while Spicer’s dormitory is not perfect, he considered it safe and clean. “I don’t think Haven and the City are on the same page,” he said before the hearing. He and a handful of other activists involved in feeding, clothing, and ministering to the homeless were meeting in Boerne Monday night to figure out “how we can continue a mission that’s changing so many people’s lives and stay within the law.”

Back in Judge Peter Sakai’s courtroom, attorney Eddie Bravenec was questioning another curious coincidence: the timing of the City’s enforcement action against Living Stones. Monday’s hearing was ostensibly about Living Stones’ certificate of occupancy — which only allows Spicer to operate a church and kitchen, not a shelter — and the underlying zoning, which is industrial. The City had spent part of the late morning quizzing its chief building inspector, who testified that no-way would San Antonio approve a homeless shelter under those conditions.

Spicer, though, told the Current last week that when he received his certificate of occupancy 17 years ago, the permit officer told him he wasn’t zoned for a shelter, so they classified him as a church with a kitchen, “with people waiting for a message from God.”

“They’ve been in there a hundred times since then,” Spicer said. “So, it’s a little weird to me.”

With Spicer on the stand, Bravenec asked him if he displayed his C of O where City inspectors could see it.

Yes, said Spicer.

Did inspectors — fire, electrical, what-have-you — come by his place?

Yes, said Spicer.

How often?

Three or four times a year.

Yet in all that time, the City never issued him a citation or warned him that his building use was not in compliance.

Judge Sakai took note of this oversight as he wrapped up the questioning.

“The City would have to concede that it’s known in the past that people were living there,” the Judge said to Rai, who gave her team’s closing arguments. After all, those bunk beds didn’t appear overnight. Rai admitted that was true, at least within the past two years. Living Stones wasn’t on the City’s radar until an unspecified complaint came to the DART team’s attention, “around March 12,” she said. (Earlier in the morning, Rai told reporters that a high number of police calls had drawn DART’s attention, although the number of calls this spring is about on par with the same period from 2009.)

“I wish we could be proactive `about addressing out-of-compliance facilities`,” she said, “but we just don’t have the resources to do so.”

Skeptics suspect Zanoni may have inadvertently given the real explanation last week to the Express-News. “Because we haven’t always had an alternative, we haven’t always enforced `the ordinances` to the strictest of code,” Zanoni told the daily’s Brian Chasnoff. “Now we can begin to enforce these in a more concerted way because we have alternatives for the homeless, which is Haven for Hope.”

Of course, it’s not an “alternative” if you don’t have a choice. Spicer believes that as many as 80 percent of homeless individuals are “homeless for a reason. … They don’t want to do certain things for society because society has done them wrong”; once they find God, they begin to realize that “society is not that bad; I made it that bad.” And so begins the path to recovery. His residents stay 15-18 months on the long end, Spicer told the Court, the amount of time it takes to get your basic life in order and save first and last months’ rent and transportation on a minimum-wage job.

Wicks of Resurrection Ministry characterizes resistance to Haven another way: “You’re under their thumb.” Ninety-nine percent of the homeless want “a full life,” he says. He’s served airline pilots, former bank vice presidents, seen the recognizable scars of divorce and the bottle. “The whole thing is respect.”

On a visit last Thursday to Living Stones, the day Judge Toni Arteaga turned down the City’s first appeal for an emergency shut-down, a group of residents gathered around a table behind pews that face a large flat-screen television. Behind us, three neat rows of bunks were filled with homey-looking bedding, belongings stored underneath in small piles and cardboard boxes. Richard, who came down from Dallas-Forth Worth to look for work in the restaurant industry after a car wreck led to one thing and then another, recalled “what we call homeless roundups” for the Bridge, a Haven-like facility in DFW, “especially when conferences, like the World Cup soccer, were in town.” Living Stones’ prices — $65/week, although only about a third of residents are able to pay at any given time — enable him to save money for a place and a vehicle, he said. In a phone message left Monday, he said he’d found full-time employment, and would be working long hours.

Asked last week what was special about Living Stones, Richard replied, “Great people, man,” a verdict echoed by his fellow residents who turned up for the hearing in Sakai’s courtroom. During a five-minute recess, Margarite Kelly and Jessica Holden worried about their fate if the City successfully forced Living Stones to close its doors and boot them to other shelters. After the March 16 raid, they’d gone to the Salvation Army, they said, where they were ordered to give up their purses and ditch their clothes and possessions. They returned to Living Stones as soon as they could.

Kelly was paroled to Living Stones several weeks ago, and like Holden, says she is happy there. “I’ve never been in an environment `before` where I felt completely welcome,” Kelly said, adding, “all my clothes are from here.”

Another Living Sto-nes tenant, a smartly dressed woman who is working at a downtown hotel, wanted to take the stand to testify that Living Stones was safe, but she was afraid that her employers might see her on TV and judge her for her difficult past.

When Judge Sakai announced that Living Stones could remain open, provided it accepted no new tenants until its code and zoning issues are resolved, the residents breathed audible sighs of relief. Kelly and Holden grabbed each other’s hands in happy disbelief.

As the courtroom crowd spilled into the hallway and TV crews circled Spicer and his attorney, a former juvenile probation officer who is living at the church while he puts his life back together led a prayer of thanks. A dozen pair of shoes circled up and arms entwined as they praised the Lord for saving “our home.”

“We’re like a family,” the man said afterward. “I just thank God we have a place to go today.” •

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.