Inside the Push to House San Antonio’s Homeless Vets

Distinguished Service


The interaction between Shane Browning and Teresa Estrada looks routine.

They're seated across from each other in a small, drab cubicle. Browning produces various documents, checking boxes and initialing blank spaces on a seemingly endless number of forms, while Estrada asks questions about his credit history and monthly income.

The scene looks pedestrian, like something you'd pass by at a bank or the DMV. But it's not. Meetings like this are critical building blocks for San Antonio's final push to end veteran homelessness, part of a nationwide federal initiative.

Browning is a homeless veteran. Estrada is a navigator, a kind of case worker employed by nonprofit Family Endeavors whose job is to help vets like Browning find housing, employment, medical assistance and anything else they need to stay off the street.

The city formally announced its participation in the Mayor's Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness in January 2015, and it aims to meet that goal by March 31. It's an ambitious target, but officials say the city will likely hit it.

The finish line is only in sight because of sit-downs like this one held at Haven for Hope. And it's made the agencies who serve the homeless better equipped to help everyone, not just veterans.

"Starting from scratch ... the process started a little more slowly than we would have liked," said Scott Ackerson, vice president of strategic relationships at Haven for Hope. "Some people might think it's sort of a linear track: You identify the veteran, you identify the apartment, you get the veteran in the apartment and then you're all done. The reality is it's all a process, and it's never linear."

Estrada and her fellow navigators are well-versed in that non-linear process. They're foot soldiers, they're fixers. Whatever a veteran needs — a ride to an apartment, sorting out Veterans Affairs benefits — the navigators are there.

"Every [veteran] is very different. You've got to adapt to the individual to see how best to serve them," said Michael Niño, another navigator and a Marine Corps veteran. "I don't like seeing those who have fulfilled their obligation to our country down and out."

Meeting Criteria

Melody Woosley, director of Human Services for the City, said that SA is "on track" to reach the deadline, which Mayor Ivy Taylor reiterated in her State of the City address.

Over 1,200 homeless veterans in SA, including 116 who were chronically homeless, have been housed since January 2015, or are in the process of being housed, according to the City of San Antonio. Since then, about 50 new homeless veterans have been identified each month. It's unclear how many are currently on the street.

Woosley said the City decided on the March 31 date after the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) announced its new criteria last October for confirming the elimination of veteran homelessness.

The USICH criteria isn't a straightforward census. Instead, it's as much about building systems and capacity to support veterans as it is getting them off the street.

To meet the USICH standard, government agencies and nonprofit organizations must identify every homeless veteran in their city and be able to immediately offer them shelter. Veterans must move into permanent housing within 90 days. If a veteran declines the help, assistance must be re-offered at least once every two weeks. USICH also stresses that cities use the "housing first" model of homelessness intervention, which advocates first moving a person into a home before addressing other issues.

"It's about creating a system where ... veteran homelessness is rare, brief and non-reoccurring," Woosley said. "That doesn't mean there will never be another homeless veteran. It's that we have a system in place that we can identify every veteran that's homeless. We can ensure that they are housed quickly, and that they are absolutely not forced to sleep on the street."

Whether San Antonio meets the self-imposed March 31 deadline probably won't be known until after it passes, since it takes several weeks for USICH to verify that a city has met its criteria.

Driven to Succeed

Browning, 47, wants a fresh start. He's been homeless since November, when a split with his then-wife sent him into a steep spiral. He spent most of that time sleeping in the woods, though he stayed in Prospects Courtyard, Haven for Hope's free, open-air concrete slab where people can sleep, for about a month. A navigator met him there and told him about special benefits available to veterans.

Browning spent four years in the Army as an infantryman. He served during the Gulf War but didn't see combat. His right eye was covered by gauze to prevent his eyelid from getting infected — an ailment he said has stumped doctors, and forced him out of his civilian job as a commercial diver after he couldn't pass a physical.

He misses the camaraderie of the military. Now he's focused on going back to school, maybe to become a paramedic. The biggest item in his camo backpack is a dictionary-sized biology textbook.

"It gets my mind off a lot of the stuff," Browning said of his studies. "I'm more driven now than I was. I was pretty driven back then to accomplish the goals that I'd set ... but I don't want to fail again."

Browning wants what most of us want — a job, a car, a chance to be productive. In the short-term, he'd like to work with animals and go to San Antonio College. He works at the kennel at Haven for Hope. One day, there was a note on the door that said, "Puppy, kennel no. 2, take care of." He adopted the small black pup and named her Io, after a priestess from Greek mythology.

Although Browning's struggled, he doesn't face some of the obstacles that plague many veterans: He doesn't have a criminal record or owe back child support. Those conditions, as well as mental illnesses such as PTSD, put up barriers for housing and employment.

"A lot of them have a lot of trade skills ... but it's just someone giving them the opportunity, taking the chance and hiring them. Because some of them have backgrounds, some of them have felonies," Estrada said.

'You Can't Just Walk Away'

The effort has required substantial financial resources. Homeless initiatives in San Antonio have received over $30 million in aid from federal, state and city resources. Over a third of that is dedicated to ending veteran homelessness. Local financial services company USAA chipped in a $2.1 million grant in 2016.

With the cash, Family Endeavors hired additional navigators and a housing specialist. The company also buys home supplies, furniture and helps with rent.

Support from the grant money can prop up housing applications from veterans with checkered backgrounds, according to Travis Pearson, CEO of Family Endeavors and chairman of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless.

"Our conversations with landlords, we have to develop a relationship where they trust us, because by taking some of these guys in, they're taking a risk," Pearson said.

The consolidation of resources and development of new practices will allow agencies to better serve the whole homeless population going forward.

"Some of the things we're doing now, it's hard to believe we never did them," said Pearson.

Members of San Antonio's continuum of care, which includes nonprofit groups and municipal agencies involved in helping the homeless, started meeting once a week to plan and update each other on each veteran's status in February 2015. They also perform "triage" to determine how best to allocate resources, pushing veterans with the most pressing needs to the front of the line. And by meeting regularly, groups can decide which among them can best serve a specific veteran.

"It's that system that has made the biggest difference ... asking 'Who really has the most appropriate service for that person?'" Woosley said.

No matter how much money pours in though, completely eradicating veteran homelessness in San Antonio – or any big city – is probably an impossible task. If someone wishes to stay on the street, there's little that can be done.

"We have the resources, but homelessness is not illegal and you can't make someone go into a home if they don't want to," Ackerson said.

And whether the city meets the deadline, Pearson said there's always an obligation to extend a hand to those in need.

"[Some veterans] don't want to be housed. They have very little hope," Pearson said. "You can't just walk away from folks who say, 'I don't want help.' We have to keep coming back, keep coming back, keep coming back."