After COVID-19 cancelled San Antonio's homeless count, groups are still tracking the numbers

Volunteers take part in San Antonio's 2019 Point-In-Time Count. - KATIE HENNESSEY
Katie Hennessey
Volunteers take part in San Antonio's 2019 Point-In-Time Count.
Every January, volunteers from homeless organizations across the country comb their cities to tally their number homeless residents. It's called a Point-In-Time Count, or PIT Count.

Due to dangerous COVID-19 infection levels this year, many of those organizations — including the San Antonio Regional Alliance for the Homeless  (SARAH) — cancelled their PIT Counts of unsheltered individuals. A separate count of people in shelters, reported by local agencies, will take place as usual, however.

Katie Vela, SARAH's executive director, said the cancellation of the unsheltered PIT Count, which usually relies on volunteers, will "ensure the safety of our neighbors experiencing homelessness, staff and volunteers."

Some 400 volunteers helped count Bexar County's unsheltered population last January.

In lieu of the unsheltered count, SARAH will hold a Street Outreach Day of Appreciation on Tuesday, January 26. Outreach staff provide food, showers, clothing and sanitation resources to those living in encampments and unsheltered conditions in San Antonio.

"There are dedicated street outreach staff in our community who have continued to provide services and resources to people experiencing homelessness throughout the pandemic," Vela told the Current. "The work they do is essential, and we want to recognize them and honor them."

The community can support SARAH's outreach partners directly by donating to the "Change the Way we Give" campaign, or contributing drop-off donations Tuesday between 1-4 p.m. at 319 W. Travis Street.

'Primary focus'

SARAH plans to make use of its existing database to conduct a count this year. The Homeless Management Information System, used by about 700 users and 50 organizations in the community, will point out demographic trends and needs of those living without shelter. Organizations expect to release that count in the spring.

The annual homeless census offers critical year-to-year data that lets SARAH, the San Antonio area's lead Continuum of Care agency, inform other aid groups how to best deploy their resources.

The biggest concern rising from the 2020 Count was a 7% rise in the unsheltered homeless population. Analysis also showed the number of people without shelter increased by 8% in San Antonio over a 10-year span.

"Strategies to reduce the number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness is and will continue to be a primary focus area for SARAH," Vela said.

Those efforts include working alongside partners to coordinate community street outreach and increasing the number of housing resources available.

"This is a complex issue," Vela said. "But we know it's critical that we have enough skilled outreach staff connecting the most vulnerable people in our community with available supportive housing options."

Even without an in-person tally, Vela said this year's report will be thorough.

"In addition to an unsheltered data review, SARAH will include an analysis of the sheltered population, which will bring insight into how additional resources allocated towards those experiencing homelessness during COVID-19 were utilized and what gaps remain," she explained.

'Significant work'

Concern about how the pandemic would affect the unsheltered population led to new collaborations and programs in 2020, according to Vela.

When shelters and food pantries closed due shelter-in-place orders last March, SARAH established a COVID-19 responses plan to ensure unsheltered individuals still had access to food, socially distanced shelters and hygiene.

Vela said SARAH, its partners and the city of San Antonio have done "significant work" to prevent a rise in unsheltered homeless people during the pandemic.

Those efforts include establishing homeless resource hubs, a homeless connection hotline, a hotel housing 300 people nightly, a collaborative funding process and weekly COVID-19 coordination calls.

The pandemic also put more families at risk of homelessness. To address that concern, SARAH implemented a pilot program through a $250,000 USAA grant that redirects people to housing opportunities on the first day they become homeless.

SARAH is closely monitoring eviction cases so it can act quickly, Vela said.

While the number of eviction cases has dropped during a federal eviction moratorium, that protection is set to expire at the end of January. Vela said SARAH is working with partners to prepare. On Wednesday, the federal government gave San Antonio $46.7 million for emergency rental assistance, which eases some of the concern about a coming displacement crisis.

"We have not seen an uptick in unsheltered homelessness overall," Vela said.

Even so, safely abating encampments and helping people access shelters has been difficult during the pandemic.

San Antonio still grapples with a "lack of affordable housing and enough funding to provide long-term supportive housing for every person currently experiencing homelessness," Vela said.

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.