In September, a new partnership between three nonprofit organizations in Comal County received grant funding through Texas Health and Human Services Commission that will be used to provide housing and mental health services for individuals experiencing homelessness.

The partnership, called the Next Step Program, brings together the Crisis Center of Comal County, First Footing of NB Housing Partners, and the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Center, or MHDD.

Mic Biesboer, the community liaison for the program, said the grant was awarded through the Texas HHSC Healthy Community Collaborative effort, which aims to bring organizations and individuals together to fight homelessness and mental illness.

The program was awarded approximately $1.7 million annually for the next seven years, Biesboer said. The group will be required to reapply periodically and could receive additional funding in the coming years.

“[The grant] just completely increases the resources we have to be able to actually address real homelessness and housing instability in our county,” he said. “With these efforts, we're going to be able to resource and help folks and reintegrate them back into healthy community.”

Biesboer said the goal of the program is to bring the shelter and housing services of CCCC and First Footing together with mental health services provided by MHDD. Funding from the grant has opened more staffing opportunities for licensed counselors and case managers.

For many experiencing homelessness, rehousing is just the first step to reintegrating into the community, and mental health services and counseling are often integral to finding stability, Biesboer said.

Previously, the collaborative focused grant funding on large metropolitan areas throughout the state but recently turned its attention to more rural communities.

By working with organizations outside of major cities, the collaborative hopes to enable local groups to more effectively serve and support those experiencing homelessness in their own communities, Biesboer said.

According to a 2019 report completed by Marbut Consulting for the Homeless Coalition, 50% of those experiencing homelessness locally have lived in the area for an average of 15 years. Approximately 64% of individuals have family members living in Comal or Guadalupe counties.

“These are our neighbors. These are people that you might have went to school with or you might have played sports with,” Biesboer said.

Another key goal of the program is to gather data about the needs facing the community as it relates to homelessness so that organizations and groups gain a better understanding of the services that are most needed, said Ellie Truan, shelter director for the CCCC.

Currently, there is not enough data available for Comal County to determine the demand for services such as public transportation, rehabilitation programs and affordable housing, Truan said.

“It is really great to be able to work closer with MHDD and to work with First Footing, but also to be able to gather all that data of what our community needs to better serve these individuals so that we're not having to move them to San Antonio or Austin or surrounding areas,” she said.

Ultimately, Truan and Biesboer hope the collaboration will extend to include other local nonprofits, church groups and support organizations.

“Our goal is to create a program where we offer people the services [people] need to to be reintegrated into the community,” Biesboer said. “These are sad stories, but we now have an opportunity to help rewrite their stories.”