Tabetha Tompkins said she has spent three years living on the streets, most recently in a tent beneath a US 281 underpass in North San Antonio.

Tompkins said she became homeless after she was hospitalized for a sickness and fell behind on her medical bills. The 32-year-old said homelessness is a grind. She’s gone to nonprofit shelter Haven for Hope, but said the visit was a negative experience.

“I understand other people don’t want to see us,” Tompkins said. “We don’t want to be seen, but we’ve got to exist somewhere.”

Tompkins is one of the more than 3,100 people estimated to be experiencing homelessness in San Antonio, according to nonprofit Close to Home’s 2023 point-in-time, or PIT, count of the city’s homeless population. The PIT count found the overall estimate of San Antonio’s homeless population rose from 2,995 to 3,155 between January 2022 and January 2023.

Two-minute impact

According to public and private-sector stakeholders working on local homeless issues, a holistic, long-term, multipronged approach is needed to address the complexities of homelessness.

San Antonio officials plan to spend more than $1.43 million in fiscal year 2023-24 to bolster anti-homelessness measures. Those include growing the encampment abatement team from two to four workers, clearing up to 700 encampments and diverting 300 at-risk individuals to temporary low-barrier housing, where entry requirements are minimal.

David Row, the city’s interim homeless outreach manager, said aside from affordable housing or financial troubles, substance abuse, trauma or mental illness—or a mix of these and other issues—tend to drive people into homelessness.

Current situation

Katie Vela Wilson, Close to Home’s executive director, said a lack of affordable housing and protections from evictions are further compounding San Antonio’s homeless situation.

“That has a ripple effect on our ability to serve other people experiencing homelessness,” Wilson said. “Getting people back into housing is another challenge. If somebody goes through an eviction, now that's on their record, and the place that they were staying at previously may have been more affordable than where they can relocate by the time they're in a shelter.”

Those without homes and panhandlers are venturing outside the city’s urban core, officials added. According to the 2023 PIT count, the majority—55.6%—of individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Bexar County were surveyed in either City Council districts 1 or 5, but 86 combined were counted in the north side districts 8, 9 and 10.

District 8 council member Manny Pelaez urged residents to refrain from giving panhandlers money, and instead donate to local churches or nonprofits that help homeless people.

“I’m not asking people not to be generous; I’m asking them to be mindful of their generosity,” he said.

District 10 council member Marc Whyte in August proposed greater efforts to rehabilitate and train able-bodied people to more quickly become self-sustaining, contributing members of society.

“There are operational things that the city could improve upon,” he said.

What’s next

Stakeholders said city and Bexar County officials are partnering with local nonprofits and churches in various ways, short- and long-term, to reduce homelessness.

Pelaez recently proposed a public engagement campaign as part of San Antonio’s homeless outreach program to help educate residents.

Meanwhile, private developers and Opportunity Home, the local housing authority, are working with city officials to implement a $150 million affordable housing bond approved by voters in 2022.

Additionally, officials with the city, Bexar County, Close to Home, and other organizations and agencies are partnering to fulfill objectives outlined in the five-year Strategic Plan to Respond to Homelessness. City officials adopted that plan in late 2020.

As for Close to Home, the organization participated in activities during Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week in mid-November. Wilson also said Close to Home is lining up volunteers for its January 2024 point-in-time count.

Get involved

Row said city officials and their partners seek to do even more with new programs designed to connect homeless individuals with needed services. He and Vela Wilson also encouraged residents to donate time, money or needed supplies to homelessness organizations, such as Haven for Hope, SAMMinistries and Christian Assistance Ministry.

“There’s always room for more improvement,” Row said.

Homeless advocates said they also strive to honor unhoused persons who have died while experiencing homelessness.

Additionally, members of the public are invited to a homeless persons’ memorial service 7 p.m. Dec. 21 at Milam Park, 500 W. Commerce St.

According to local nonprofit SAMMinistries, 308 unhoused individuals are known to have died inside Bexar County in 2023, an 85% increase over last year’s count.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and representatives of local homeless outreach organizations will read aloud the name of each unhoused local person known to have died this year.

SAMMinistries officials said the memorial occurs on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, to provide dignity and compassion to individuals who have died without occupying a warm, stable home.

A meal and resources will be made available to unhoused individuals in attendance at the memorial service.

“While this is a somber occasion, the significant increase in individuals who lost their lives this year, reignites our collective efforts to overcome homelessness and create pathways to housing for San Antonians,” SAMMinistries President and CEO Nikisha Baker said in a statement.