Solving Homelessness in San Antonio with the Towne Twin Village
San Antonio is about to get its first “Housing First” solution. But, what exactly is “housing first,” how is it different, and most importantly, does it work?
Join us as we talk about Towne Twin Village with Dr. Chris Plauche.
Dr. Plauche is a board certified Neuro Development Pediatrician, retired as a Professor of Pediatrics at UT Health Center, Director of Village of Hope Center for Children with Disabilities, and is the Founding Vice President and Executive Director of the Housing First Community Coalition, which is the group behind the awesome project we’re going to talk about today, the Towne Twin Village.
Q. What is Twin Towne Village and what is that trying to solve here in San Antonio?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Well, the village, we hope will be a very welcoming and engaging community of people who have been homeless for a long time for various different reasons. But also with people that have never had an experience of homelessness and want to live in solidarity with those who have been homeless. So to make a community where everybody’s enlightening everybody else and helping each other, and kind of a self-contained community. It’s not only about housing where we hope to develop 200 units that are permanent units, we also hope to have a couple units each of what we call hospice and respite.
Hospice, I think everybody’s probably familiar with, so somebody that might be homeless that is dying, so they can die in dignity in our village with volunteers to help them. Hospice is considered a unit that is temporary for somebody that is recovering from surgery or from an illness, or an accident.
Being on the streets is not going to help them heal.
They’ve been discharged from the hospital and they have nowhere to go, so they can temporarily stay with us until they’re healed. Of course during that time, we’re going to be trying to get them a permanent house.
That’s the housing part of it, but what we’re also very excited about is that it’s a self-contained community.
We’re going to have a clinic that will offer medical, dental and mental health services. We’ll have case managers that will help connect our people to everything. Then another local establishment called the Catholic Worker House, which has been around since 1985, will move their ministry to the village. It’s been on Nolan Street in San Antonio since, like I said, 1985, offering food, clothing, hygiene products, a mail service, free Wi-Fi, movies, and free laundry.
We’re going to move that whole operation out to the village.
The reason why it’s called Towne Twin Village is because that was the site for over 30 years back in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s of Towne Twin Drive-In movie theater. So we want one of the social events every week to be “Friday Night at the Movies,” and instead of drive in, it’s going to be walk-in, so we’re building an amphitheater type movie theater outdoors. Then other events during the week and on the weekends, just to bring about community.
These events would be open, not only to the people who live there, but also their guests, neighbors or other people that might just want to come and enjoy with us!
Q. Take us through the journey… What’s it been like to get to this point?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Well, I won’t go too personally, but some time on May 13th, 2000, I had this epiphany in different ways. I was beginning the process of retiring from pediatrics, and I guess I just told God,
“Bring me wherever you want to bring me, get me out of my comfort zone.”
And all of a sudden I realized it was homelessness, adults that have been homeless. And I thought, where does this fit into pediatrics? Like what’s going on here?
I got started just tipping my toes into the water in 2005, and then I became the Director of the Catholic Worker House, which I’ve mentioned, that is a day center of hospitality. I went to Oblate School of Theology to get a master’s in spirituality at 70 years of age.
I was taking a Social Justice course and I chose to do a project on housing and homelessness because I felt like Catholic Worker House is wonderful, and I loved it!
It wasn’t the cure of homelessness, it was just a Band-Aid… and so I did that project, and I stumbled on this “Housing First” concept.
It started in the 1990s in New York City and it was very, very different from the models that I had learned about. The old model is “Housing Ready,” whereas if you’ve been homeless, you get taken into a transitional shelter. If you want housing, then there’s some things you have to do:
- Sober for six months
- Clean for six months
- Actively looking for a job or almost getting a job
- You have to save some money
All these things, which if you’re just recently homeless, is probably doable. But if you’ve been homeless on the streets for 10 or 15 years, that is just not doable.
So maybe you get through four months of being clean and sober, and you have a little back step, you got to start all over again. When that happens, then they just say, “What the heck? Why should I even do this?” So that’s called “Housing Ready.”
“Housing First” means you take these people, you give them a house first, and when they have a roof over their head, a door that locks, a refrigerator, and they finally get to sleep all the way through the night instead of one eye open – it’d be amazing!
Y’all would be amazed how many people are mobbed, robbed, or assaulted in the middle of the night – so it’s hard to sleep.
I mean, I don’t know if any of y’all have had babies, but you know how you get a little crazy when you’re up every two hours tending to the newborn?
Think of that.
All your life you’ve had to do that and you haven’t even gotten to get a full closure of both eyes for any amount of time. So you wake up in the morning, you’re not that rested and first thing you think about is where can I find a bathroom? I don’t know how it is in other cities, but a lot of the park bathrooms and downtown bathrooms are locked, and especially locked overnight. Some of them might open at 8:00 in the morning, but I mean, you just have to think…
What do you do there?
So you base your whole day on bathrooms and food. Okay, where can I get food? Where can I use the bathroom? And then you’ve got to find a safe place to camp out at night, but with a home, all that stress and anxiety goes away:
- You have a good night’s sleep
- You wake up bright eyed and bushy tailed
- You have breakfast is in the refrigerator
All of these behaviors that cause stigmas… those behaviors disappear because they have a home and they have a TV. They have friends and they can invite people over for supper and it kind of changes them.
This idea of “Housing First” is we’re not trying to say, “you got to do this, you got to do this, you got to do that,” but what they found in research – we have now over 20 years of research, and every study is positive that without all the counseling, and without all these rules and regulations – they actually cure themselves.
Because they get a good night’s sleep and that anxiety level really comes down.
That’s why we’re firmly believing in that theory, having journeyed with a few people that I first met in 2005 under the bridge. I helped them get a house and helped them get social security and disability benefits. And I saw, before I even knew about “Housing First,” I saw how they just changed. You would never know that they were the bully under the bridge. They all of a sudden became the best neighbor.
So personally I saw the results of “Housing First” before I knew what Housing First was. When I studied it and learned that there are actually studies and there’s places all over the United States doing it, I just got so excited, but it wasn’t in Texas at the time.
It was on the East Coast and the West Coast.
When I started studying it and I contacted these people, I went to the East Coast and the West Coast to look at different places. People seemed happy and it seemed to be working, I’m like, “Whoa.”
But nobody in Texas had even heard of it…
Then about two years later, somebody from “Housing First” in New York came to Austin to set up an office and things started going! Now the biggest news is in 2015, HUD said, in order to get money from the federal government through HUD, you had to have a “Housing First Project,” and that’s what solidified the model.
Q. From your experience, for San Antonio specifically, is there a big need here in town? Or why do you think the city needs a project like Twin Towne Village?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Well, because we have thousands of people who are homeless, and I don’t know, maybe y’all have never driven on the Eastside underneath I-37. We had tent city galore under there, and that was on the streets they had swept away. But then within days, it recollected, it’s not as big. I mean, that’s just one area, but there are unbelievable tent cities all around San Antonio.
I think what’s a little bit different is that they’re in out of the way places. I used to live near SeaWorld and somebody said there’s a huge tent city out there. That is foreign to me because I thought I knew that area. I think the difference between San Antonio and Austin, and San Francisco and New York is that our folks are not right downtown on the streets – that’s never been allowed to happen. I’m not going to say whether that’s good or bad, because if this had been like Austin and San Francisco, it was right on our San Antonio streets. I think something like our project would have been happening a long time ago…
Q. So you’re saying the project is just as rampant, we just don’t see it everywhere?
Dr. Christine Plauche: I don’t think it’s nearly as visible, but yeah, the other thing is HUD does this HIC, Housing Inventory Count. The HIC count of units compared to the number of those who are homeless, is lower in San Antonio than in Austin, Dallas and Houston.
So we actually have a greater problem because there’s fewer HIC units per population than in the other cities.
Again, I think our people are camping in places that are not visible, and again, there’s good for that and there’s maybe not so good because I think when it’s visible, people tend to realize, oh, we do have a problem.
We do need to do something.
That huge encampment under the I-37, woke up a lot of people because I know people that were visiting us had never been under that Nolan Street bridge, and when they got to our place, they said, “What is going on?” And we’d say, “Oh, it’s been there for months, you just never drive this way.”
Alberto Piña: When they say swept away, is that when the city came and cleared all that out?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Yeah.
Alberto Piña: I know that made news, what didn’t make news is it sounds like a week later that came right back, right?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Yes, yeah. Not as great. I think they said 200 tents before and now there’s about 70.
Alberto Piña: Gotcha, so really Twin Towne Village is there to help folks trapped in chronic homelessness.
Dr. Christine Plauche: Yes.
Q. Can you touch on what might be different to helping those that are chronically homeless, versus just had a bump in the road and trying to bounce out of that?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Certainly. I love that term “bump in the road.” I think those that become recently homeless, and maybe COVID, a lot of the evictions due to COVID, they still have bank accounts, they still have cars. They still have their driver’s license and they still have, especially if they have children, they still have that drive to come back and have a residence.
When you’re chronically homeless, you’ve been beaten down so many times. And maybe you did try one of those “Housing Ready Programs,” and especially if you got almost there, five months and then something happened, it’s a chronic sort of thing of being beaten down and you give up.
You’d say, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this.”
I think “Housing Ready” model is wonderful for those that are more recently homeless. But for those that are chronically homeless, number one, I have people that have money. They’re getting a VA check or something, but they don’t have an ID, and you can’t lease an apartment without an ID.
With the DMV closed, it was impossible to get a photo ID. When you’re chronically homeless, you’re more exposed to crime. And I will be honest with you, some of our people end up in jail. A lot of times they’re innocent bystanders, so they get drawn into something. A lot of times they lose all their IDs and stuff like that, or social security card. Especially during COVID and still now, it is, oh, I would say a 100x harder to recover your social security card because you can’t just walk in and say, “I need a…” You have to have an appointment and you’re on the phone for ages and try to get an appointment.
We tried to get an appointment for one man who had a lot of back pay from social security. He could afford a house. In fact, we wanted to buy him an RV and he could afford it. We had the RV picked out and everything, but he’d lost his ID and we started trying in August to get him a new ID, the earliest appointment they had was February.
And guess what?
It was during the snow storm so they canceled it.
He now has his appointment in July, so we’re waiting a whole year just to get an ID for him.
He’s got money. He’s always just, “I’m the richest homeless man in the city.”
Luckily his money’s safe in a bank, I’ve been sort of hovering over him and trying to do that, because he’s very vulnerable. People know he has money and I said, “If you keep that debit card on you or anything else, you’re dead, man.”
So he only keeps like $40 at a time.
But I mean, I’m just trying to say, that’s a huge impediment that a recently homeless person would not have because they still have all their credentials, stuff in a bank account, and a phone.
But when you’re chronically homeless, little by little, you lose that.
At some point, I think it’s really a spiritual thing, to be honest with you. At some point you just don’t care. I don’t have a phone, I don’t have an ID. I just eat where the food might be. I’ve learned so much from them. They say you learn from the poor, and just their sense of reliance on God. I mean, you and I, we would be so stressed out if we lost our driver’s licenses or our debit card or something, but they go, “It’s just one more thing.”
Q. Is that at that point, you mentioned them being beaten down, is that just giving up? I’m just accepting I’m going to be homeless forever? Is that the transition you see with the chronic homeless?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Some of them are like that. Some of them really want to get out of it, but they’re frustrated because things that they’ve tried just haven’t worked.
I’ve helped some of them get on the SAHA list for government housing, they’re so excited that they got on the list, but it’s 3, 4, 5 years before they contact you.
You don’t have an address, you don’t have a telephone, so your name comes up and you miss the meeting… So you got to start all over again.
That’s why we feel like Catholic Worker is so important. We’re an address for about 2,000 people.
Q. Y’all started wanting to do this in 2008, but it took 11 years to find the property, right? What was that journey like?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Well, because I had visited East Coast and West Coast and seen that most of the “Housing First Communities” were in older hotels. That was my first thing, I started looking at hotels. It was interesting, we thought we had one and the city was even going to buy it for us. Then I guess the city called the owner and the owner tripled his price because he knew the city was interested in it.
This is a plug for listening to the people you’re trying to help.
Then we started having town hall meetings with the people who would be prospective residents, we did surveys, and we got their input. We found out none of them wanted to live in a high rise hotel, so we went, “Oh well, this is our idea of a good idea,” but they didn’t really want it.
Then we looked at nursing homes, we looked at a lot of convents, and seminaries. Unfortunately convents and seminaries are closing. Even apartments that were not doing well, that maybe wanted to sell out, and that didn’t work for one reason or another. Then somebody suggested, “Why don’t you just look for empty land?” And I was against that because I just want things fast. Buy that hotel, get them in. We started looking at empty land, and every time we looked at a piece of land, the first thing we said was, “is it on a bus route?” And if it wasn’t, we went to the CEO, Jeff Arndt of VIA, and said, “What’s the possibility of getting a bus out here?”
I have to say VIA was so good. They always figured out a way to do it.
Because none of our people, I mean, maybe out of a hundred people, 2 might have a driver’s license, and those 2 haven’t driven in 10 years. They certainly don’t own a car, so the bus is number one.
Number two, talking to our people about location, and if they like that. Then number three was to bite the bullet and go do block walking with the neighbors, and then NIMBY surfaces its head and you just realize, this is not going to work. One place we thought really might work, we contacted somebody that had just had a big meeting with the neighbors to put up affordable housing, but for families… not homeless at all! And even they got shot down by that neighborhood association. They said, “If we can’t do it, you can’t do it,” so a lot of it was NIMBY, I have to admit.
Alberto Piña: For our audience, NIMBY… We’ve covered it, but it’s “not in my back yard,” right?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Yeah.
Q. What specifically were y’all running into with this project?
Dr. Christine Plauche: They were worried about safety. Unfortunately, homelessness is associated with crime, that’s a myth.
I mean, I don’t know, I always think it’s silly.
So a homeless person is going to break into your house? Okay, he has no home. He has no transportation. What is he going to take? He’s going to carry your big TV on his shoulder?
But yet on the other hand, when a person who’s homeless gets robbed, he loses everything.
His backpack, which is his house, his ID cards, his phone, he loses everything, so I think it’s an irony. But anyway, so safety was number one. Number two is they were worried about their property values. And number three, they were worried that it would trash out the neighborhood.
We reminded them, and we hadn’t talked about this, but our project is for people 50 and older.
People say, “Why did you limit it to 50?” I say, “Well, the baby boomers are the biggest cohort in the history of the world, so a percentage of the baby boomers are going to be homeless and that’s going to be a bigger percentage than any other age. They’re more vulnerable and they tend to stay on the streets longer because they don’t have the strength and the energy, and they have other things that make them more vulnerable, like losing vision or hearing.”
Then I hate to say it, I’m one of those, but I mean, there’s all kinds of other things as far as arthritis, incontinence and all those things.
We decided to reach out to them, that calmed some neighbors down because there’s plenty of studies that show, at least in men, the hormones that produce violence drastically go down in the forties.
At Catholic Worker, we used to take all ages and we cut it back to 50 and above, and it was just amazing how much calmer things were. How fewer cuss words you heard and all that stuff. That was one thing, and then to address their safety issue. The other issue is housing property values, and Catholic Worker is in the Dignowity Neighborhood, which is historic and very much gentrified. The housing market is going sky high with us there, so we didn’t really cause any problems with that, and that’s been shown all over the country.
Q. What is the benefit to the city as a whole when a project like this gets built inside San Antonio?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Well, there’s been a recent push in the last 10 years, for cities to be acclaimed as a compassionate city.
I think it’s all about compassion.
I mean, everybody deserves a home. I think giving, even if you live wherever out in the outskirts of town and you don’t encounter a person who’s homeless… I just think that being part of a city that’s really working on decreasing the number who are homeless, has just got to be a compassionate thing all the way around. If you can’t be right downtown and helping out as a volunteer or helping with other ways, from a distance.
We’ve got an Amazon account now, I tell you.
I mean, Catholic Worker, we depended on people going to stores and bringing us donations. Now we get boxes every day from Amazon of food… and I’m saying, “Wow, I’m digging this.”
As far as Facebook, we’ve never done Facebook until COVID. Somebody created a Facebook [page for Housing First Community Coalition].
I’m like no, I’m not doing that. I’m not Facebooking.
I’m just amazed, I mean these boxes just keep coming in with just the right things we need because we tell them on Facebook what we need and it’s great! Even if you’re not in contact with people who are homeless, and I think when people actually do come and deliver stuff and they’re total strangers to me, I say, “Well, how did you even find us?” And they go, “Well, Facebook.” And they said, “We can’t help out as far as serving food or packaging up food, but we can send you what you need.”
One of our board members went to Holland, to Amsterdam, and we were just starting this up and he asked everybody, “Well, so what are y’all doing about your homeless? I haven’t seen anybody who’s homeless.”
He said they would look at him like, “Homeless? We don’t have anybody who’s homeless.”
I mean they take care of it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could be Amsterdam and say, “We don’t have any homeless.” Because I really do think it’s a right, but that sounds too political. I think it’s just the compassionate, right thing to do.
Alberto Piña: Yeah, well I think there’s going to be folks that agree with that 100%, and then there’s always folks that don’t, right?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Yeah.
Alberto Piña: But even if you’re trying to keep more money in your pocket, money’s going out constantly to address these “Band-Aids,” like you said. It sounds like this is actually a legitimate solution that, if done right, will help people not need the city government or the state government to continue to help with that. This sounds like it’s a pathway to a solution instead of, like you said, “Band-Aids.” Even if it’s strictly dollars and cents, yes, this is an investment, but it’s an investment that’s already being made and not solving the problem.
Dr. Christine Plauche: Right. Speaking about giving towards the real solution versus the “Band-Aid,” we haven’t launched it yet, but we want to launch Build a House or Adopt a Home.
So somebody that might have $40,000 that they could part with, could build a house and have a naming thing, like in memory of whoever. This would be, I’m living in the Mary Smith house, or whatever, or if maybe that’s not possible, they could adopt a home and donate $400 every month to help with rental. Then we would want, don’t just send the money, but we would have these gatherings, maybe 2 or 3 times a year, where you could come and meet your person that you’ve adopted, and make them buddies or pals.
Alberto Piña: I think, and I was one of them until we started working in downtown all the time, if you live in San Antonio, you just don’t see the problem. It’s kind of a, maybe we don’t have a problem, we’re doing good. But it sounds like if you’re in this city, this is something we should all be a champion of because we have the problem, we just don’t see it. I think there’s going to be a ton of folks, us included, who want to help and want to get involved.
Q. How can our readers find out about what you’re doing? What do y’all need help with? How do they get involved?
Dr. Christine Plauche: Facebook, we have a Towne Twin Facebook, and we also have Catholic Worker Facebook page. And then our website, Towne Twin Village website, Catholic Worker website, they can find out about that.
I have a wonderful partner who does all the tech stuff. I’m sort of the old lady that just has the ideas. But we’d love to chat with anybody.
We’ve gotten quite a few… I guess on both websites there’s a way to contact us, and we’ve gotten quite a few people from all walks of life, that would like to help out. Some with the clinic at the new place, nurses especially, we’ve had several nurses say, “I’m retired, but I still have my license. Let me know what I can do.” So that’s that’s pretty cool, to people that just want to cook for us.
Alberto Piña: Yeah, my mother just retired from nursing. She was an RN level my entire life. She’s been looking for her next thing and I think once you’re a nurse or a doctor, you are someone that takes care of people. I know she’s looking for that next thing as well. It’s right up her alley.
She listens to everything we do. I’m going to show her the podcast and just see what she wants to do from there. But this is so cool. Thank you so much for coming. I’m just really excited this is actually happening in our city, and we’re not talking to somebody 2,000 miles away to hear about awesome solutions that maybe one day we’ll get here. So thank you for coming on, and we appreciate you being a guest.
Dr. Christine Plauche: Thank you so much for having me.