SAN ANTONIO — A Blanco Road businessman claims someone in a homeless camp burned and wrecked his commercial building is grateful the people in the camp have finally been dispersed, after months of complaining.
Gary Arnold claims someone from a nearby encampment broke a window to gain access and then torch his building, which is adjacent to the Olmos Creek drainage channel, back in May.
“It was attributed to homeless breaking in and sniffing paint and thanking everybody by setting the place on fire,” Arnold said.
Listing the damage, Arnold said the rebuild process was extensive.
“The inside of the building was gutted. We had to take it down to the frame. New metal, new insulation, all new electrical, plumbing, offices, everything,” Arnold said.
Arnold said when he rebuilt and tried to update his insurance, the carrier balked, saying the homeless camp right outside his door in the Olmos Creek drainage channel was too big a threat.
“I want to conduct my business and have insurance and I can't do it with this going on,” Arnold said, adding he begged the city for help, but got no action after repeated phone calls.
Afraid of being burned out again, Arnold lamented “I called the fire department after there was a campfire going on at four in the afternoon.”
The city does have an abatement process.
Patrick Steck, with the Department of Human Services said, “when it is in a drainage channel, park, or on the side of the road, we'll do an assessment and if there is a severe health and safety issue, a threat to the public or the people who are staying there, then we schedule that for a site abatement.”
Steck says the procession isn’t fast and the sweeps are never a surprise to the people sheltering in public areas.
The city process includes posting notices warning people to move on, they give people options for finding safer shelter, and finally, like an army armed with brooms, they sweep in and sweep up the mess.
“We engage with them when we do the assessment. We engage with them when we're there. So it's always an assessment. There's always multiple outreach engagements, and then we will clear and restore the site to how it would be without the encampment there,” Steck said.
Getting people to accept help is a job that takes time.
Steck said “Engagement is what we're doing to try and connect folks into shelters and to housing programs, so they get off the streets long-term, and have a place to reside that's not unsafe to themselves and to others too.”
There are numerous people trying to help. Steck said “We have a team that's pro-actively going out there engaging regularly, sometimes multiple times a week.”
Steck said with colder weather coming on, it is usually easier to convince people to accept an offer of shelter. Another factor in getting people off the streets, he said, is that pandemic-related restrictions on shelter capacity have been lifted.
Steck said homelessness is not a crime in and of itself, but there are still ways to get help with camps that might be causing concern.
“If you see an issue? Call us. Call 311. You can report an encampment to 311. But if you're seeing something that is criminal, call 911. Call police,” Steck said.
Like many who are trying to make a positive difference for the unsheltered, Steck said as a community, more needs to be done to provide safe, affordable housing.
“Long term, we need affordable housing options for people. Affordable housing was a key component of the bond and that is well underway, especially for people who have been experiencing homelessness for a long time, so permanent supportive housing is important,” Steck said.
Arnold says persistence pays when it comes to getting results.
“We do provide these people with places to go with our tax dollars and they refuse to do it so you have to stay diligent. Stay on top of your city council,” Arnold said.
There is a homeless hotline. During normal business hours the number to call for help is 210-207-1799.