When Valerie tells her story at events or presentations, she starts by asking “What does homelessness look like to you?” People often take a stab at answering, referencing panhandlers they may very well have seen that same day. Inevitably, the description is stereotypical. Valerie answers them with a question: “What if I told you that was me?”
About five years ago, Valerie Salas arrived at Haven For Hope on San Antonio’s near Westside. She had no reliable residence, had recently escaped a dangerous living situation, and was recovering from drug and alcohol dependency. She says she was still in denial about many things at this time, but visited Haven after hearing about it from people in her support group.
Valerie was skeptical of how much help Haven could be. She had experienced treatment facilities where the staff didn’t relate to her experiences and she found it hard to trust them. She was surprised when her intake specialist, Jason, didn’t fit the stereotype she had in her head. “He looked at me, put his pen down and said ‘Can I share a little bit of my story with you?’”
Valerie Salas (left) and Pat DiGiovanni, President and CEO of Centro San Antonio (Right) speak to a woman on the street. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
It turns out Jason had experienced homelessness too, and had been through Haven’s program. It was the beginning of a trust that formed between her and the staff there. “Haven For Hope blew my mind, I guess I thought I was the only one going through this.”
“I fell in love with paying it forward.”
Haven For Hope is the largest transformational facility in the nation, having an overall capacity of 1,500 individuals. Valerie found herself in a new community, and even after she finished the program she remained deeply involved. “I fell in love with paying it forward.” Valerie engaged with other women in the program, connecting them to Haven’s resources, which range from help with medication to securing government issued identification.
Sometimes it was only the smallest gestures that were needed to support her community. Several people who have gone through Haven have become Centro San Antonio Ambassadors. Valerie grew close to one of them and would occasionally leave him notes of encouragement at the Centro Operations Center. “He calls me Big Sis,” she laughs. The General Manager of the ambassadors, Mike Pacheco, became curious of the woman who routinely left these notes.
Valerie and Pat engaging with a woman on the street. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
One day, he asked her about it and she told him her story. Mike’s face lit up. “I think I have a job for you.” It turns out Centro also had a homeless outreach program, which worked closely with Haven. Mike asked her if she would like to be a Downtown Outreach Specialist, contracted by Centro through Haven. “There’s a job for this?” She remembers thinking, “This is something you can do all day?”
“It’s the frickin’ coolest job in the world. I don’t even feel like I work anymore, I feel like I retired.”
Valerie now engages everyday with the population experiencing homelessness Downtown. Shortly before Centro crews arrive to mow grass and pick up litter underneath Downtown gateway underpasses, Valerie is there connecting people with the services they need. “It’s the frickin’ coolest job in the world. I don’t even feel like I work anymore, I feel like I retired.”
She is everywhere Downtown offering assistance, whatever is required, to those experiencing homelessness. “If I see someone who doesn’t have any shoes, I’m gonna do what I can to get them shoes. Even if they’re not quite ready for help.”
Valerie, Pat, and the woman walking down Houston Street. Michael Cirlos / Centro San Antonio
“It was a realization for me was that there’s a group of people who are compassionately helping others
As to why this interpersonal approach should be used, Valerie explains why homelessness cannot be ticketed or arrested away. “There’s a deeper issue. There are walls of fear, walls of trauma that they are imprisoned in.” And those walls don’t just disappear, she says. “It takes a process. Statistically, it takes 7-10 months to gain someone’s trust.” And often, says Valerie, it’s about asking the right questions: “What’s keeping you out here? How can we work on that?”
Valerie is very thankful for those that helped her on the path to recovery. “It was a God thing,” she says. Her faith is very important to her, and she credits it with leading her to Haven For Hope. “It was a realization for me was that there’s a group of people who are compassionately helping others without judgement.”