Helping the homeless one life at a time

As the director of homeless services for Christian Assistance Ministry (CAM), Valerie Salas often feels like Batman putting on his cape.

She leads a team of five assisting one of the city’s most vulnerable and challenging populations: people experiencing chronic homelessness.

Most of them are not candidates for more conventional homeless services due to mental illness, physical disabilities or substance abuse issues. Salas’ team meets them where they are, whether it’s on CAM’s downtown campus or the streets. When they’re ready, CAM will help them with other needs, such as ID recovery, employment, housing, and other support services.

It’s a job that requires time and patience, Salas said.

“We’re really focused on building trust relationships,” she said. “This is an ill population, and we’re trying to get them to say yes to that next step, whatever that looks like, to a higher quality of life.”

Salas’ compassion for her clients comes from her own experience. After leaving a troubled home at age 15, Salas faced addiction and homelessness in her late teens and early twenties.

“That God trusts me with these things today, it feels good,” she said. “I’m grateful I can be used in those ways.”

She got the first glimpse of her destiny when she decided to get sober and was referred to Haven For Hope.

“I remember standing in line thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I’m not like these people,’” she said.

She was about to leave when she saw her intake specialist. Instead of a sterile figure in a white coat, he was covered in tattoos, working in an office filled with toys. He told her that he had gotten sober in the program she was about to begin. It was a transformative moment.

“It clicked. I thought ‘Oh my God, I’m not a bad person, I can get sober and help people. My bad can be used for good,’” she said.

Once sober, Salas worked as a receptionist for a law firm. She spent her breaks encouraging fellow Haven For Hope clients to stay sober. After seeing her in action, Centro San Antonio hired her to to work with homeless people.

Salas accepted a position as CAM’s first director of homeless services in February 2021. While CAM has always provided services for people experiencing homelessness as well as others struggling with poverty and financial issues, the organization expanded its services for unsheltered street homeless after COVID-19 struck at the request of the City of San Antonio.

At CAM, Salas established a program she’d been implementing informally for years: One Life at a Time, a collaboration with the SAPD’s downtown bike patrol unit to provide one-on-one care to people struggling with chronic homelessness.

“With people who are mentally ill, it takes time and consistency. There has to be a relationship, not just case management,” she said. “This program is significant because it’s helping in so many different ways. It’s helping the community, it’s helping taxpayers, it’s helping the clients stay alive and giving them a higher quality of life.”

Five years earlier, Salas had met the man who became the inspiration for One Life at a Time.

He slept in a box between two buildings downtown. She would go to his box each morning with a cup of coffee and a Sausage McMuffin. Downtown police officers believed he was mute. Over time, as she showed up consistently, he began responding to her.

She learned that his name was Neville Mupfeka. Originally from Zimbabwe, he came to the United States to attend university, then had enlisted in the military and had a wife and family. She even found his relatives in England and Zimbabwe through social media.

As Salas continued to earn his trust, he accepted medication for schizophrenia and slowly became more stable. With Salas as his advocate, he became a client of SAMMinistries and eventually moved into his own tiny home through the organization. Salas also helped him collect benefits that were owed to him.

Today, Mupfeka goes to church with Salas every Sunday. He recently came to her house to help her decorate her Christmas tree. When she gets married in January, he will serve as her ring bearer.

“This man has helped me and taught me so much compassion, true patience, true love. He has been such a blessing in my life,” she said.

While Salas prefers the hands-on work with CAM clients (“I want to be the one in the street, washing the feet”), she joined the SVP Fellowship at the urging of her boss, CAM President/CEO Dawn White-Fosdick.

“She told me, ‘you have a higher calling and you need to learn these things,’” Salas said.

Salas appreciates the connections she’s made through the fellowship, from SVP partners to Catchafire, the network of professionals who volunteer their expertise to nonprofit organizations.

“I have a safe space to ask questions,” she said. “It’s really cool to get a deeper understanding of the nonprofit world.”