This article originally appeared in UTSA Today.
JANUARY 20, 2021 — When Katie Vela ’14 was completing her Master in Public Administration degree at UTSA, she never thought she would end up leading one of the most impactful non-profits in San Antonio a few years later.
In October of 2020, Vela was named executive director of the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless (SARAH) and launched a movement to end youth homelessness—the #WESAY Movement to House all Youth and young adults.
“I definitely can’t take credit for developing the movement, because it was really something that a collaborative group developed,” Vela said. “We have our Youth Action board, which are youth and young adults who have experienced homelessness, and they guide all of our policy decisions.” In addition to the board, SARAH works to bring together many youth homeless service providers and stakeholders.
In 2019, SARAH was awarded a $6.88 million demonstration program grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This flexible funding allows SARAH to decide how to build a system that prevents and ends youth homelessness. During the eight-month planning process, the team designed an ideal system and decided how to allocate the funds locally.
“Part of what we learned is that it is difficult for youth and young adults to know where to access services easily, and also just that there wasn’t awareness,” Vela said. Thus, the #WESAY Movement became part funding, part awareness campaign.
Vela’s path to SARAH wasn’t straightforward. As a student at UTSA, she wasn’t sure what her career path should be. “I knew kind of broadly that I wanted to help the community, but I wasn’t sure in what way,” Vela said.
She credits the MPA program with connecting her to opportunities she otherwise wouldn’t know about.
“I made connections in the community that were really helpful—with the local HUD field office, management analysts at the City of San Antonio, and people who worked in nonprofits that helped me figure out the lay of the land of the public sector in San Antonio,” Vela said. “I ended up completing the nonprofit management and leadership concentration, which helped me realize the nonprofit sector was the best fit for what I was interested in.”
Vela has worked for SARAH since its founding in 2015. She says the time has flown by and she loves the impactful, meaningful work she gets to be a part of.
“I love getting to work with different partners, all with different perspectives, and building a consensus around a way to move forward where we can make an impact,” Vela said. “What I’ve learned about homelessness is you need partners providing high quality services, but you also all have to work together to make it an easy system for the people that need help.”
A rewarding connection between Vela’s work at SARAH and her education at UTSA is that UTSA is a part of SARAH’s stakeholder and planning groups. The university has partnered with SARAH to launch a rapid rehousing program to support youth and young adults with a history of foster care who are pursuing post-secondary education and are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
“It is really exciting and unique that UTSA is going to be a housing provider,” Vela said. “I think that has the potential to be a national model.”