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Access, Attitude Make It Tough To Address Homelessness In St. Louis County

(Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon)
Cots at the St. Vincent Community Center in Pagedale, where St. Louis County opened an emergency overflow shelter for the homeless.

This winter, St. Louis County did something it hadn't done before - it opened a temporary shelter where homeless men and women could go to get out of the cold. It's a small piece of a 10-year plan to battle homelessness that St. Louis City and County signed onto in 2004. But obstacles remain to implementing the rest of the ideas in that document.

Homelessness in St. Louis County: By the Numbers
Credit Brent Jones/St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon

What is "homelessness?"

Per the 2009 HEARTH (HomelessEmergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act, a person is considered homeless if they lack a "fixed, regular and adequate" nighttime residence. This includes sleeping in a place not ordinarily meant as overnight accommodations (like a public park, train or bus station, or a car). Individuals living in temporary shelters are also homeless, as are those at risk of losing their homes

Anyone fleeing a life-threatening situation or domestic violence is considered homeless if they do not have the resources to obtain other housing.

How does the county find those who might be homeless?

Some people self-identify when they call the housing crisis hotline for Housing Resource Center, part of the Catholic Charities of St. Louis. In 2013, 647 people who called the hotline were homeless individuals needing help to find a place to stay and other services. The hotline also provides resources to help people avoid losing their homes.

Additionally, the county is required by federal law to participate in a "point-in-time" count, which is a one-day census of the homeless population.  The 2014 PIT for St. Louis County took place on Jan. 30.

How accurate are the PIT numbers?

It depends which category you look at. For people in emergency shelter and transitional housing programs, the numbers are fairly accurate because they come directly from the agencies providing the services who know how many clients they have on that given day. The count of unsheltered individuals, however, is often done by driving to "hot spots" in a given area and identifying those who might be homeless.

There are several pitfalls to the method of counting the unsheltered people. In the county especially, it can be hard to locate those who are homeless. Many are not out on the street, but are instead staying with friends and family, staying in a hotel, or living in their cars.

Out on the street, identifying a potentially homeless individual calls for a lot of guesswork based somewhat on stereotypes. For example, a volunteer with the county census last year approached a young woman pushing a shopping cart full of laundry. She turned out not to be homeless, but understood why someone would ask about her housing status.

The time of day can impact the results as well. The county's 2014 count began at 10 a.m., which is not the best time to do so, according to Shana Eubanks, the county's homeless services manager. As she it explained it, the homeless want to be up and moving before the commuters. By late morning, they're already working to make themselves invisible.

The time of year is also a factor. Anyone is more likely to be lingering outside when the temperature isn't in the single digits - which is why the state of Missouri helps arrange summer counts. The winter count is federally mandated.

What services are available for the homeless once they are counted?

Someone who calls the housing crisis hotline is first directed toward an emergency shelter, the location of which is based on the caller's last known address. In addition to a bed and meals, the emergency shelters provide medical screenings, assistance with job applications, and other social support. 

Credit (Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon)
For someone who is homeless in the county, social services are a two-hour bus ride away. And getting to the buses can require a mile or more of walking on roads with no shoulders or sidewalks.

In 2013, the county helped fund 185 emergency shelter beds, plus another 255 transitional housing beds. A majority of the beds are located within the county boundaries. However, single men must travel into the city to Peter and Paul Community Services to find a place to stay on an emergency basis. And many of the other  support services for the homeless, such as childcare or medical services, are also only located in the city. That can necessitate two-hour trips on a bus. 

What happens once someone is off the street?

Since 2009, federal law has prioritized a "housing-first model" - that is, getting individuals a place to stay first, then providing the social services support necessary. In government-speak, it's called permanent supportive housing, and the county provides the funds for about 400 of those beds.

That's not nearly enough. And this is where NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard)  becomes a problem again. Landlords, said Shana Eubanks, the county's homeless services manager, are worried about setting aside units for people who might be less-than-ideal tenants because of addiction and other mental health issues. And building new permanent supportive housing units requires either the support of a municipality, or the county funding an appropriate location in unincorporated areas.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter:@rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.