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Homeless Advocates Debate How To Respond To Possible Closure of Downtown Shelter

Anthony Knight, left, listens as New Life Shelter Manager Scott Eagen addresses the group. Bob Linsey and Lamont Belle in the backround look on.
Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio

A small group of people, many connected to New Life Evangelistic Center, gathered Saturday for a meeting of the Metro St. Louis Coalition for the Homeless.  The group’s main topic of discussion was what to do now that the city has declared New Life’s emergency shelter a nuisance and given the organization until May to reduce the number of people they serve or shut down.

Although only eleven people attended the meeting, each one had his or her own idea about how to best respond to the city’s decision last week to revoke New Life’s hotel license. But on one point they all agreed: the city shouldn’t close the emergency shelter or require New Life to reduce the number of beds it provides each night from 300 to 32.

Anthony Knight, who is currently staying at New Life, said that the city’s decision “makes him feel like the city sees (homeless people like himself) as pests” to extinguish.

“Right, they would prefer you not be a part of our city,” agreed New Life Shelter manager Scott Egan.

According to Egan, New Life is currently looking into filing civil lawsuits against the city in federal court, first to show that New Life doesn’t need a hotel license to offer shelter because it is a church, not a hotel. A second possible lawsuit would charge that the city is biased towards Catholic agencies that provide homeless shelters, such as the St. Patrick Center.

The group gathered for the Metro St. Louis Coalition for the Homeless discuss next steps to care for the homeless in the region on Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014.
Credit Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio
The group gathered for the Metro St. Louis Coalition for the Homeless discuss next steps to care for the homeless in the region.

Some in the group wanted to ask the federal government to investigate how the city is spending its grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), saying they don’t trust the city to handle it correctly and that it takes years of being homeless before the city will give someone housing.

In 2014, HUD gave St. Louis more than $21 million for its Continuum of Care Homeless Services. New Life is not part of St. Louis’ Continuum of Care.

At least two of the people present were currently homeless and living at New Life: Anthony Knight and Lamont Belle. The two men were among the most outspoken in their distrust of the city.

Belle suggested that they round up 300 homeless people and have them sign up en masse for housing through the city and HUD as a means of demonstrating that the government is not currently capable of providing homes for all the people who need it. Knight and Eagen were supportive of the idea.

Downtown St. Louis resident Bob Linsey said he attended the meeting because he didn’t want to be seen as part of the problem. The city’s Board of Public Service voted that New Life’s shelter was a nuisance in response to a petition signed by downtown residents and business owners.

“They rankled my feathers because they said I was a part of the problem because I’m a downtown condominium owner,” Linsey explained.

Linsey, who is also affiliated with Amnesty International, suggested embarrassing public officials into action, stating that it needs to become politically expedient for them to do something real about homelessness. Linsey also suggested trying to build consensus between all of the local agencies that provide services for the homeless, noting that services and objectives between agencies in the region seems disjointed.

Linsey said he had attended a presentation by Iain De Jong this fall about ending chronic homelessness, and wanted to see if the city or a coalition of agencies would hire De Jong to help the region come up with a plan to end homelessness here.

Jennifer Little came as a representative of The Rock Church in Soulard. She suggested trying to work with the city for solutions, and said she would try to meet with Eddie Roth. Roth was appointed Director of Human Services earlier this month and is now in charge of housing for the city. Several others in the group said it was worthless to try and work with the city because it doesn’t care about the homeless.

Jeff LaCroix of Rooftop Church in St. Louis County suggested area churches band together to provide the full range of housing and services needed for the region’s homeless, not relying on government agencies or funding.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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