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Could Biddle House jump-start a decline in St. Louis' homeless population?

Originally built to house the Biddle Street Market, this city-owned building at 1211 N. Tucker Blvd. is slated to house the city's new 24-hour homeless shelter.
William Bailey | provided by the city of St. Louis
Originally built to house the Biddle Street Market, this city-owned building at 1211 N. Tucker Blvd. is slated to house the city's new 24-hour homeless shelter.

For the past decade, the homeless population in the city of St. Louis has hovered between 1,300 and 1,500 people. But a national expert and the CEO of the lead agency selected to run the city’s new homeless shelter say with the right resources and methods, most of those people could be housed.

At a public meeting on Biddle House last Wednesday St. Patrick Center CEO Laurie Phillips said 50 percent of the estimated 1,300 homeless people in St. Louis just need a few months of rental support and help finding a job. That method is called rapid rehousing.

“In all honesty St. Louis doesn’t have a huge problem with a population of homeless people. I mean for a community our size this is a solvable problem,” Phillips said. “We’re not a New York City, we’re not a San Francisco. We don’t have tens of thousands of people who find themselves homeless.”

Peter and Paul's Tom Burnham speaks at the public forum on Biddle House as Judson Bliss and Laurie Phillips of St. Patrick Center look on Wed. May 25, 2016.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Patrick Center CEO Laurie Phillips, right, takes part in a panel discussion on Biddle House May 26, 2016.

Phillips said St. Patrick Center has received targeted funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for coordinated intake and rapid rehousing, and those methods have the potential to get a significant number of people housed.

“I think it’s possible to do it if we’re properly resourced. So the new rapid rehousing money, the new Tier 2 money from HUD is the start of that for us,” Phillip said. “It’s definitely not enough. I mean we would need millions more dollars to be able to house every single person today who needed housing, but it’s a start for this community.”

Steve Berg with the National Alliance to End Homelessness agreed.

“That certainly sound feasible to me,” Berg said, adding that coordinated entry and rapid rehousing has been successful in other cities, especially with reducing veteran homelessness.

“If they’ve already had a certain level of success around veterans, I think that’s something people can really build on,” Berg added. “The (veterans) programs are a little better funded than the non-veterans programs. But the planning aspect in making coordinated entry work and making rapid rehousing work, that the same kind of things.”

St. Louis used rapid rehousing to get veterans into apartments two years ago. According to last year’s point-in-time homeless count, the city reduced its veteran homeless population from 193 to 138 between 2013 and 2015.

Like Phillips, Berg said reducing St. Louis’ homeless population is doable considering the numbers.

“I don’t mean to belittle it but it’s so much smaller an issue than a lot of issues that communities deal with. Housing 1300 people, it’s work, it takes some skill, it takes some know-how, it takes some resources. But it’s just not such a huge problem that it’s going to be overwhelming for anybody or that it needs to be overwhelming to anybody,” Berg said, adding that community support is key.

“For this all to work there’s got to be landlords who are willing to rent to homeless people,” Berg said. “There’s got to be employers who are willing to hire homeless people. So it’s really a community-wide kind of undertaking to say we’re going to end homelessness for a particular population.”

Another potential roadblock is lack of sufficient affordable housing. According to a study compiled by the research organization Urban Institute, in 2012 St. Louis had enough low-income housing units for about 30 percent of the people who need it. St. Louis County had enough for one out of every four households.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.