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St. Louis advocacy groups take a new approach to ending homelessness

A woman in a dark coat and beanie picks up her belongings from an unhoused encampment.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Tasha Thacker, a resident experiencing homelessness, packs their belongings in March 2023 along North Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard in downtown St. Louis.

Homeless aid organizations in St. Louis are working with a company based in New York City to improve data collection methods. The constantly updated number of unhoused people could allow overlooked populations to get the help they need. Homeless services can now use a live data set based on the number of people who visit shelters, food pantries and hospitals and identify as homeless.

The city historically relies on an annual point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness. This year, outreach workers walked St. Louis streets on an unusually warm January night to tally the PIT count.

The unseasonable weather meant there weren’t any pop-up shelters for people sleeping on the streets. Volunteers asked 195 people across St. Louis to take a survey to determine whether they were homeless; of these, 38 declined to take the survey, 10 took it twice, and six didn’t finish it.

Instead of focusing on these 154 unhoused people, local advocacy groups are using the Homeless Management Information System. The new data shows 2,057 people self-identified as homeless in May 2024.

St. Patrick Center, a homeless service group in St. Louis, uses HMIS to create individualized re-homing plans for populations most in need. Every Wednesday, there's a housing and match meeting to collaborate with other groups on re-homing the top 100 unhoused people in need.

“It’s almost a daily number of how many folks are unhoused in our community,” said Jonathan Belcher, senior director of programs at St. Patrick Center. “Now we can actually see that in real time, and we can plan differently.”

“Real-time data serves as a continuous improvement mechanism,” said Beth Sandor, chief program officer for Built for Zero. “You can look every single month and say, ‘Are all the things we thought would move the needle in the right direction working?’ If so, great. Let's double down on those things."

The coordinated entry system isn’t new in St. Louis; by-name data collection started in July 2021 — but an individualized approach is. Built for Zero, a program by New York City-based Community Solutions, made St. Louis the fourth city to obtain and categorize real-time by-name data on all single adults experiencing homelessness.

“It's a really critical shift from having static data to having dynamic data that can be responsive to the needs of the community,” Sandor said. “But it really is just the beginning of then having the processes and systems to ensure you can quickly move people into permanent housing.”

Employees from shelters and food banks ask users for permission to add their names to a coordinated database of people using resources for unhoused people. They’re given a survey similar to the PIT questionnaire and added into several categories, including those that identify age, veteran status and family information.

“Rather than us working in our separate buckets, we're working together to address homelessness. We’re able to work with those most in need to make sure they get resources first,” Belcher said. “This brings us together with making sure we're following specific guidelines for Built for Zero and taking a data-driven approach to addressing homelessness.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated where New York City-based Community Solutions, the parent company of Built For Zero, has its headquarters.

Lauren Brennecke is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio and a recent graduate of Webster University.