At Garfield Commons, A Chance For A New Life
When Curesa Atkins moved into her apartment at Garfield Commons, a group from her church decorated it for her.
“It was snowing, and I just thought, 'Thank God. I’m watching it from the other side of the window when there’s so, so many people out there,'” Atkins said.
Atkins, a 42-year-old former dental assistant, said she became homeless after a dealing with series of car repairs, a change in her marital status and, eventually, the loss of her job.
“It just spiraled from there, I couldn’t keep up. You blow through your savings, it was just hard to find my way,” she said.
The 25 men and women living in Garfield Commons will have one-bedroom apartments with a small kitchen, a bathroom and a living room with a large window. Tenants sign a one-year lease, which includes utilities and most meals. Case workers, a nurse and an occupational therapist are on staff and meet with the residents regularly. Most tenants have a physical or mental disability and have been homeless for more than a year — a circumstance defined by the city as "chronically homeless."
Atkins said she’d like to stay permanently, even though she doesn’t have to. She said she hopes to go back to school and become a substance abuse counselor.
The $8.5 million renovation by Peter and Paul Community Services on the former Garfield Elementary School celebrated its grand opening with an open house Wednesday.
Although tenants who have an income will contribute to their rent, keeping Garfield running costs about $26,000 a person, a year. A lot of the funding comes from a federal grant, but program director Adam Pearson said the cost is less than taxpayers would pay for other social services.
“Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we’re paying money to keep people out on the streets,” Pearson said. “We save money when we provide supportive housing.”
Once residents have housing, they are better able to manage their health conditions, leading to fewer emergency room visits and hospital bills that may have gone unpaid, Pearson said. Then people are able to re-enter the economy.
“Volunteering in the community and being employed adds to the tax base and adds to community engagement,” Pearson said. “There’s so much talent out there. There are so many people out there who just need a little assistance.”
For a person to be referred to a permanent supportive housing program, he or she often must have a mental illness or physical disability. Tenants with more severe challenges are given priority. Case workers say schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are common among people who are homeless.
Pearson said the demand for permanent supportive housing outweighs the supply in the St. Louis region. But those services are concentrated in St. Louis; the result of a Ten Year Plan begun by Mayor Francis Slay in 2005.
“We continue to see an influx of people into the city, coming from surrounding counties and other places in the state that really make the job a lot more difficult,” said Bill Siedhoff, who directs the city's Department of Human Services.
According to his department, there are 1,300 beds for permanent supportive housing in the city, with a portion specifically designed for people who are chronically homeless. A Point-In-Time census counted 1,328 people who were homeless in the city during a 14-hour period last January. Seventy were "‘unsheltered," meaning they slept in parks, cars or abandoned buildings.
“It just can’t be done by one entity, such as the city, when others certainly have the same obligation we do to address the needs of people that become homeless in their own communities,” Siedhoff said.