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St. Louis officials admit gaps in homeless services

Sign at a homeless tent encampment on sidewalk in downtown St. Louis on Oct. 26, 2017.
File photo | Chelsea Hoye | St. Louis Public Radio
The city of St. Louis has acknowledged there are gaps in helping people find emergency shelter during severe winter weather.

The head of St. Louis’ Department of Human Services has acknowledged the city is not doing enough to help people who need a temporary place to stay during prolonged cold weather.

“There certainly can be improvements that are made,” Irene Agustin, the Human Services director, told a Board of Aldermen committee on Thursday. “I think that’s important to really figure out how do we best respond more quickly.”

This winter is the first since the city forced the closure of the New Life Evangelistic Center. An intake center and emergency shelter known as the Biddle Housing Opportunities Center opened more than a year ago, but a recent cold snap meant more people needed services than the city could handle.

The city in recent years has relied on churches to provide extra overnight space during severe winter weather. Because of federal policy, there are no plans to fund an emergency shelter beyond Biddle House, Agustin said.

“If we open up a 24-hour shelter, and not maximize our housing dollars, which we know will end homelessness, that could have an adverse impact on our HUD dollars. And we need every single cent that we get,” she said.

But advocates for the homeless community, including many who had to help quickly open and staff emergency shelters because there was no space at Biddle, said the city needed to step up and help them cover the costs of cots, food and toiletries.

“You have created and found funding sources for an Amazon proposal, for soccer stadiums,” said Michael Robinson, who opened his dEstiny Family Church, 4001 Cottage Ave., as an emergency shelter. “So I know that you can come up with something creative that could help human beings that are vulnerable.”

Winter outreach operations will be in effect until Jan. 16. The city is urging people to donate to the churches that have opened their doors, but has not promised resources.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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

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