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Homeless Advocate Discusses Career, Challenges Facing St. Louis

Bill Siedhoff

After 13 years, homeless advocate Bill Siedhoff stepped down in November from his post as director of the St. Louis Department of Human Services.

“It’s been a very rewarding career, I would say,” Siedhoff told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. As director, Siedhoff was responsible for overseeing services for youth, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless.

“Stressful, certainly, at times just because of the concern of the well-being of the people you’re responsible for in terms of providing services. Overall, the kind of satisfaction that you get from doing a job like this is immeasurable and it’s been very satisfying.”

In addition to being a well-known advocate for the city’s homeless, Siedhoff also was known for battles with the Rev. Larry Rice, who runs the New Life Evangelistic Center, a homeless shelter in downtown St. Louis.

“We had a different approach in terms of addressing the needs of homeless people,” Siedhoff said. “His means of addressing the needs were sheltering, principally. Our approach was the establishment of permanent supportive housing. That means getting people out of shelters, into their own place to live and then giving them the services that they need in order to be able to stay there. I think it was a fundamental difference in opinion. I never denied the fact that I think (Rice) served a purpose, and continues to do that, but it’s just a different approach. I think we had the right approach and he had the wrong approach.”

In 2005, St. Louis launched a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, people who have been homeless for more than a year or have had four episodes of homelessness in a three-year period.

“We started with well over 300 people in that category,” Siedhoff said. “We’re now, with our most recent census done in January of this year, we have 112. We haven’t ended chronic homelessness, but we’ve certainly made great inroads.”

But there’s still a lot of work to be done in that area, Siedhoff said. “If you have one homeless person, it’s one too many.”

“It’s been somewhat frustrating for me the fact that we still have people that are out there, that need help, that need shelter, that need the support that we should be giving them and they don’t get it. I know some of those people personally, and that’s what, I guess, makes it more difficult.”

Addressing problems with homelessness extends beyond the city, Siedhoff said. In the past, calls to the city’s homeless hotline were split between the city and St. Louis County. Now, he said, most calls are from the county and surrounding areas.

“If there’d be equal participation and an attempt to address the needs of those individuals who become homeless in their own communities, this problem could be solved pretty readily,” he said.

Siedhoff also said too many cuts have been made to programs that address the problems of the mentally ill.

“Our society pays for these things one way or the other,” he said. “Either you pay for it (and) you’re providing the help, or you have catastrophic things happen with shootings and other things that occur because of mental illness and people that have gone untreated and gone without services.”

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay announced on Monday that deputy chief of staff Eddie Roth will replace Siedhoff.

“Terrific guy — has great heart,” Siedhoff said of Roth. “And you really have to have that kind of compassion in a job like this. You really have to care about the individuals that are needing help and you encounter. I kind of pride myself on being engaged directly, not just sitting behind a desk, but being able to be out on the street on a bike, talking to people, meeting people and helping people.”

He may have retired, but Siedhoff said he’s not done helping people: “I’ll continue to advocate and do whatever I can to see if we can address these things as best we can in the years to come.”

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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