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Amid Flux In St. Louis Homeless Services, St. Patrick Center Welcomes New CEO

Laurie Phillips, CEO of St. Patrick Center
courtesy St. Patrick Center

St. Patrick Center has a new leader at the helm. Laurie Phillips took over as CEO of the homeless services provider on Tuesday. She is the first woman in charge of the agency since Edith Cunnane founded the Catholic charity in 1983.

Her appointment comes on the heels of other changes in the landscape of homeless services in the region. In mid-December, Eddie Roth replaced Bill Siedhoff as St. Louis’ director of human services. Two weeks later, the city’s Board of Public Service ruled that the emergency shelter at New Life Evangelistic Center has until May to change the way it operates or be shut down.

Phillips, who left a job in development at the Alzheimer’s Association to become St. Patrick’s CEO, said she wanted to be part of St. Patrick for two reasons.

“It’s an agency of Catholic Charities, which is important to me because I grew up Catholic and am still a practicing Catholic,” Phillips said. “Secondarily though, I have a real soft spot … for people who have a desire to make change in their life and just haven’t had the support systems in place to do that.”

Phillips said she sees St. Patrick’s role as being an agency that helps people who are ready to be helped.

“We are not a shelter, though we do have a shelter program, but people do graduate from that program. And we’re not a soup kitchen,” she said.

Like many homeless service providers in the region, St. Patrick is located in downtown St. Louis. Because most services are located in that area, St. Patrick and other agencies often help people who are from surrounding counties as well as those who are from the city. Phillips said St. Patrick will encourage surrounding counties to take a more active role in taking care of the homeless in their communities, mainly through St. Patrick’s participation in the city’s Continuum of Care. The CoC was formed in 2005 as part of the St. Louis and St. Louis County’s 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.

“There’s a lot of — for lack of a better term, marketing, that we need to about what we do and why it’s important,” Phillips said, acknowledging that people sometimes don’t want homeless services located near where they live.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that if we go out into these other regions that we’re going to be setting up a shelter, because we don’t shelter,” she said, adding that emergency shelters are necessary for cold days. “But they’re not the solution to the problem. And I think when we talk about the solution to the problem, and we’re not just trying to find a place for people to sleep — that we’re actually trying to get them into a more stable employment and housing and health, that people will understand better and be more receptive to those types of programs.”

As for the possible closure of the emergency shelter at New Life, Phillips is taking a wait and see approach. She said that it was too early for St. Patrick to determine how it might respond.

It’s now been almost 10 years since St. Louis and St. Louis County declared that it would try to end chronic homelessness in a decade. But Phillips believes it’s possible to end not only chronic homelessness, but homelessness full stop. How? By helping people who are in danger of becoming homeless, she said.

St. Patrick doesn’t “wait until someone has lost their home or been kicked out of their home for not paying their rent,” Phillips said. “we try to and we do successfully provide programs who are at risk of being homeless.”

According to the January 2014 point-in-time count, there were more than 1,300 homeless people in St. Louis and more than a hundred who were chronically homeless. Approximately 8,000 people are enrolled in one of St. Patrick’s programs each year.

*Editor's note: Camille Phillips is not related to Laurie Phillips.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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