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Government, Politics & Issues

City homeless center with lofty goals opens 5 weeks after target date

After months of planning, and a few political bumps along the way, the city-owned homeless center in St. Louis’ Carr Square neighborhood opens Monday, five weeks after the initially targeted opening day.

Now known as the Biddle Housing Opportunities Center, the renovated building at the corner of Tucker Boulevard and Biddle Street just north of downtown is the result of a close to two-year effort to create a permanent, walk-in, men’s shelter with an eye to the possible closure of New Life Evangelistic Center.

It’s designed to be a one-stop shop where people can walk in for a meal, stay for a shower and get connected to the city’s network of agencies that provide housing.

“This is the first time in this community where we will have the methodology and the process in place to do all those things and do them in a very collaborative way so that we can share the resources to get people into housing,” said Laurie Phillips, CEO of St. Patrick Center, the lead agency contracted by the city to operate Biddle.

“There won’t be people who are on a waiting list at St. Patrick Center that just wait and wait and wait while let’s say Places for People has money available for support services and housing.”

The network, known as the Continuum of Care, now has one list ranking people’s needs and resources so that people can find permanent housing more quickly. The list can be obtained by calling United Way at 211, or by going to Biddle.

The final few lockers were being placed into the room for men to stay overnight at Biddle on Friday, August 5, 2016.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

 St. Patrick Center is in charge of housing coordination and other day services at Biddle, including serving three meals a day, seven days a week. For the first few weeks the center will be open from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. and serve breakfast and dinner only while the agencies finish hiring and training staff.

Then the temporary men’s shelter at the city’s recreation center on 12th Street and Park Avenue will close, and Biddle will become a 24-hour facility with overnight space for 98 men.

“We still had some administrative things we had to attend to in terms of the contractual relationship between the city and the parties, and I made an executive decision the week before that, you know what, we have 12th and Park available to us as a city facility, we have funding in place to continue it through the month of August. Let’s just step back and take a deep breath,” said St. Louis Human Services Director Eddie Roth when asked why Biddle didn’t open on Aug. 1 as planned.

The original date announced by the city was July 1, five weeks earlier. Roth said "angels" were with the project to complete it as quickly as the city did, and said July 1 and Aug. 1 were "aspirational."

There's plenty of privacy outside of Biddle.  On Friday Aug. 5 workers were putting the final touches to renovations ahead of Monday's opening.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

Getting the 24-hour homeless center up and running has been Roth’s singular focus for the past 18 months, and he’s caught his fair share of criticism along the way, from calls to close the Bridge Outreach day shelter, to neighborhood outcries that Biddle will block efforts to revitalize Carr Square and the aldermanic president’s vote against funding the center

Fifth Ward Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard also sponsored a resolution against Biddle being located in her ward, and her father’s property management company petitioned against the center, citing concerns about crime.

But during a tour of the facility on Friday the city official said he’s not nervous about being able to follow through with the goals he’s set for the center.

Biddle has four showers for men and two showers for women. with 98 men staying at the shelter each night, they will have to take turns showering.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

“I think by any measurement, especially the progress of municipal projects that this thing has really traveled at the speed of light. From conception to occupancy in 18 months is remarkable,” Roth said, pointing to the help provided across city departments, from the temporary shelter’s laundry done at the Department of Corrections to the Fire Department transporting men to and from the shelter.

“I feel as though we have proceeded with the best advice, the most proven practices, the best available financing, the best agencies in our community with decades-long records of success,” he added. “I guess it’s possible that the Mir space station, if it’s still up there, could crash down on us on Monday. But I think that we’ve done everything that anyone could have asked for in terms of thinking through this tremendous opportunity for the community.”

Still, Roth acknowledged that politics will continue to play a role.

Two industrial washers and dryers will allow Biddle to wash sheets, towels and the clothes of people who are homeless.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

“I always expect things to be complicated. So there’ll be more complicated things. But the comforting factor in all this is we’re on the right side of history. We’re on the right side of national experience,” Roth said.

“There are people who are understandably worried and skeptical who live nearby, but the history of homeless services in this community overwhelmingly has been that we have a service community that respects its neighbors.”  

St. Louis has other emergency shelters, and had a walk-in day shelter through the end of June. (With a temporary day shelter for the past month.) But Biddle is the first time where all services will be available in one space without people having to call for help or walk from agency to agency.

“The lives of people who find themselves homeless are very difficult anyway, so asking them to move from place to place to place to get this service or that service or another service is almost unfair really, because they’ve got so much up against them,” Phillips said.

Phillips also said Friday that she continues to believe the processes and resources put in place along with Biddle could significantly reduce St. Louis’ homeless count within a few years.

St. Patrick Center’s Laurie Phillips is not related to St. Louis Public Radio’s Camille Phillips.

Rachel Lippmann contributed to this story.

Follow Camille and Rachel on Twitter: @cmpcamille @rlippmann.

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