'It's just crazy': Homeless people in St. Louis endure long waits for scarce apartments
David Perry is a tall and muscular-looking guy. He has a construction job. His appearance and circumstances might not reveal it, but Perry is homeless.
For nearly six months he has been on the waiting list for housing at the St. Patrick Center, an organization that works with the city to end homelessness.
The Continuum of Care, a collaborative network providing services to end homelessness in St. Louis and the region, tries to find housing for its patrons within 60 days, but that’s difficult and some people wait more than 90 days. Agencies are dealing with a new centralized assessment tool and struggling with a lack of low-cost housing.
Perry is frustrated.
“I’ve been here for almost six months — six months — and I’ve seen people with less time here than me get an apartment, lose an apartment, come back here and get another apartment," he said. "It’s just crazy. I don’t understand it."
The lists aren’t first come first serve; they rank people by priority. For example, a mother and child will be placed higher on the list than a single man who is healthy. Because Perry’s circumstances are not as drastic, he ranks lower on the list.
The priority ranking within the Continuum of Care is relatively new. The city’s homeless service providers used to have separate systems. But since January, organizations have worked with a new assessment tool.
Coordinated Entry ranks by priority
Coordinated Entry evaluates each client and places them in different categories, depending on their housing needs, said Rachel Hollander, a manager at St. Patrick Center.
“By shifting it to priority and putting the people with the highest need first, those are the ones who are getting into housing first, the ones who do have those high needs,” she said.
Before Coordinated Entry, each homeless service provider had its own lists and rules, causing people to sign up at several places. With the new system, the intake in housing assessment is the same no matter where you go, Hollander said.
One reason to launch this centralized assessment tool was that there are more programs and grants available than a few years ago, said Irene Agustin, who works for the city of St. Louis as chief program manager in the Department of Human Services, where she concentrates on homeless services.
Three years ago, the only housing option supported in the region was the Permanent Housing Program, she said.
“That’s for people with some pretty extensive, complex issues that might need the assistance for the rest of their lives,” Agustin said.
Then last year, the city received a $1 million federal grant for the Rapid Rehousing Program, designed for homeless people who need short term assistance.
“There’s some people that don’t need that intensive amount of service,” Agustin said. “So Rapid Rehousing really fills in that gap for people that — yes, they might have some issues — but they ... don’t need that assistance for the rest of their lives. They just need it for a short amount of time.”
Not everything goes smoothly when launching a new system, Hollander said.
"We are working out the kinks," Hollander said. "But there are a lot of people invested. I think it's moving right along. We do have issues, but that's normal when you launch something, especially this big. And some people who are working with us in St. Louis have done this in other communities, too, and they let us know 'hey, we are new, this is going to happen.'"
Lack of affordable housing
There is just not enough affordable housing available to provide every homeless person with an apartment, said Lana Watson, senior director of Rapid Rehousing of St. Patrick Center.
The city needs more landlords who are willing to provide low-cost housing and rent to people who have been homeless.
But the lack of affordable housing is not the only barrier that homeless families and individuals encounter when trying to rent apartments.
“Sometimes landlords do background checks for credit and things like that and a lot of our clients sometimes have been evicted and so that shows up on a credit report or they may even have some type of a criminal misdemeanor or something on their background, and that shows up as well,” Watson said.
Leon MacNeil has a four-family apartment building in St. Louis city that he rents out.
“To me no one should be homeless,” he said. “If I could do something to perhaps assist in this area to provide housing for someone that is homeless if they don’t have any drug issues, or that sort of thing, then I’m willing to do that.”
St. Patrick’s estimates that more than half of the homeless population in St. Louis could be helped if enough landlords and apartment units were available. About 55 percent of the people without homes in St. Louis are Rapid Rehousing candidates who are able to rent an apartment with financial support from homeless service providers.
Despite the need for more landlords and the launch of a new system, the situation could be worse, Agustin said.
“I’m definitely seeing people housed,” she said. “I think we can maximize our efficiency and do it a lot faster.”
Perry is still on the waitlist hoping to find housing.
“Yeah, it’s like having bad luck, I guess,” he said.
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