Rescue plan money for St. Louis homeless services in limbo as providers face daunting requirements
Just steps away from the construction site of the new Major League Soccer stadium in St. Louis, a line forms in front of a daytime cooling center operated by UnhousedSTL.
Naomi Jordan, 61, is at the front of the line, waiting to get inside and escape the heat.
As summertime temperatures in St. Louis soared in July, more than a dozen people without homes stood in line with Jordan, waiting for the center to open so they could cool off, use a clean bathroom and enjoy a meal.
"This has been really important to me," Jordan said. "It keeps me off the streets, and they make sure you get fed and have drinks. You can't ask for more than this."
At around 11 a.m., UnhousedSTL founder Ramona Curtis arrives with boxes of food and water, greeting familiar faces and unlocking the door. The grassroots volunteer organization, which provides food and other essentials for people experiencing homelessness in St. Louis, runs entirely on private donations.
Curtis hoped she could tap into a tiny slice of the $16 million in American Rescue Plan funds from the federal government that the City of St. Louis last year set aside for homeless services — specifically to run a safe haven shelter, a place open 24/7 to any homeless person who needs it.
St. Louis allocated nearly $1.4 million in federal funding to open a 24-hour shelter where people could stay with no questions asked. The temporary shelters are intended to care for those most likely to die outside in the winter, such as people struggling with substance use disorders or mental illness.
"We can do the work, but we can't prove it on paper to the city."Ramona Curtis, UnhousedSTL
Service providers have asked city officials repeatedly for funding to open a safe haven, after the pandemic reduced wintertime bed capacities at small volunteer-run shelters. Five homeless people froze to death on the streets of St. Louis during the winter of late 2020 and early 2021, according to an investigation by St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports.
Curtis wanted UnhousedSTL to partner with nonprofit Bridge of Hope to operate the shelter. But like other homeless service providers, she found it difficult to access the federal money. She eventually gave up. Another four homeless St. Louis residents died of hypothermia this winter, based on public records from the city medical examiner's office.
"I get emotional about it," Curtis said as she described UnhousedSTL's attempts to secure federal funds from the city.
Curtis’ experience reflects a disjointed reality for some organizations that provide services for the homeless. Cities such as St. Louis, thanks to the coronavirus relief funding, found themselves flush with money that they can spend on historically underfunded areas like homeless services. But providers, which often rely on volunteers and operate on shoestring budgets, have found it challenging to navigate the bureaucratic rules set out for accessing the federal funds.
The result: After nearly a year, a small percentage — less than 5% — of the $16 million in federal aid St. Louis designated for homeless services has been spent.
"It makes you angry," Curtis said. "We watch people suffer every day, people that could benefit from that ARPA funding. They're not getting the benefit of millions of dollars that's sitting there for them."
The challenge isn’t unique to St. Louis. Grassroots nonprofits across the country are experiencing the same struggle. According to a study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, smaller grassroots and nonprofit organizations often do not qualify for traditional funding sources or federal aid.
St. Louis Department of Human Services Director Yusef Scoggin said finding contractors who want to do the work and are capable of fulfilling the request for proposals, commonly known as RFPs — invitations from the city for vendors to submit bids to receive contracts — has been a challenge.
"We didn't always get the proposals that I think would have been fruitful for delivering on those critical projects — particularly in the winter," he said.
‘We’re set up to do the work’
When Curtis attended an informational meeting of St. Louis’ Department of Human Services in the spring, she doubted that UnhousedSTL had a shot at getting the federal money. UnhousedSTL planned to partner with Bridge of Hope, a homeless shelter located in the Ville neighborhood, on the city’s proposed $1.3 million safe haven project.
Bridge of Hope received preliminary approval from the city in the first-round RFPs in October 2021, but the city pulled the plug on the agreement in early February because the group couldn’t provide a 24-hour shelter in one location.
The revamped proposal had Bridge of Hope running a day shelter while UnhousedSTL ran the shelter during the night, all in the same location.
But Curtis said after attending the first meeting that it was clear UnhousedSTL wouldn’t qualify for the funds. And without UnhousedSTL’s help, Bridge of Hope Executive Director Kelli Braggs said the plan wouldn’t work.
Curtis said the main roadblock the group faced involved access to cash. The city distributes funds on a reimbursement basis, meaning UnhousedSTL would need to pay for any costs on the safe haven project up front and be reimbursed at a later date. She said it's rare for UnhousedSTL to have more than about $1,000 in its coffers at any given time, so following the city's compensation model would be difficult.
The city did not allocate money to reimburse for operational costs for service providers. Providers could apply for resources like funding for bus passes, hotel vouchers, clothing, food assistance, portable restrooms, mobile showers and some health services.
Curtis said an added twist was the city's complicated application process for ARPA funds. Requesting federal funds requires a comprehensive written proposal, outlining details of the project and its budget and more than a dozen documents including a letter of support from a member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
Curtis said most grassroots volunteer organizations aren't equipped to complete the applications, especially given the short timeline and competition against bigger organizations with full-time staff. Service providers had less than a month to complete their responses during the fall and spring rounds of requests.
“We’re in this room with representatives from places that already have the funding, already have staff that’s 9-to-5 job is to get this funding, to look up all the things they need to get this funding.” Curtis said. “And then there’s me.”
After two failed attempts to secure federal aid to open a safe haven, Bridge of Hope's Bragg agreed.
"If you’re a smaller agency, you really don’t have a fighting chance. These awards seem to keep going to these bigger, more well-known agencies," Bragg said. “It's really disheartening."
Avital Reznikov, a member of Tent Mission STL, said her group ran into similar issues with the process. She said the group couldn’t even apply for any projects or funding because it's an unincorporated nonprofit that lacks legal structure.
"We're set up to do the work,” Reznikov said. “We're not set up to draw up contracts that are 20 pages long.”
On top of that, like UnhousedSTL, the group doesn’t have funding on hand to pay for projects. Reznikov said that even if the group could apply for the funding, it wouldn’t be able to meet many of the criteria put forth in the RFPs.
In the end, UnhousedSTL and Tent Mission STL did not apply for any federally funded projects last winter.
Scoggin said the city needs to establish better partnerships with service providers. He said after the first round of RFPs, it was clear the city needed to educate and aid providers about how best to fulfill requirements for future funding.
"That's essentially what we're trying to right-size going forward," Scoggin said. "Building that pipeline and cultivating relationships that invite people to partner here and deliver on things they may already be doing but haven't been federally or locally funded."
In the city's most recent round of requests for proposals, it offered assistance for submitting proposals through a consulting firm, help that the city did not offer during an earlier round.
Nick Dunne, a spokesperson with St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones' office, said the city added proposal assistance from local consulting firm Simply Strategy as a way to help smaller organizations apply for funding.
“We recognized not just with unhoused services, but with any of the RFPs that we’ve been administering, that a lot of smaller organizations lack the capacity to hire grant writers or people to stay in compliance with grant writing,” Dunne said.
A ‘lagging indicator’
American Rescue Plan dollars must be allocated by 2024 and entirely spent by 2026, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Any unspent funds go back to the Treasury after 2026.
With millions left to spend, Curtis said she doesn’t feel like the city is treating homelessness like an emergency.
Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia shares Curtis' frustration. She said she's been surprised at the slow response from the city and the sluggish progress on projects, especially after Mayor Tishaura Jones' campaign promises to aidpeople who are homeless.
Jones had called homelessness a crisis in St. Louis and vowed to work with advocacy groups to build shelters and provide better services for the unhoused.
"It's deeply troubling, and this is not the position I thought we'd be in with the new leadership in City Hall and at the Department of Human Services," Ingrassia said. "The plans they have do make it sound like we're headed in the right direction, but some of the short-term pieces are being overlooked."
But Scoggin said his office isn't measuring success by dollars spent, which he called a "lagging indicator" due to how the department funds projects. Projects typically are paid for through reimbursements after completion.
Julia Bauer, a research specialist on American Rescue Plan funding with the National League of Cities, said St. Louis' spending rate is typical for a city of its size. Most cities, she said, have spent small portions of the funding they've received so far.
"A lot of cities are trying to be thoughtful in their approach and trying to be responsible with the funding," Bauer said.
Rachel Lambing, a volunteer for Tent Mission STL, hopes funding for projects like the safe haven comes to fruition, given the winter ahead. Last year, Lambing and other members of Tent Mission STL took to the streets on the coldest evening seeking to aid homeless individuals.
"It's deadly for people that have to live it," Lambing said. "And people who get close to death every single year — who are just barely saved by some of these ragtag folks who are getting them to whatever shelter exists — have to endure that year after year."
This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.
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