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A new place for Places for People, a new haven for the homeless

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 10, 2010 - There was no need to break ground, but breaking down walls was certainly on the agenda.

"I think it symbolizes the barriers of homelessness," said a smiling Taurus Oates as he looked on at the gathered reporters and dignitaries. "It was symbolic for me. Spiritually, I had a lot of walls put up through situations by being homeless."

Oates, 34, was among dozens who braved chilly temperatures Thursday morning to witness the demolition of an interior wall marking the beginning of renovations designed to create a 23-unit apartment building, which aims to address the twin problems of homelessness and mental illness in St. Louis. State Treasurer Clint Zweifel was among those present for the event, which drew a large crowd of well-wishers and media.

The project, Places at 5235 Page, is the brainchild of Places for People, the organization that helped Oates move from homelessness to a world in which he receives benefits from Medicaid and Social Security as well as treatment to manage schizophrenia and mild depression. He now lives independently in a south St. Louis apartment. Success stories like Oates' are precisely the type that Places for People are looking to replicate and the building's revamp is one more piece of that puzzle. Founded in 1972, the group is dedicated to helping people manage psychiatric disorders while preventing them from falling into homelessness.

Places for People has two other facilities in the city -- an 18-unit apartment building in old north St. Louis for those with mental illnesses or substance abuse and temporary emergency housing on the south side.

A New Funding Model

Both were created with dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, Places' latest effort has a unique funding mechanism. The $5.7 million project is financed primarily by a mix of millions in federal and state tax credits, bonds and stimulus funds through the Missouri Housing Development Commission. It is will also be supplemented with $1.1 million in private money. According to Places for People's website, about $600,000 of the $1.1 million has already been raised.

Interviewed before the event, Francie Broderick, executive director of Places for People, said the new source of financing did not come easily.

"It took us four rounds of applications and a lot of advocacy," she said. "Frankly, this isn't the type of project that is usually funded. That's why we're really excited about it. There's a recognition that these public resources, these tax credits should be used to support a public policy agenda with the downsizing of [psychiatric] hospitals."

John Wuest, president and CEO of the St. Louis Equity Fund, which has helped round up investors for the effort, praised the work of Places for People.

"We think it's a win-win all around and we're very pleased to be associated with this project," he said.

Broderick told the gathering that the development represents the fulfillment of long-neglected commitments made to those who had been discharged from psychiatric facilities due to cutbacks.

"For too many people, the answer, instead of a life of hope and recovery, has been more institutions," she said. "It's been homeless shelters, skilled-nursing facilities with locked behavioral wards, park benches. Most heartbreakingly, it's been prisons."

New Facility Also Creates Jobs

Zweifel said he hoped to continue championing such efforts in the future. He said that one in four Missourians suffers from a mental illness in a given year. Without supportive services, they can easily find themselves homeless. On any given night, 6,000 state residents are homeless, he said.

"They are our moms and dads, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, our sons and daughters, our military veterans," he said. "They have fallen through the cracks, and they should not be doomed to live on a park bench or roadside when we have the resources and the ability to be innovative and provide the treatment they deserve."

He told the assembled that tax-credit funding for concepts like this one were not just good for the clients but for others as well. The project should create almost 80 new jobs and the residents who eventually live in the units will lead productive lives rather than absorb increasingly limited community resources.

"This is a model that works," he said. "It saves our communities tax dollars by reducing burdens on emergency rooms, shelters, jails and prisons. This doesn't just work for people. It works for budgets, too."

The nearly 30,000-square foot brick-and-concrete building will house about 30 residents in units ranging from efficiencies to two-bedroom apartments. Tenants will sign leases and receive subsidies for the rent. Clinical staff will be on-site 24-hours a day to monitor their needs. At least half of the residents will have been homeless.

"One of the things about Places for People is to have flexibility for their clients," said Jeff Brambila, the architect on the project, as he points to a unit on the floor-plan. "This two-bedroom has access to the second-floor porch, which would really be a secure play area if they had any kids."

Apartments will range in size from 500 to 1,100 square feet. Brambila, who has worked on projects for the not-for-profit for 25 years, explains that the structure, built in 1908, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Last renovated in 1989, it originally housed a home for people with visual impairments.

Alderman Frank Williamson, D-26th Ward, said he is more than familiar with the building's history. He used to pass the structure regularly on the bus while growing up in the area. At that time it was beautiful, he said, but later fell into disrepair and became a breeding ground for criminal activity.

"This was a nuisance problem property for so many years," said Williamson. "Now, not only will it help the community but they are also serving the underprivileged."

A Fresh Perspective

Broderick said that the broad-based involvement by politicians, activists, government, local groups and financial institutions showed a real change in the way such issues are viewed.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, if we had done something like this, you would only have seen mental-health providers here," she told the crowd. "Today, this is a community event."

Zweifel told the story of Janet Ward, a local woman who had been homeless for a year before she was helped by Broderick's organization. Today, Ward is a florist and GED teacher who is working on her bachelor's degree in business administration at UM-St. Louis and wants to take the CPA exam.

In an interview just before proceedings got underway, the soft-spoken 63-year-old, who has since moved on to other housing, credited Places for People for her second chance at life. She said the new facility was a great step forward.

"I'm hoping that it will provide just as much hope and support as I found," Ward said.

David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

David Baugher
David Baugher is a freelance writer in St. Louis who contributed to several stories for the STL Beacon.

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