Why didn't St. Louis and St. Louis County meet their 10-year goal to end chronic homelessness?
Quinton Reed is one of the lucky ones. After struggling with homelessness for four years, he was diagnosed with a mental illness and set up with treatment and a one-bedroom apartment in south St. Louis.
“I used to couldn’t watch TV or see my daughter or see my family or just relax. I was just out all day carrying big bags, going from shelter to shelter and sleeping outside,” said Reed, showing off the couch in his living room where he goes to relax and get away from the world.
Sometimes Reed chose to sleep on the streets because being in shelters surrounded by people exacerbated his mental illness.
"My anxiety be real bad, I hear voices. I have suicidal thoughts. That's why I like to be to myself. I don't like to be around people because when I be around people that's when my voices they start getting out of control and bothering me," Reed said.
Now he can shut his bedroom door and listen to R&B whenever he wants to calm all the loud voices.
Reed’s apartment is one of almost 500 new permanent units added to the city’s homeless housing roster since 2005 as part of a joint St. Louis-St. Louis County 10 year plan to end chronic homelessness. St. Louis County added just over 200 in that time span.
The beds are reserved for the chronically homeless: people who have a disability and have been homeless for at least a year, or have had multiple bouts of homelessness in the past few years.
But despite a decade spent beefing up permanent housing, the number of chronically homeless people living on the streets or in temporary shelters in St. Louis and St. Louis County was roughly the same in 2015 as it was in 2005.
Government officials weigh in
“The fact is, if we didn’t have all this housing we’d have a lot more people on the street. In other words our numbers probably would have went up,” said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
Slay pointed to the recession and the 2012 closure of the Metropolitan Psychiatric Center as key reasons the city only saw an 18 percent reduction in its chronic homeless population. That’s according to a federally mandated headcount conducted on a single night each year in January.
“One of the reasons that it’s hard to get a complete handle on these numbers is because we have people continuously coming from different areas of the region into the city of St. Louis,” Slay said. “We serve the region’s homeless. We don’t control that nor do we try to.”
Asked about homeless people from the county going to the city for help, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said the county is meeting the needs of its homeless.
“Essentially we have more beds than are necessary for everyone that we have that are homeless,” said Stenger, comparing the county’s point-in-time homeless count with its shelter space. “We take in, in the county, people from the city. We take in people from Franklin County, Jefferson County, St. Charles County and I’m sure that those counties take in individuals from their surrounding counties. That’s just a fact of life that we all have to deal with and we deal with it in the county and we don’t complain about it.”
Stenger didn’t become county executive until the last year of the plan. He questions whether the previous administration ever took steps to implement it.
“We have a much different approach to homelessness than the last administration did,” Stenger said. “We have a much more proactive approach.”
St. Louis County said it started following the Housing First model of serving the homeless in the past year. That’s the model recommended by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the model social service agencies that adopted the 10-year plan say they follow.
The nonprofits’ take
“There were some flaws in the plan as we understood it in 2005,” said Tom Burnham of Peter and Paul’s Community Services, one of the nonprofit agencies that helped craft the 10-year plan. Peter and Paul, St. Patrick Center, Places for People and the Salvation Army also adopted the plan as part of the city or county’s network of homeless service providers.
Burnham served as shelter manager for Peter and Paul for decades. He thinks the plan called for too many apartment complexes set aside for the chronically homeless like Peter and Paul’s Garfield Commons, where Quinton Reed lives.
“Garfield is a very high-ticket operation,” Burnham said. “It was expensive to set up, and the fact is most chronically homeless do not have the acute needs of the folks at Garfield and they can be better assisted with supportive services (while in private housing).”
Burnham said it took Peter and Paul five years to find a location for Garfield Commons that had the support of the neighborhood. He believes the best way to end homelessness is to build up the region’s affordable housing stock.
“We need to allow it first of all, and we need to incentivize private developers. And I know they’re there. If they could make a reasonable profit they’ll do it,” Burnham said.
Burnham’s stance is similar to the explanation provided by the executive director of Places for People, Joseph Yancey.
“What we have been seeing over the same 10 years is an increase in what I would call concentrated poverty,” Yancey said. “So the ability of people to afford housing has I think been the biggest barrier.”
The Salvation Army’s Kimberly Beck was also part of St. Louis and St. Louis County's network of homeless service agencies when the 10-year plan was adopted. The Salvation Army operates programs for the homeless in both the city and the county.
She said the plan successfully created a system to help people who become chronically homeless, but it was unrealistic to think that St. Louis could totally end it.
“That was just not a good title from the beginning. And I’m probably one of the ones who said that back in 2004. I raised my hand. I was the thorn in the flesh when they said ‘Oh Kim we have to be optimistic.’ I was like ‘OK, well we can be optimistic but that’s just not realistic to me,’” Beck said.
Beck also said social stigma plays a role. Private landlords don’t want problem tenants. And some people experiencing homelessness don’t qualify for housing because they don’t want to be diagnosed with a mental illness.
“There’s a scripture that says the poor will always be among you. And I just realize there are some that are going to choose homelessness. Even if there is a house for them to stay in, if they don’t want it, you can’t force them to go in,” Beck said.
These days homeless service agencies are focusing more on getting all people housed, not just the chronically homeless. They’re in the process of adopting a coordinated method of ranking people based on their level of need and working together to get them housed. There’s also a greater emphasis on providing rental assistance to people who just need a few months support to get back on their feet.
Meanwhile, officials in both St. Louis and St. Louis County said they still have a goal to end chronic homelessness, but they’re hesitant to set a deadline.
St. Louis was one of hundreds of cities to adopt a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness at HUD’s urging in the mid-2000s. Utah is one of the few regions pointed to as a success story.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.