Published on stltoday.com // June 19, 2015
Are you tired of the controversy surrounding homeless services in the St. Louis region? Are you confused by the attempts to close shelters, the filing of lawsuits, and a new, aggressive policy on panhandling? You’re not alone. Even those of us who work in this industry tire of the upheaval. However, we have good news to share about progress in homeless services in St. Louis, which improve the lives of all people in this community.
St. Patrick Center. Source
An article in the April newsletter of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness stated some good news about efforts to end homelessness in the United States. The main thrust of the article is that ending homelessness is a collaborative effort among service providers, people experiencing homelessness, faith-based organizations, the business community and all levels of government.
Fortunately, this description also applies to the work being done right here. Many service organizations, municipalities, and business and civic organizations across the region are developing and implementing collaborative initiatives to help individuals and families escape homelessness. In just the past nine months, the St. Louis region has:
- Welcomed Iain DeJong, an international expert on ending homelessness and the Housing First philosophy, on three different occasions.
- Increased emergency shelter space in St. Louis city by 180 beds, through collaboration among the city, Windsor Transitional Housing, Gateway 180 and St. Patrick Center.
- Created a beta version of a real-time housing application to assist providers in finding acceptable low-income housing options for clients, through a partnership that includes St. Patrick Center, The Bridge and OpenData STL.
- Initiated a strategic change process through a meeting of regional homeless services stakeholders and Tina Patterson, consultant from Homefull in Dayton, Ohio, sponsored by the city of St. Louis.
In addition to these collaborative events, business and civic leaders contribute financial and personnel resources, including the Greater St. Louis United Way, US Bank Community Development Corp., Downtown STL, property owners and developers. Academic partners have joined the efforts, with faculty expertise from The Brown School at Washington University, the School of Public Service at St. Louis University, and Maryville University.
Collaboration and coordination are the keys to ending homelessness. This is because homelessness is a complicated issue; it has no single, common cause. Many people assume that homelessness is caused by poverty, mental illness and substance abuse. However, most people who live in poverty or experience behavioral health issues never become homeless: 21 percent of Americans experience mental illness, 8 percent experience substance dependency, and 14 percent live in poverty, but only 0.002 percent of Americans experience homelessness. That is good news, but recovery from homelessness takes both a personal and community effort.
Housing First is a proven method for ending homeless in several communities worldwide. This philosophy encourages housing as the first step in overcoming homelessness, based on the belief that it is easier to work on physical or behavioral health issues, attend job training or interview, or stay clean and sober, when you have a place to lay your head, prepare a meal and maintain dignity. Housing First does not require anything of the person before being housed; the person does not have to accomplish anything like sobriety before housing is an option.
Well-meaning groups and individuals unwittingly contribute to the perpetuation of homelessness by giving things: money, food, blankets, clothing, tents, heaters, generators. However, empirical research has repeatedly demonstrated that this approach is actually a barrier to housing. It is also more costly and less effective than housing people first, then providing wrap-around services and resources throughout the community to ensure stability for the individual or family experiencing homelessness.
There is much good news in homeless services in the St. Louis region, and many exciting partnerships and collaborations moving forward to end homelessness in the entire metro area. The noise can sometimes drown out the truth, and the truth is that permanent, positive change for those experiencing homelessness and our community is an attainable goal.
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