Anthony D’Agostino: Let’s agree to finally agree about ending homelessness

By Anthony D’Agostino
CEO, Peter & Paul Community Services
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch September 17, 2023

Like most major challenges in our community, solving homelessness is fraught with disagreement.

An op-ed recently published in the Post-Dispatch (“Aiden McNamara: Warehousing the homeless isn’t the answer. St. Louis needs to get more creative.” Aug. 22) illustrates the point. When reading it, I immediately began internally disagreeing with certain language, data points and proposed solutions.

I even began composing an opposing argument. However, after a few days of reflection, I realized that a back-and-forth over the specifics — the shelter bed count, zoning laws or categorization of homelessness — wasn’t productive.

Instead, I propose a new approach: Let’s focus on where we agree. Everyone in our community wants homelessness to end. We can all agree on this eight-word sentence.

Admittedly, many disagree on why homelessness must end. Some are guided by their moral principles. Others outline safety concerns. Several point to the overall economic impact. Many people would identify with all these reasons. No matter your “why,” we can all agree on the core premise that ending homelessness in St. Louis is beneficial.

Not only does everyone in our community want homelessness to end, most also agree that simply “warehousing” a large group of people is not acceptable.

For those new to this term, warehousing is the practice of placing large groups of people in a facility with the basics for survival — mainly food, water, and bathroom access. Warehousing means a void in addressing the person’s root causes of homelessness.

Fortunately, at Peter and Paul Community Services (PPCS), we don’t engage in warehousing. Throughout our four decades of sheltering, we have always worked with our clients to help them move toward long-term housing. In fact, our entire mission focuses on providing essential services to each person who walks through the door.

In terms of sheltering, we all can agree that it needs improvement.

At PPCS, we’re expanding and relocating our Soulard Shelter — a traditional congregate facility — into an SRO (single room occupancy) facility that offers more privacy and dignity. With more space, staffing and 24-hours of operation, improvements are occurring for our system and the individuals in need. While creating individual rooms will require construction costs and won’t happen overnight, it is well worth the investment. This SRO model better prepares guests for future permanent housing.

Speaking of permanent housing, we can all agree that housing has become unaffordable for many individuals and families in our community.

This has exacerbated homelessness. It is almost impossible to help someone achieve permanent housing without more affordable housing in our region. At PPCS, we are raising funds for more affordable housing options, allowing our shelter guests to obtain/sustain permanent housing without falling back into homelessness.

Whether you have expertise in homeless services or not, we can all agree that there is no single solution that will end homelessness — so let’s stop looking for one.

More tiny homes or shelter beds or apartment units or staff alone won’t solve homelessness. As a community, we need all the above along with supporting a coordinated, collaborative system approach.

No one yearns to sleep in a large room next to 99 strangers for months on end, but our system allows it. No one yearns to wait over a year for affordable housing placement, but our system allows it. Every homeless shelter provider in our community wants to improve their facilities and services, but our system doesn’t foster it.

Since we all agree that our system needs improvement, let’s make it happen.

Let’s lean into the current homeless response system restructuring. Over the past few months, major stakeholders — leaders from the city, the business community, and services providers — have been meeting with consultants from Houston (where they have decreased homelessness by 60%) to implement a more effective, efficient system.

In fact, St. Louis’ Department of Human Services, under Mayor Tishaura Jones and Director Adam Cisroe Pearson, just made history. They approved almost one-quarter million dollars in funding to improve systems coordination through strategic collaboration with House Everyone STL. It’s a significant move in the right direction.

Working together is the only way to turn our common desires into reality. We need everyone to join our efforts. Whether you can offer time, talent or treasure, your participation is vital. Volunteers can contact adagostino@ppcsinc.org to join our movement to end homelessness.

Anthony D’Agostino is CEO of Peter & Paul Community Services

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