“We are going to stay. I am so tired. You don’t know how hard it is to be homeless,” said Stephanie Coleman, right, who stands outside her tent after an all-day standoff with city officials on Friday, Match 24, 2023, at a tent city just north of Laclede’s Landing, near North Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and Carr Street. Residents were told to the leave the encampment early in the morning and faced possible eviction while an excavator and city refuse trucks waited to clear the area.
By Tony Messenger
Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
ST. LOUIS — For almost 30 years, there has been a bottleneck that chokes the process of providing services to the homeless community in St. Louis.
The biggest chunk of money to battle homelessness comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through yearly grants. Under federal law, that money is supposed to be managed in cities by commissions called a Continuum of Care, made up of board members from the various social service agencies that provide services.
But in St. Louis, and many other cities, the money flows first through the city government, where bureaucracy and politics sometimes slows the delivery of the money to the people who need it. It’s why, going back multiple mayoral administrations, there have been regular disputes between nonprofit providers and the mayor’s office, arguing over money or the design of the plan to battle homelessness.
Why isn’t that shelter open? Where are the warming buses? Who is getting people off the street and into housing? When will that contract be awarded? Every year, it seems, some version of those questions fills the headlines, with bureaucrats and do-gooders pointing fingers at each other while needy people living on the streets suffer.
Anthony D’Agostino hopes those days are over. Last month, the Continuum of Care followed a national trend and for the first time made a nonprofit the middle man for the federal funds, instead of the city.
“This is more than 30 years in the making,” says D’Agostino, who is the chairman of the Continuum of Care. “It’s a huge shift. I think it’s exciting for the city.”
A bumpy transition might await. The city didn’t want to give up its role as the agency that applied for and distributed the funds to homeless nonprofits. The new nonprofit that won the role in a competitive bidding process, House Everyone STL, knows that for the transition to work, it needs the cooperation of the city, which still will play a major role in sheltering unhoused people and devising and implementing strategy. The office of Mayor Tishaura O. Jones declined to comment on the awarding of the funding contract to the new nonprofit.
“We need to foster a culture of collaboration,” says Laurie Phillips, the new executive director of House Everyone STL. “I don’t want to fight with anybody.”
Phillips is a former director of the St. Patrick’s Center, where, until Friday, D’Agostino had the top job. He is moving to a new job as CEO of Peter & Paul Community Services, another major provider of services to unhoused people. The game of musical chairs doesn’t stop there. A former Peter & Paul employee, Adam Pearson, is taking over as the city’s director of the Department of Human Services.
Pearson comes from an agency that, like most providers of homeless services in St. Louis, was pushing for the change in how the federal money is distributed. Phillips hopes that translates to a successful working relationship between House Everyone STL as it gears up to file the application for next year’s HUD money, which should amount to around $13 million, along with another $500,000 for strategic planning.
Because the nonprofit can do something the city couldn’t do — seek more funds from private sources — Phillips hopes the new arrangement leads to better funded services that can be more responsive to the needs of unhoused people, as well as the business community.
“We need to be more flexible and we need to be better funded,” Phillips says. “I think we’re going to see a much better level of responsiveness to the needs of the community.”
To that end, the nonprofit is in negotiations with Mandy Sample, a national consultant who helped reorganize homeless service plans in Houston and Dallas, to come to St. Louis and help get all the agencies and governments working in the same direction.
“Everybody has to be on the same page,” Sample said last year when she came to the city to speak to homeless agency leaders.
That’s the goal with the change in who is ultimately in charge of the overarching strategy for battling homelessness in St. Louis, Phillips says.
“Everything has always felt like a fire drill in the past,” she says of yearly efforts to get funding from the city to the agencies doing the work on the ground. “We don’t want it to feel like that anymore.”