Lorna Kroon wraps a blanket around a homeless man as snow falls Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, in St. Louis. Kroon, who lives in a house on the street, said the man sits at that spot often.

By Tony Messenger

Tony Messenger is the metro columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

ST. LOUIS — Jessica was getting ready to head to her nursing job when she took a moment to show me her one-bedroom apartment. It’s located in the old Garfield School, a former public school building in Benton Park West. Peter and Paul Community Services has turned it into permanent supportive housing for people who are homeless or in danger of homelessness.

The apartment isn’t big or fancy. It’s not much larger than a college dorm room. But this is not a temporary shelter. Jessica, whose rent is subsidized because she is disabled, can live here as long as she wants. The building offers case management, mental health services and vocational services.

In many ways, this is the future of the “housing first” model many nonprofits in St. Louis are following. There are similar facilities run by St. Patrick’s Center, Gateway Housing First and Places for People. But making that model work takes lots of investment and massive cooperation among nonprofits, businesses and government entities.

It’s challenging to find a person on the street, get them into a shelter and navigate the gauntlet of providers and paperwork that could lead to a permanent roof over their head. All too often, there is a breakdown in communication or cooperation.

Take the one that has plagued St. Louis lately. As winter hit, the administration of Mayor Tishaura O. Jones assured the city that there were enough shelter beds for people who needed them. The various nonprofit providers of those beds generally agreed. But too often, when city officials tell people to call the 211 system, the operators tell them there are no beds available or don’t know how to connect them to a shelter.

In early January, a group of volunteers sent out a recording of such calls to get the attention of providers and the city. Why were city officials telling people to call 211 if the operators didn’t know how to connect people to beds, the advocates from St. Louis Winter Outreach asked.

“We would like to believe that the people in power who repeat this empty phrase actually do not know that it does not work,” they wrote in an email linking to the recording. “Even if that is the case it shows a scary disconnect from those in power to those who work in homeless services, and those who work for 2-1-1.”

That disconnect is now the subject of a behind-the-scenes battle over who manages the federal money for homeless services in St. Louis. In December, the Continuum of Care, a committee of key service providers, issued a request for proposals, seeking one organization to be at the top of the food chain when it comes to homeless services.

For too long, many of the providers say, the city has been too slow to react to issues, to secure funding for nonprofits and to handle problems like the 211 disconnect. There is “general agreement” in the nonprofit community that the best model is for a nonprofit — not a government entity — to be the lead agency coordinating homeless services, says Steve Campbell, the CEO of Peter and Paul.

“We are not trying to start a fight with the city,” says Suvir Dhar, a board member of the nascent nonprofit House Everyone STL, which plans to bid on the RFP. “But the current system is not working. At the very least, let’s admit that.”

Yusef Scoggin, director of human services for the city, agrees there have been issues with the 211 system. But he believes the city is on track to getting all parts of the homeless provider network to work in a more integrated fashion. “I think we’re positioned well” to continue as the lead agency for homeless services, he said.

For Scoggin, the debate detracts from a reality that has long plagued homeless services in the region: the city and its nonprofits are the only entities doing the heavy lifting — even though the people being provided services come from surrounding counties, and places as far away as Joplin and Cape Girardeau.

“We’re the only government entity in the entire region that has dedicated any American Rescue Plan Act funds to the homeless,” Scoggin says.

In that regard, Scoggin and the nonprofits are on the same page. The RFP issued by the Continuum of Care asks those who bid to discuss plans for regionalizing a “housing first” model, so that the commitment to providing permanent supportive housing is shared throughout the St. Louis area.

“How would the applicant end chronic and veteran homelessness in 5 years?” the RFP asks.

It’s a good question. The best answer gets the city of St. Louis, the nonprofits that serve people in need and the entire region on the same page — with one unifying force leading the charge.