A $1 tip shows what’s missing in Missouri debates on homelessness

Why This Matters

This column by Tony Messenger gets it right. It feels good choosing to make a positive difference for someone else. Some of our clients are the most generous people you will meet, always ready to lend a hand or share a kind word, and yes, even share what little money they have.

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By Tony Messenger
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Dec 27, 2023

ST. LOUIS — The Rev. Bruce Forman told me a story about $1.

Forman is the priest at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Soulard. For about 40 years, the church and the nearby St. Vincent de Paul have provided evening meals for people in need, many of them living on the streets. Schools, nonprofits and businesses help provide volunteers to serve the meals in the parish hall.

It’s a sit-down meal, with 100 or so diners spread out among tables. The service, compared to standing in a buffet line, is about dignity as much as anything else.

“It’s food, but it’s a lot more than that,” Forman says.

On a recent evening, students from St. Joseph’s Academy helped serve meals. Afterward, one of them gave Forman a dollar bill. It had been left as a tip by an unhoused person, grateful for the meal and the service.

The story reminded me of Patrick. I met him more than 30 years ago while I was pushing my daughter in a stroller at the 16th Street Mall in Denver, Colo. It was the Christmas season, and we were listening to a choir sing carols. Patrick ambled up to us and sat down. He had a big Army surplus duffel bag. He was homeless. He asked if he could listen to the music with us.

Patrick started to tell us his story. He had been an engineer of some sort. He lost his job and his marriage. He turned to booze. He had lived on the streets, going from town to town, for some time. When the songs were over, and as we got up to leave, he asked us to wait.

Patrick reached into his duffel bag and pulled out a trinket box. It was made of wood and had sea shells on the outside, with torn felt lining on the inside. He pulled a $1 bill out of his pocket and put it in the box.

“Can I give this to your daughter?” he asked.

It was Christmas, and he wanted to give somebody a gift.

Larry Proby talks on the phone on his bunk at the Peter & Paul Community Services Soulard shelter on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023, at Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in St. Louis.

I think of Patrick frequently when writing about homelessness. So much of what is missed when lawmakers in St. Louis or the Missouri Legislature talk about homelessness is the dignity of people who need a little bit of our help.

There was no dignity, for instance, in the law passed by the Legislature last year to criminalize the act of sleeping on state property, like in a park or near a highway overpass. It was passed despite several advocates — the people who do the work of helping the unhoused population — explaining to lawmakers how truly bad the bill was.

Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court tossed the law. It was for technical reasons — there is strong case law in Missouri that says the Legislature can’t pass a Christmas tree sort of bill, loaded with unrelated topics.

Here’s why that rule is important: If lawmakers tried to pass a stand-alone bill to make unhoused people criminals, and that punishes the cities and nonprofits trying to help them, they would fail. The only way such bills — pushed by out-of-state think tanks — become law is to tie them to unrelated pieces of legislation.

There’s no dignity in that.

On the day the court tossed that very poorly conceived law, St. Louis Alderman Alisha Sonnier said she would bring back her “Bill of Rights” legislation, with a focus on adding new shelters and providing services at tent encampments when they pop up, rather than just clearing them.

If they haven’t already, Sonnier and the other aldermen should talk to Forman. After decades at the center of the community feeding and sheltering unhoused people in St. Louis, he’s got some common-sense ideas about how the city can move forward — hopefully without interference from the state.

If Peter and Paul Community Services can find a neighborhood willing to let the group build a larger 24-hour shelter, replacing the cramped one in the basement of the church, it can locate a new program there to help with job training.

That’s a net positive for St. Louis.

“We usually run into people critical of accepting a shelter in their neighborhood … but they fail to consider the positive effects,” Forman says. “A shelter will provide a place for people to sleep, so they don’t have to sleep on storefronts or front lawns. Shelters provide food. Shelters have restrooms and showers. It can be a win-win for a neighborhood.”

The debate will continue at City Hall and the Missouri State Capitol in the coming year. It will go better if lawmakers remember the dignity of a $1 tip offered in gratitude for a warm meal.

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