Almost all of the services to help homeless people are located in the City of St. Louis, even though many of the calls to the homeless hotline come from outside the City. That is unlikely to change anytime soon, because it is too convenient for some municipal and county officials to export their problems.
I was explaining this reality last week to members of the Downtown St. Louis Residents Association, many of whom were until recently residents of some of these same suburban municipalities. It is an understatement to say that their perspective has shifted a little.
I told the group that when I first took office, public policy toward the homeless was not particularly focused - or nuanced. The City supported some of the efforts of a diverse and largely uncoordinated group of service providers; offered a range of services of our own; and repeatedly cited, arrested, and jailed homeless people for municipal ordinance violations ranging from public urination to public drunkenness to trespassing.
A study of its effects showed that all of that effort had made no particular impact on either homelessness or crime. So, I asked City departments and the Police Department to find a different and more effective approach. They did.
In partnership with most of the service providers, the City now has a formal Ten-Year Plan (pdf) to address chronic homelessness. And the plan’s success over the last several years has attracted national attention as a model.
Instead of just throwing people in jail for a few days, a coordinated group of service organizations and City agencies now work together to get them treatment for their underlying illness, places of their own to live, and, when possible, jobs. A police officer who notices a problem may still issue a warning or a summons, but she will also be able to coordinate her efforts with groups that can begin to address the underlying causes of homelessness. Every year, we are required to do actual hard counts of homeless people. Our latest count shows homelessness is down by 30 percent since we started this plan.
Not everyone is yet on board. New Life Evangelistic Center, one of the highest profile homeless service providers in the region, still refuses to cooperate with other agencies and continues to provide the sorts of services that some experts believe do more harm than good to homeless people. And there are, of course, a few well-intentioned handwringers.
But, the City’s coordinated approach is also drawing new adherents. Downtown’s newest residents, many of whom rent or own lofts along Washington Avenue, have been quick learners about the City’s efforts and available resources - and have begun volunteering their time, money, effort, diverse talents, and vigilance to building a neighborhood that accommodates everyone. I met many of them last week. They were great.