St. Louis housing program brings stability to the homeless

Sunday, April 25, 2010

ST. LOUIS -- The two men once bounced from one downtown park to another, sleeping in tents or under cardboard in relative anonymity. Then last fall, Tremayne Gates and Clint Smith briefly became the center of a debate over how the city should treat its homeless and their possessions.

The two were camping in Interco Plaza downtown when they encountered a couple of St. Louis park rangers. While they cleaned up the park, the rangers tossed Gates' and Smith's belongings into a dump truck, crushing them in a compactor, despite pleas to stop.

Today Gates and Smith are living in new apartments. Both are now at the forefront of a new and increasingly popular approach to combating chronic homelessness.

The approach is called "Housing First," and it has a commonsense premise: The best way to combat homelessness is with homes.

Proponents argue that giving the homeless homes makes the problems that contribute to homelessness, such as mental illness and substance abuse, easier to treat.

"This is my first place in 10 years," said Gates, 29, as he stood in his apartment in the Benton Park West neighborhood. He lives alone in a one-bedroom unit on the top floor of a four-family house off Minnesota Avenue.

Sunlight poured in through new vinyl windows, casting shadows on freshly painted green walls.

The path that brought Gates and Smith to their new homes might have been just another dead end, had their ordeal not made headlines six months ago.

The incident occurred right outside the St. Patrick Center, which provides services for the homeless. It outraged homeless advocates and care providers, including Bill Siedhoff, director of the city's Department of Human Services. Siedhoff said the rangers had showed a disturbing lack of respect to the two men.

Smith, 38, had begged the rangers not to destroy his stuff, saying that it included some of his medication.

"I lost some tools," Smith said, "and a lot of clothes ... shoes."

Kara Bowlin, spokeswoman for Mayor Francis Slay, said the decision to destroy Smith's and Gates' possessions was made by the individual park rangers cleaning the parks.

"I think there were some gray areas in what our policy was," Bowlin said.

In February, city officials clarified that policy. Now park rangers will tag items found in parks and bring them to a center where they can be retrieved. After the incident in November, Siedhoff solicited donations for the two men.

"I wanted to replace what they had lost," Siedhoff said.

Siedhoff received about $2,000. He declined to say where the money came from, because the donors may wish to remain anonymous, he said, adding that the money did not come from city funds.

The donations helped put Gates and Smith in temporary housing, bought Gates a bicycle and replaced Smith's medication.

In late November, Gates and Smith were referred to Richard LaPlume, a caseworker at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's Criminal Justice Ministry.

LaPlume and another person oversee a $1.2 million, three-year grant. The city, which received the money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, awarded it to St. Vincent de Paul, one of its partners in a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.

The city of St. Louis, which by far has the region's largest concentration of homeless, had an estimated 1,310 people living in shelters and transitional centers or sleeping outdoors or in abandoned buildings, according to a count in January. That number was down from 1,350 in 2009 and 1,386 in 2007.

Siedhoff said about 800 permanent supportive housing units in the city house people like Gates and Smith. He hopes for more.

"My desire is to only see emergency shelters used for emergencies," Siedhoff said.

The St. Vincent de Paul program, called ProjectPLUS, pays for housing for 35 homeless individuals over the three years, and provides some utility assistance. The "PLUS" acronym stands for "Permanent Living United with Services." Its goal is to help homeless people become self-sufficient, based on the "Housing First" philosophy.

Proponents of the philosophy argue that housing the homeless ensures caseworkers, mental health providers and health care workers have easy access to their clients simply because they know where to find them.

The best known example of "Housing First" is in Seattle, at an $11.2 million project called "1811 Eastlake."

The project opened in 2005 in a downtown neighborhood and targeted homeless alcoholics. Some neighbors have criticized the effort because it didn't require tenants to give up alcohol and drugs before they moved into the building. It also allowed them to drink in their rooms.

The first study of the project was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year. The study, led by a University of Washington professor, found that 1811 Eastlake saved taxpayers more than $4 million per year and roughly $2,500 monthly per person in health care, jail and emergency shelter costs -- compared with homeless people who were not housed.

Over the last few years, the approach has been adopted by other cities, large and small, throughout the country. It's not entirely new to St. Louis.

The St. Patrick Center has established a couple of smaller housing complexes in the city based on the "Housing First" approach.

In St. Vincent de Paul's ProjectPLUS program, participants are housed in apartments that on average rent for about $400 per month. The units are scattered throughout the city.

Every week, LaPlume or his partner visit each of the participants.

LaPlume acknowledged that self-sufficiency may be a long way off for some and not realistic.

Gates is diagnosed with schizophrenia. At his apartment with LaPlume one day recently, Gates pointed to a typewriter on the floor beneath a stack of paper resting on a windowsill. He said had written a "hypothesis" on his illness and eventually wants to become a "neurologist and an archaeologist."

"It's a complicated illness," he said. "It has a lot to do with social disorder."

On his forearm, Gates has a scar about the size of a quarter. It's from a gunshot wound he received during a robbery in Forest Park a few years ago, he said.

Speakers on a computer in the kitchen blared rap music. The screen flashed Gates' digital artwork.

As he was driving away, LaPlume said, "I'd love to see him get stable mentally and work on his passion for doing something with art."

LaPlume is still trying to learn more about Smith's problems. Smith lives on the first floor of another four-family apartment near the intersection of South Grand Boulevard and Gravois Avenue. When LaPlume showed up recently, Smith was busy trying to pick the carrots out of a bowl of beef stew.

Smith said he suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, narcolepsy and depression.

So far, Smith said, he enjoyed having a roof over his head but couldn't say how long he would remain in the apartment.

"If things work out, I'll stay," he said. "If not, I'm gone."

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

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