Is City Losing its Ten-Year Battle Against Homelessness?
ST. LOUIS–(KMOX)–Six years into a ten-year plan to end chronic homelessness, the effort appears to be stalling, despite millions in tax dollars spent on the goal annually.
The city’s latest homeless census released to KMOX this week shows the city has spent an estimated $84 million in federal and local funds in six years, but the number of homeless people now on the streets is only 626 lower than the original headcount in 2005.
“I don’t have an exact figure, but on an annual basis we spend about $14 million a year,” said Bill Siedhoff the Director of the City Department of Human Services. Siedhoff says the money has helped far more than 626 individuals get off the street, but because of high unemployment and more homeless coming to the city from surrounding counties, the ten-year plan has been set back.
The latest city’s latest homeless census, conducted earlier this year, shows 1,315 homeless people on the streets — a reduction of 32-percent from the 2005 headcount of 1,941 homeless. The so-called “chronic” homeless population, those repeat individuals with a disability, has been reduced to 168 from the original total of 210 — a drop of 20 percent.
Given the results, Siedhoff was asked if the program can be justified as an efficient use of taxpayer money.
“Oh, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Siedhoff said, “If those dollars weren’t being expended, you’d be seeing people on the street in larger numbers than we have now.”
Siedhoff says the administrative overhead for the effort is about “five-to-ten percent” of the total dollars spent. The $14 million dollars the city spends annually on the homeless is distributed to area agencies that provide the front-line services, including Catholic Charities.
“You would hope you’d see more of a decrease,” said Karen Wallensak, Director of Catholic Charities Housing Resource Center, “But given the economy, there are more homeless. I have seen many more people in Lucas Park, behind the New Life Center. And I just heard today, there’s a group of people sleeping in Carondolet Park under the train trestle.”
At the New Life Evangelistic Center, which receives no funds from the city’s homeless program, Pastor Chris Rice, the son of the Reverend Larry Rice, applauded the city’s effort to end chronic homelessness, but expressed doubt it will succeed.
“I don’t believe they will, because chronic homelessness is about people, and you know how hard it is to help people,” Rice said, “You know, will emergency rooms ever end heart disease?”
To get more people off the streets, the New Life Center wants the city to end its 90-day residency policy, which requires the homeless seeking assistance through a city-funded program to prove they have lived in the city in the past 90 days.
“By lifting that you’re saying now we’re free to help everybody, like they do in Kansas City, like they do in Chicago,” Rice said, “If you’re homeless, you get help.”
But the city instituted the 90 policy to prevent an even greater influx of homeless people from surrounding counties. Both Rice and Siedhoff say they have heard reports of police cars from surrounding municipalities dropping homeless people off in the city at night.
“About half the people we serve here now come from outside the city limits,” said Siedoff, “If people were willing to do what’s needed in surrounding counties to the level they should, then the job of ending homelessness would certainly be accomplished a lot faster.”
Siedoff says no formal letters have been sent from the city of St. Louis to surrounding municipalities challenging them to care for the homeless in their midst.
(**editor’s note: In 2010, the city released a progress report on the homeless showing a smaller total for its 2005 homeless census. Siedhoff says that document incorrectly reported there were 1,485 homeless in the city in 2005. The larger number quoted in our story (1,941) comes from a 2005 city document, which Siedoff provided a copy of for KMOX.**)