Giacomo Brao, a former CHS student, housed two homeless people, one in his shed, and one in his house. At age 16, Brao met the first of two homeless people he would eventually house, 17-year-old Sean. They met in the Central West End, close to where Brao lives. Sean lived in St. Louis when he was a younger child and went to school in the St. Louis area, then moved to California with his mother.
“His mom apparently did a lot of meth so he started to do meth and sell it, got jammed, left his mom and came here to live with his grandparents, and then ran away from them,” Brao said. “And, that’s when I found him in the Central West End. At that point, he wasn’t selling meth, but he was doing it occasionally.”
Sean introduced Brao to another homeless person named Josh, who was 22-years-old at the time.
“Josh had left his parents two years before because he felt unwanted. He had pretty much just been drifting around [until I found him],” Brao said.
Sean stayed in Brao’s house for about two months in the summer and Josh stayed in Brao’s shed for six months through the winter of 2013. Josh denied Brao’s offer for him to stay in his house like Sean had.
Ray Wood, a freshman at CHS, takes part in a similar situation, in which he part-time houses a fellow class member Mark(name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual), who lives with his aunt during the week. Wood shares the responsibility with Logan Snead, also a freshman at CHS. Wood and Snead take turns housing Mark on the weekends.
Wood has learned a lot from the experience; he has been able to put himself in the shoes of someone that does not have the same opportunities that most of the people around him do.
“It has been a rewarding experience because we have learned very much from [Mark] and it feels good to be able to do so much for someone,” Wood said. “I have learned many things from it and what it’s like to grow up in a less fortunate situation than my own.”
Homelessness is an issue that affects members of the Clayton community. The School District of Clayton recognizes the existence of such a problem and has policies in place in order to address it.
II. Clayton Perspective
Clayton is an affluent and fortunate community. The community boasts a school district with an average teacher salary nearly double the national average, and is a district whose students represent it in an optimal academic fashion. Clayton, both the School District and community, see eye-to-eye on the issue of homelessness. Every year, the School District of Clayton deals with several situations of students being impacted by homelessness.
Julie Engelhard, student services assistant for the School District of Clayton, handles the instances of homelessness as they arise. Although she acknowledges that Clayton has fewer instances of homeless students than other districts, Engelhard also made it clear that the Clayton School District does indeed experience occasional situations where students and families are affected by not having a stable place to call home.
In the past year, Clayton has seen unprecedented situations regarding homeless students and families.
“In the last five years, we haven’t really had more than six homeless students. This year, the last 12 months, has been a little different than other years. Usually, it’s a family that doubles up with relatives. Or we had a student who was living with a classmate here in the District,” Engelhard said. “In the last 12 months, we’ve had some where families are living in a hotel or come to us from another state as homeless, which is something relatively new.”
The School District of Clayton’s Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Dr. Gregory Batenhorst explained the roots of Clayton’s problem with homelessness.
“Just to give you an understanding of what it means to be homeless — if you’re in a homeless shelter, living in a motel, living in a vehicle, living on a campground, living on the street, living in an abandoned building, or doubled up with friends or relatives,” Batenhorst said. “The two most common ways of homelessness that we see here are people who have to double up with their friends or family because they can no longer afford to live in the dwelling they were living in before, or they are in a homeless shelter.”
Due to Clayton being one of the more affluent communities in the region, Batenhorst stressed that Clayton’s connection with the issue is inherently different than that of many other schools.
“If you’re talking about Clayton, homelessness doesn’t look like what people might think of when they think about homelessness, in regards to living in a car. Have we had that? Yes. Is it common? No,” Batenhorst said. “If a family was to roll in here from California tonight, park their car in the CHS parking lot, and walk over here to this office the next day to say ‘We arrived from California. We are homeless and living in our car,’ they would be in school in the School District of Clayton that day.”
III. Decision Making
Students residing within Clayton’s boundaries are entitled to receive an education from the School District of Clayton. This stems from both federal law and District policy.
Batenhorst is responsible for making sure the policies that are put in place are followed in regards to the way homeless families in the District are treated and cared for.
“There are two things in play. There is federal law. There’s a law called the McKinney Vento Act, which is essentially the law that governs how organizations respond to homelessness,” Batenhorst said. “There’s a district policy that basically reflects the federal law saying that if someone comes to us and reports that they are homeless, we need to do x,y and z to help them access the school.”
Both Batenhorst and Engelhard gave examples of situations, and described the way that the District would deal with each. What remains constant throughout all instances, according to policy, is that homeless students are automatically provided with free or reduced lunch. What may seem like a small detail in the way that the District handles homelessness portrays the school’s willingness to provide such necessities for students in need.
“We’ll provide whatever we need to provide, and I think one of the key things is getting them set up for the free and reduced lunch program, which is a federal program, so we’re going to make sure: A: we educate them and B: they’re not going hungry,” Batenhorst said.
While there are some consistencies in the way situations are handled, all are unique and treated as such.
“What should be very clear is that this is all about airing to the side of the family and the student and doing whatever that needs to be done, as the law says, to break down any of the barriers to accessing free, appropriate public education,” Batenhorst said. “That’s the key to all of this and you have to take it on a case-by-case basis. No two cases are alike.”
Several members of the CHS community have realized a feasible route to help the cause of solving homelessness.
Bebe Engel and Gabby Boeger, CHS seniors, took part in a project to help the homeless last year. After reaching out to members of the homeless community, they realized a possible way to become part of the solution.
“We created this thing called Help for Homeless which are bags that people keep in their car and when they see [a homeless person] at a stop sign or intersection, they can give them the bag which has vital needs like high-protein snacks and toothbrushes,” Engel said.
After doing outreach in the local community, Engel and Boeger met a homeless woman whose story was inspiring to them. The woman they met, according to Engel, broke her entire spinal cord and ran out of money as she attempted to pay for her medical bills. Her injury left her unable to find a job.
As the homeless woman kept explaining her unique story, Engel and Boeger became more and more inclined to help.
“This lady was telling us ‘I’m so against drugs and alcohol.’ She is just trying to do these good things, and she really gave us an insight to her situation. We ended up buying her an (unlimited) Metro ticket for a month and she was so happy because she was like, ‘Now I can stay on the bus for warmth,’” Engel said.
A major factor in becoming involved in helping the less fortunate is geography. One that lives in an area where a specific problem is ubiquitous is more likely to have the inclination to help. Roz McCoy, an administrative assistant at CHS, has a long history of helping the homeless. McCoy used to reside in downtown St. Louis, where homelessness is more common.
McCoy provides the homeless she encounters with a plethora of different supplies and necessities.
“I started off doing just blankets, and then I had a homeless person telling me that he doesn’t need those things. He needed to eat, so I combined food along with the other things that they need like blankets, coats, gloves and things like that. I’ve been doing that for 15 years,” McCoy said.
Through her encounters and various experiences, McCoy has realized a lot of meaningful things about homeless people that only hands-on experience can lead to.
“They’re just real people and they want to be loved and appreciated and I think that would be a great eye-opener for some people,” McCoy said.
It is clear that getting involved and helping people in need is an effective way to become more aware of an issue — in essence, becoming part of the solution.
V. The State of Homelessness
St. Louis is an urban and industrial city whose metropolitan area consists of 2.9 million people. As expected in a city of such size, a person walking or driving through the city streets of St. Louis will often times encounter homeless people.
Dr. Patrick Fowler, an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, expressed the similarities between St. Louis and other cities with comparable characteristics.
“St. Louis compares to other similar cities, urban centers. [St. Louis has] a decreasing number of homeless individuals — people you see on the streets. But, the rate of decrease is kind of stagnant. So, we’re not making big changes. We can always do better,” Fowler said.
However, disconnect between the inner city of St. Louis and more fortunate western suburbs would, according to some, make resolving the issues a challenge. The consensus around the St. Louis region is that in order to solve these structural problems, more cooperation and collaboration between the suburbs of St. Louis County such as Clayton and the City of St. Louis is necessary.
Eddie Roth, City of St. Louis’ Director of Human Services, reiterated the importance of cooperation between each part of the widespread region.
“Progress will be slow if suburban communities leave all of the heavy lifting to the City of St. Louis. If we approach homelessness as a real regional issue — we can move the stone and relatively quickly move toward the goal of ending street homelessness in this community,” Roth said.
As Roth explained, only about half of the people receiving shelter in transitional housing and emergency shelters in the City of St. Louis (that participate in data collection) had their last permanent residence in the City of St. Louis. This yields a complex dilemma where the City of St. Louis is forced to “carry the burden.”
Homeless people from other areas that live in communities which may lack a true, well-developed plan for dealing with homelessness gravitate toward the City of St. Louis. Each one of these plans that all respective communities have is called its Continuum of Care.
“As with so many things in this region, we are fractured in how we approach homeless services. The City of St. Louis is its own Continuum of Care. So is St. Louis County. St. Charles and Lincoln Counties is its own Continuum of Care, and in Metro East, St. Clair County and Madison Counties have separate Continuum of Care,” Roth said.
The process of tallying statistics and data on how many homeless people there are in a certain area is convoluted. A point in time count is the name of the process in which this data is collected. This, according to Roth, is required by the U.S. Department of Human Services to be conducted at least every other year. Roth explained the process in greater detail.
“On a preplanned day usually in late January, organized teams fan out into the community and go to places where people without shelter are known to stay, such as encampment areas or abandoned buildings, and where people without shelter congregate for meals,” Roth said. “These folks are interviewed and counted, and the total count is arrived at by adding their numbers to a census gathered for same night at facilities that provide temporary and transitional housing.”
The last point in time count showed that the City of St. Louis had an unsheltered homeless population of 112 persons with several hundred staying in emergency shelter (554) or transitional housing (622). However, Roth noted that such numbers are incomplete since some shelters and facilities do not participate in these counts.
Dr. Judson Bliss, the Director of Homeless Programs at St. Patrick Center in downtown St. Louis, is convinced that despite a seemingly low amount of homeless people in the area, there still exists a problem that needs to be addressed.
“Through the midwest, whether you’re talking here or Kansas City, one person that’s homeless is not good. So, we don’t want to say it’s not a problem here,” Bliss said.
Numbers can represent merely the magnitude of a problem. These data act as a confirmation that homelessness is a problem within the St. Louis area. Perhaps the more important part is the way a community goes about finding the solutions.
St. Louis is not by any means near the bottom of the spectrum when it comes to solving homelessness. There are several groups and organizations that benefit the entire St. Louis region when it comes to providing service for the homeless.
St. Patrick Center, a St. Louis homeless charity organization, is interested in finding the solution to homelessness. According to their website, they are “[…] one of Missouri’s largest providers of housing, employment and health opportunities for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.”
Bliss is in charge of the development and execution of St. Patrick Center’s homeless programs, which seek to provide extensive, permanent aid to homeless people from around the region.
Bliss believes that the solution to homelessness is simply housing, and his (and St. Patrick Center’s) work is centered around this specific belief.
“A lot of people need a job, and they’re poor, but the main thing they need is housing. That’s our focus; that’s how people get better. Whether they’re poor and they need work, just think of how tough it would be to get ready and go to your job if you’re living in your car or a tent or something like that,” Bliss said. “As you start thinking through it, it’s like ‘heck yeah,’ it makes a lot of sense.”
The work that St. Patrick Center does is driven by a federal initiative called Housing First. As Bliss explained, the Housing First initiative is a method that reduces homelessness by providing people experiencing homelessness with some type of housing.
“Even though we don’t really understand the problems, or what causes homelessness, we do know what fixes it, and that is housing. Real simple, right? If you live in a house, you’re not homeless,” Bliss said. “The big piece is Housing First as a community, and then working together as groups of service providers.”
St. Patrick Center is an example of an organization looking for solutions.
According to Roth, St. Louis’ Department of Human Services is, “who the public looks to explain what is happening with homelessness in the community, and what’s being done to help people who are homeless — and to deal with crisis involving men, women and families who have fallen into homelessness, such as during the cold winter months.”
They have a small staff, Roth described, that works on helping service agencies put contracts in place, make sure the work is being done as promised, and processing payments for the work being performed.
Roth spoke of the city’s desire to solve homelessness in the area by allocating money and resources to like-minded organizations.
“ [$10 million] is given out in the form of competitive contracts each year to about two dozen private, non-profit agencies, many of them faith based, that provide services ranging from homeless prevention and street outreach, to emergency shelter, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing and supportive services that help people help themselves out of homelessness,” Roth said.
Ending homelessness is ultimately in the hands of ordinary citizens and legislators alike.
“Homelessness is an indicator of how well we are able to work together to provide basic shelter for a relatively small number of our total community who have a profound need,” Roth said.
There is a recognized solution to reduce and eventually end homelessness. However, what is not so obvious is what causes people to become homeless. This is in part due to the variety of possible factors and variables that affect a situation — there is no formula or method to determine why people, in general, become homeless.
Bliss detailed the “contributors” to homelessness, but he warned against calling them “causes.” Instead, he referred to the contributors to homelessness as necessary but insufficient causes.
“Most people with a mental illness never become homeless, and most people with an addiction never become homeless, and most poor people never become homeless. Anything you look at as a contributor is not a cause,” Bliss said. “Something they talk about in public health is a necessary but insufficient cause, so if something is typical or it has to be present for something else to happen, but it alone can’t make that happen, all these things, addictions, mental health and poverty are necessary but insufficient causes.”
The topic of homelessness is often observed through a negative lens. People tend to be hesitant to establish any form of communication when in contact with a homeless person. The unwillingness to communicate stems from a lack of understanding of the situation homeless people face. Bliss explained that people have the tendency to accuse the homeless individual instead of focusing on examining and solving the problem itself. Such tendencies can lead to an overall misunderstanding of the issues that exist.
“Part of it is being educated about what are the issues, and the other part is not blaming the individual, and that is so in us. Not everyone was born in the same family, with the same resources and same messages and parenting styles and all of those kinds of things,” Bliss said.
A school district like Clayton that maintains a high percentage of students going onto receive further education can struggle to understand seemingly unrelated and distant problems such as homelessness.
However, through experience and education, members of such a fortunate community can still connect themselves with the issue. Once this is achieved, they will be more likely to participate in the solution.
“This kind of stuff is part of our communities, and some folks don’t grow up with that, so they don’t have the social capital that you and I have, so it takes a community to say ‘Let’s support organizations like St. Patrick Center, Peter and Paul, community services, and other charity organizations to help solve this problem. It’s a solvable thing,” Bliss said.
Homelessness, according to many, can be solved just with some cooperation and a community willing to come together to achieve a common purpose. Students have the opportunity to become part of the solution in a wide array of ways.
“[Teens] can do a lot of things at a lot of different levels. A big one would be to advocate for greater access to affordable housing, so that involves talking to your legislators, mainly your federal legislators, to expand budgets for these programs,” Fowler said. “At a different level, every community in the country has a network of people working around homelessness and they always need volunteers. You can volunteer to do a lot of different things. It could be working at a shelter, it could be providing assistance in some of the planning programs, there’s a lot of things to connect.”
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