Welcome Them Home: Toward a Shared Economy of Care in Metro St. Louis – By Rev. Chris Rice

Last night I was at City Hall in Overland, MO for a meeting of the planning and zoning commission. They voted to approve our conditional use permit for a new administrative building on Woodson Rd. This morning I met a […]

Last night I was at City Hall in Overland, MO for a meeting of the planning and zoning commission. They voted to approve our conditional use permit for a new administrative building on Woodson Rd. This morning I met a woman who is homeless and staying at our downtown location for shelter. She is from Overland, MO. Overland is fourteen miles from downtown St. Louis where she is staying.

She was receiving her medications from the clinic on the very street, Lackland, where I had been the night before. At this clinic she could get all three of her medications for a $2 co-pay each. She has no insurance and is not on Medicaid. She qualifies for assistance because she is homeless.

Now that she lives in downtown at our shelter, she has to go to Grace Hill Neighborhood Clinics for assistance. We write a letter proving she is a resident in our shelter.

We offer her a voucher at a local Schnucks to cover the cost of her medication. She has three refills, but because she is not at the clinic anymore she goes from owing $6 dollars to owing $4 per prescription, and one of the prescriptions, the one she needs the most, is $95. So now she’ll have to have the prescription rewritten by someone at Grace Hill so that hopefully it will be more reasonably priced and we can afford to pay for it for her.

If Clara (not her real name) were to have a place to stay in Overland, MO or in an area closer to where she gets medical care, the cost of serving her would go down. She could be stabilized in the hopes of, in time, letting her build up an income and get back into housing. This is what neighborhoods are for right? When someone buys a house in an area, and commits to maintaining it, they pay taxes in that area, they get to know their neighbors, they contribute to the security of the neighborhood, and in return they have a voice in the neighborhood over what decisions get made. This is the American Dream isn’t it?

But what’s happening right now in Metro East, in St. Clair County, in Madison County, and in St. Louis County, is that there are not nearly enough shelter beds for the homeless. These homeless individuals learn that the nearest space available is in St. Louis city. They are referred here or are brought here by area municipalities. Now this isn’t a new thing, this has been going on for many years. What is new is that the federal government has been phasing out its funding for Emergency Shelter Grants, making even less money available for shelter. While homeless services in St. Louis city continue to grow, existing services in surrounding municipalities and counties have become overwhelmed and many people are referred into the city.

Why are shelters necessary anyway? I get this question a lot. Emergency shelters are such a hassle. Isn’t staying in one more trouble than it is worth? Far more people get by without them, staying with friends and family. What purpose do they serve? It seems like a dumb question in one way, but in another way the question reveals our expectations as a society. We Americans are a hardy bunch. We fall on hard times and we get by the best we can. But everyone has a place to stay and a plate of food at the end of the day, right? There are enough soup kitchens, church basements, and people of good will around that nobody goes hungry and everyone has a roof over their head.

But the truth is, no, there are not. Existing shelters stay full year round. Many new immigrants to this region are surprised to learn that, in reality, it is very easy to lose one’s home and end up sleeping on the cold ground. Failure to pay one’s bills on time can make your life hell.

I am really shocked and saddened by the response of so many in the Metro St. Louis region about those who are homeless. Homelessness is a joke on the internet. Many people believe that nobody in the area has to sleep outside. These people are obviously not calling the Housing Resource Center looking for shelter. This disdain for the homeless sickens me. Not having a source of income or any means by which to obtain services, is a daily reality for hundreds of people in the region. Transportation services, a means of accessing medical care, food, and shelter is a big need. But according to local media it’s a St. Louis City problem. Meanwhile more and more formerly middle class people are learning first hand the plight of the desperately poor.

The true cost of the St. Louis region’s broken homeless service system, is reflected in the number of 911 calls by the homeless in the region. It’s reflected in the number of persons from the greater region seeking shelter downtown. The fact that the Metro area can’t effectively keep people in their own communities puts the burden of cost on St. Louis city tax payers. But City homeless services continues to lie about how broken the system really is. Why would it do that? Because if it told the truth, that the $60 million collected and spent in the area is not actually ending homelessness in the region, HUD would invest less in the region, just as it is doing in other states.

What we have in St. Louis are some of the best Community Development Block Grant writers in the nation. Monies for mental health, veterans, and addiction related needs flow in abundance. In fact, grant writers here know more than anyone what funds are trending from HUD, and they know all the right catch phrases like “no wrong door” that really appeal to grant providers. What we have a lack of here, are donations for direct services and transportation. I am amazed that in a region this size, Greyhound gives all stranded travelers the runaround, sending them to three or more charities in a mile radius rather than just offering Travelers Aid in the station itself.

Think about it. When someone lacks basic services, food, shelter, transportation, is it really cost effective to pay for a cab into the region’s city, or just to try to keep them local? Is it cost effective to pay the police to transport them out of town? People make up your city’s census population! Why would you want them to leave? If you mistreat them do you think they’ll want to come back? It makes no sense.

As Illinois makes deep cuts to its human services, and the number of homeless in St. Louis County continues to grow, the problem is only going to worsen in the city. The metro area has got to awaken from its collective denial about poverty. It needs to focus regionally on transportation, health care, and emergency shelter for its most vulnerable. What would this look like? Municipalities can each issue proclamations that remove the stigma associated with no income. The right to health care and housing are human rights. They can welcome their impoverished home, back to their own neighborhoods. In this way they would be discouraging mistreatment by neighbors and effectively placing a ban on classism. The proclamations would make a powerful statement that municipalities believe in the power of their citizens to reenter the work force or the volunteer force and give back to their communities.

What role should churches take in restoring the voice and dignity of those without income? Just as many churches are working to combat racism, ageism and homophobia, they must work to protect and affirm those without income into their community. The scriptures outline an economy of care in which no person, regardless of gender, ethnicity or family history is excluded. All are welcome in the house of faith. Together we are living sacrifices, a transformed people who show the world what it means to love one another. (Romans 12:1-2) Rather than judging one another for what we can and cannot produce, over time and through much travail we come to understand each ones unique way of communicating and giving to the other.

The church is meant to be the birthplace of a new society, rather than the expression of a culture’s sickness. The fact that any public expression of care for those without income, (such as letting them sleep overnight, or offering cooked food in the open air) is considered a risk to public health and unnecessary should cause us to question how much of a light we are allowed to be in the area. Why is the church allowed to care for the soul but not the body?

When we look at the history of social welfare in this country, we see that it was churches and social workers who prophetically called the government to care for its most vulnerable people. Many are saying now that the prophetic voices of social workers and churches has itself become choked out by government funding. Churches wait for the political will and the right grants to begin to do the needed work at all. Social workers struggle under the load of too many cases, and look for better paying jobs with less trauma involved. Over time, the population in need becomes so resistant to churches and social workers, that only peer based support and influence (help from fellow homeless people) tends to benefit. The amount of time it takes to navigate the system increases and the problems become much harder to solve.

As bad as it is, this trend can be reversed. Every local community has something to share in bringing those without income back home. There is still so much hope, reflected in the faces of hundreds of homeless people who want to work and who regularly transition back into stable housing and good paying jobs. It is not an easy journey, but they are making it. From their journey they have strength to share in their local communities. If welcomed back the homeless can lead the way into future economic opportunity. The St. Louis area needs all of its people. Instead of trying to coax new people to the region, we need to rebuild with what we have. Instead of trying to reinvent ourselves, we should change our minds about our greatest assets, our people.