National advocate for the homeless urges St. Louis leaders to get involved

ST. LOUIS – On her first visit to Gateway City in 1998, Mandy Chapman Semple tried to harness the power of renewable energy.

How to do that was the question of the year in the university policy debate. Semple, a Kansas state champion, came to town for the national debating tournament hosted by Pattonville High School.

Today, Semple offers solutions to the vexing problem of homelessness. That led her to the City Foundry on Tuesday night, where she spoke about her experiences in Houston and Dallas. She shared with St. Louis leaders how these two Texas cities were making strides in housing people who previously lived on the streets.

There is a similarity in what Semple does these days with the process of winning a debate. Having a plan is not enough; You must show the judges or the community how this plan will succeed.

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“Moving really works,” Semple told me in an interview ahead of her speech hosted by the Sons and Daughters of Soulard and Peter & Paul Community Services. “But if I can’t show you that it works, it doesn’t matter.”

Houston is a good example. Over the past decade, under two mayors, the city has relied on a philosophy that blends services with housing. The city has provided permanent housing for 25,000 people who were homeless, in shelters, or at risk of homelessness.

In St. Louis, Semple found open, but sometimes skeptical, ears. As in other major cities, there are several non-profit organizations dedicated to the homeless. They work under the umbrella known as the Continuum of Care, which coordinates or battles with government agencies, which are sometimes funders and partners. Agencies can also occasionally be barriers to getting work done, providing people with housing and services to combat poverty, addiction and mental health problems.

These conflicts are common in cities trying to tackle homelessness. Government agencies rely on different solutions. Non-profit organizations compete for the same pot of money. Some feed and clothe the homeless; others build tiny houses; Some offer addiction-fighting tools.

In St. Louis, divisions between the city and the county — and between the county’s 88 wards — complicate work. So is the lack of help from the Missouri Legislature, which provides no funding and just passed legislation criminalizing the homeless from sleeping on state property. The non-profit organizations that do the work on the streets are challenging the new law in court.

For a city to truly win the battle against homelessness, “everyone has to be on the same side,” Semple said.

In St. Louis, dealing with homelessness is often a community affair, moving a camp from a park here or a riverfront there to another location. Resources are shifted from one shelter to another, waiting for complaints to accumulate before the cycle begins again.

The row of ramshackle tents next to St. Patrick’s Center on Tucker Boulevard in recent weeks helps tell this story. Last year, during the pandemic, a virtual tent city of homeless people sprung up on Interco Plaza next to St. Patrick’s Center, one of the city’s largest providers of homeless services. Mayor Tishaura O. Jones was initially reluctant to move the camp. Complaints mounted and housing was found for some. Others were taken to a camp nearby, and a fence was erected around the park.

Now there are new tents and new sleeping gear leaning against the fence. Pushing the homeless around doesn’t solve the problem. Getting them housing and related services does, Semple says.

St. Patrick’s Center executive director Anthony D’Agostino was among the many nonprofit executives who listened to Semple’s speech. He loved what he heard, especially the part about Dallas and its business leaders raising $72 million in federal and private donations to implement a long-term vision for the homeless problem. The city plans to find housing for 2,700 people over the next three years. It’s about halfway to its goal of making a dent in the homeless population, but there’s still a long way to go.

D’Agostino believes the various partners fighting homelessness in St. Louis are working together as well as they have over the years he has been involved with the issue.

“Anything they’ve done (in Dallas), we’ve been trying to do for years,” he said. This includes the establishment of a new non-profit umbrella organization – House Everyone STL – as a unifying force.

The question is who will bring together all the parties — the city, the county, the nonprofits — and tens of millions of dollars to get people living on the streets into the permanent housing they need?

“In every community, you have to find what the focus is that can bring the entire community together,” Semple said.

In Houston it was the mayor. In Dallas it was a charitable foundation. With the advances both cities have made, they are the envy of other cities. The formula works, Semple said.

She likens it to developing an incident command structure to manage a crisis. And someone has to be in charge.

“Is there an anchor we can dock to?” Semple asked the room full of people dedicated to solving the problem. “Ending homelessness takes leaders.”

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