Peter and Paul Community Services debuts safe haven for chronically homeless

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org
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This year, Curesa Atkins is going to have one of the best Christmases she's experienced in a long time.

In October, Atkins moved into Garfield Place Apartments, Peter and Paul Community Services' safe haven for chronically homeless individuals, that opened this fall. In the past few weeks, she's been busy decorating her place for Christmas. In the corner, a tree is adorned with silver and red tinsel, and a few gifts are underneath the tree, waiting for their recipients. Her table is set with gleaming holiday china and matching placemats.

Two months ago, Atkins didn't know where she was going to live. Homeless for years, her most recent stay was at a program at Shalom House in the city. She'd been battling several fronts -- an abusive husband and mental illness. Atkins said she's received compassion and care everywhere she's stayed, but she wasn't able to keep stable long enough to find something more permanent.

"It's hard to get yourself together when you don't know where you're going to live," she said.

Many residential programs for homeless people are short term: 90 days at one, maybe as long as two years at another. But even two years can go fast, said Atkins. She eventually found herself in the category of chronically homeless -- a term that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as someone who has been continually homeless for more than a year.

A safe haven is described by HUD as a "refuge for people who are homeless and have a serious mental illness." While safe havens may look different from city to city, they're more than just shelter, according to HUD. "They close the gap in housing and services available for those homeless individuals who, perhaps because of their illness, have refused help or have been denied or removed from other homeless programs."

Before Atkins came to Garfield Place, she had trouble talking to others, especially men, because of the abuse she's experienced. Now, she feels like a different person. "I can finally say that there is no place like home," she said as she teared up. "I'm just glad to be on the other side of the window."

The renovation

Garfield Place is part of Peter and Paul Community Services' new Garfield Commons in the Benton Park West neighborhood of south St. Louis. The 40,000-square-foot facility, the former Garfield Elementary School, has 25 single bedroom low-income apartments for men and women considered chronically homeless. Twenty-one of the apartments already have tenants.

Garfield Commons also houses the nonprofit ecumenical agency's administrative and development offices and the Positive Directions program, which serves 40 homeless and HIV-positive men and women annually.

The safe haven fulfills a goal of the St. Louis 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness to offer four safe havens in St. Louis City and two in St. Louis County. Announced in 2005, the plan marked its fifth year in 2011 with a progress report.

Peter and Paul Community Services began the search for a building in 2007 and looked at more than 30 different properties, said executive director Steve Campbell, before the Garfield School building was purchased in 2012 from the St. Louis Public School District for $350,000. The school, which was built in 1936, closed in 2003.

The extensive renovation cost $8 million and was overseen by BSI Constructors. One of the biggest challenges was northeast corner of the building, which had sunk several inches, cracking the masonry from the ground all the way to the roof. To finance the renovation, Peter and Paul Community Services used a combination of low-income housing tax credits, historic tax credits, affordable housing assistance tax credits, HUD HOME funds and private donations.

Campbell said the safe haven follows a model of care that provides community resources, helps build life skills, reconnects people with family, prepares for employment opportunities and addresses mental health and substance abuse issues. The idea, he said, is "to get people off the street, to get them housed and hopefully from there to get them services."

Campbell said that while homelessness in St. Louis remains an issue, a lot of good has come from the city's plan, including more permanent housing options and services for those who are chronically homeless. The models may vary, he said, but it shouldn't be a "cookie cutter where everybody needs the same thing. Different people respond to different things."

An environment for growth

Peter and Paul Community Services hired occupational therapist Adam Pearson as its safe haven program director in April. Since then, Pearson has been laying the foundation for the supportive services that tenants receive. A social worker was hired recently to work with substance abuse counseling, and Pearson said he's looking to bring on a nurse to provide basic health care.

"Everybody has a choice to participate in services," said Pearson, but it's not a requirement. However, all tenants are receiving Shelter Plus Care vouchers; a condition of the HUD program is that recipients receive supportive services somewhere.

Pearson is developing classes for tenants, including one called Procovery, a discussion group geared toward the individual experiences of being homeless and "figuring out how we as a community can uplift each other," he said. "Out of that class we will have different activities for the tenants and ideas for how they want to foster their own recovery." Other classes in the works include managing bank accounts and budgeting, medication management and building life skills.

Tenants are being encouraged to take on leadership roles and develop community programs. "We have one resident who is a skilled chess player and wants to start some sort of chess tournaments for those interested in learning," said Pearson. "There's another guy who is an avid writer and wants to start a community newsletter. What I want to establish here is a place where they have plenty to get involved in, and that it's not just facilitated by staff, but also tenant driven."

Pearson said he reminds others that "we are working with folks who have been out on the streets for a very long time. They've seen all sorts of things and experienced the worst of humanity." He described their resiliency as "remarkable," adding that "people have a phenomenal capacity, if they're given some sort of environment in which they can grow."

Their roots

Peter and Paul Community Services, which receives funding from the Annual Catholic Appeal, goes back to the early 1980s when an emergency winter shelter was opened at Sts. Peter and Paul Church. It became a nonprofit organization in 1984 and over the years has expanded to provide other services, including a meals program and special services for those who live with HIV and AIDS. Approximately 1,500 individuals are served each year.

Other programs include the Community CollabARTive, which helps clients develop life skills through the arts; and the Sport for Social Change program, which fosters community through sports. Volunteers from Sts. Peter and Paul Parish and many other faith communities take turns preparing and serving the meals from the second through the 21st of each month to residents of the shelter and others in need.

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