County counts homeless, helps bring them in from the cold

LaMonda and Tony have stayed in a car, in laundromats, in a house that has no electricity, with relatives and hotels when they could get money from begging. They slept in a closet area and a cold basement storage area with rats running around them.

"We were scared, really scared, and I couldn't even sleep," Tony said.

With all the challenges they face, they remain dedicated to each other, able to smile and laugh.
LaMonda and Tony have eight children who stay with family members. A musician, Tony longed to be a rapper but missed his chance at success. He had the look -- dredlocks and tattoos on his face. But that look has been a detriment as he searched for another job, though he has cut his hair.

LaMonda and Tony had been homeless for five years. On a day when winter weather returned -- windy and colder as what meteorologists call a "clipper" hit the St. Louis area Jan. 29 -- it was no fun to be outside for a few minutes, much less a whole night. That day, the couple and two others were lucky enough to be spotted by a crew of social workers doing a census of homeless people and were offered temporary shelter and help to find permanent housing. The others were E.J., who was facing his first night in the cold after staying the previous night at his sister's place, and Anterica, who had been sneaking into the home of her boyfriend's grandparents by climbing in a window to spend the night.

Until then, all four had no idea where they'd spend the night. E.J., LaMonda and Tony had been waiting to escape the cold by riding on a warm bus that morning at the MetroLink Hanley station, and Anterica still was in the basement of the home in Berkeley.

Homeless count

The "unsheltered homeless" were a focus of an annual count by St. Louis County's Department of Human Services at the end of January. An unsheltered homeless person is defined as having a primary nighttime residence that is not meant for human habitation. Maybe a car, park, abandoned building or storage unit, bus or train station, airport, campground or woods. The count identified "doubled-up" households -- those that have taken in extra family or friends who have nowhere else to go.

The county worked with community service providers and agencies to conduct the federally required Point in Time Homeless Count, with money and resources awarded to communities to fight homelessness based on the documented counts of homeless. In 2014, the count listed 134 homeless unsheltered people, 54 of them with serious mental health issues and nine who were veterans. An extra effort this year was made to identify homeless veterans and provide that information to LinkVet, a division of the U.S. Veterans Affairs that provides support services to veterans.

Pamela Neal, St. Louis County homeless services specialist, led an early morning session for volunteers taking part in the count. She stressed staying safe and having a welcoming attitude as well as helping people get sheltered. Places to find homeless people during the day include bus stops, laundromats, libraries, fast-food restaurants, hospitals and stores.

A crew goes out

A crew led by Chaunceia Mayfield, also a county homeless services specialist, covered two north St. Louis County communities: Ferguson and Berkeley. That morning, at the Metro station, the crew politely asked a couple people if they knew of someone who might be homeless. E.J., wearing a sleeveless jacket and a stocking cap, told them he was facing homelessness after having a falling out with a girlfriend where he had lived. He had slept on a couch the previous night at his sister's place, but staying there longer wasn't an option, E.J. said.

Interviewed by Angie Hamilton, client coordinator at Room at the Inn, he politely explained that he wanted to get out of the cold but did not want to stay at a shelter, partly because of his ego and because he'd heard bad stories about shelters. He wanted to find work.

Mayfield and Paula Carey, director of housing at the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, interviewed LaMonda and Tony. They had spent the previous night with his mother but couldn't stay there any longer

Getting help

E.J., LaMonda and Tony were brought to an extended-stay hotel, where they were put up for the night and given the contact information of a social worker with St. Francis Community Services/Catholic Charities Housing Resource Center. Given a bag of food and toiletries, they gladly retreated to their rooms to get some rest.

LaMonda and Tony heated tomato soup in a microwave. She gave him the toothpaste she had been given because, she said, he needed the extra enamel protection for his deteriorating teeth.

Their hope is that social workers can help them get job training and jobs. Tony had become excited when told of the job prospects, but was still worried about the tattoos on his face. LaMonda was equally excited about being given a clean set of towels. "It's like heaven," she said.

Not everyone accepts help. Room at the Inn, a temporary emergency shelter for homeless women and their children sponsored by the Sisters of Divine Providence, has linked clients with jobs, which has led to permanent housing for those clients. Some of those job leads have come from members of the churches that serve as night-site partners.

One client returned to school to become a licensed practical nurse, moved into her own place, had difficulties related to debt, came back to the shelter and now is on her own again and is becoming a registered nurse.

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