No longer trapped: St. Lazare House helps homeless young adults

Joey Puszkas didn't know where to start in listing what St. Lazare House has done for him.

Sitting in the community area of the apartment complex operated by Depaul USA, he has come a long way in the past three months. Homeless for more than two years, he lost weight from not eating and his mental state took a beating.

"I couldn't even communicate very well, I'd been alone for so long," he said. "I was doing horrible things."

At age 17, Puszkas' rebelled and the trust between him and his family shattered. After a major family loss, he lost his way, picked the wrong friends and put himself in harm's way with drug and alcohol abuse. Eventually he realized that his search for freedom left him trapped, and his path led to the Catholic-based agency with a mission to end homelessness and change the lives of those affected by it.

"I'd never met people as kind and helpful as I had when I got here," Puszkas said. "The first week I was here I hardly came out of my room. I was in shock. I didn't believe it could be as good as it was."

He reverted to old habits of not seeking to better himself, but the staff helped him take a new path. They encouraged him to get a job. It took him a bit — he had no respect for himself and didn't want to get out because he felt comfortable and safe from the outside world. But eventually he did, getting a job, re-engaging in his Christian faith and taking charge of his life.

"I had to work on myself a lot, even to be able to go to work and get along with people, just getting over being sad and depressed."

He's still working on it, though. "I've accomplished more in three months than I had in the past three years. I have a job. I could care less how much money I'm making. I really care about how happy I am, and I can't remember the last time I was this happy."

St. Lazare House opened Nov. 6, and soon afterward all 15 one-bedroom apartments in the two-story brick structure were filled. It's part of the St. Louis City Continuum of Care homeless network and houses single, unaccompanied adults, ages 18-24, who are considered chronically homeless. Residents are referred to St. Lazare House by the network.

St. Lazare House has a staff member on site 24 hours a day. The basement has a meeting room, large family room-type area and kitchen in which residents gather informally or for community meals, programs, classes and activities.

The apartments are the only permanent, supportive housing specifically for the age group in the City of St. Louis. "It's a priority population for HUD because there are so few services for this age group," said Gretchen Shipp, program director.

Most programs for young adults are transitional or emergency shelters. St. Lazare House has no limit on how long residents can stay there. The only difference between it and any other apartment building is the staff and programming.

"Tenants sign a lease. They get real-life experience in how to be a good tenant, how to take care of an apartment, how to be a good neighbor, stuff that they have no prior experience doing," Shipp said.

Because of the supportive services, "we can do a lot of training and guiding," she said, simple things such as how to use a laundry or a garbage disposal or learning the importance of smoke alarms.

Treatment plans focus on the needs of individual residents. They're connected with health care, mental health care, recovery services and more depending on their needs.

Lisa Abernathy is a life coach on staff at St. Lazare. Many of the residents haven't made a doctor's visit in several years, she said. Often they have no income or benefits.

The residents are connected with job-skills support, assistance with tutors helping them get a GED (General Equivalency Diploma) if they haven't finished high school or other educational help. The aim is to help them get financial stability and a support system so they will succeed when they move out into their own apartment.

The chronically homeless young adults generally have been moving from home to home, living on the streets or in homeless shelters. "They don't have a lot of life skills, how to fend for themselves out there," Shipp said. "Almost everyone who comes in here has a serious history of trauma. Along with that is a serious persistent mental illness. Eighty percent of them haven't been connected to any psychiatric care."

A few residents don't use drugs or alcohol but the others have struggled with the issues related to substance abuse. Learning disabilities are another factor sometimes. Many have been homeless since early in high school, having been kicked out of their homes. Some have been part of the foster care system. Some are still connected to their families, though it's generally a difficult relationship.

The two parishes in St. Louis staffed by Vincentians, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Catherine Laboure, as well as Society of St. Vincent de Paul conferences at parishes in south St. Louis County have helped supply food and other items for the residents. 

DePaul USA

Depaul USA operates two programs in St. Louis for chronic homeless adults besides St. Lazare House, which focuses on young adults. Project More and Project Plus place homeless men and women (about 75 currently) in scattered-site apartments enabling them to focus on concerns beyond the immediacy of shelter and meals. Case management targets transitioning issues, relationships with neighbors and landlords, career development and employment.

Depaul USA is a national organization housing homeless people in six cities.

Depaul USA recently purchased two buildings on Arsenal Street in south St. Louis from the Western Province of the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians). Depaul USA has one building for safe housing for low-income residents and converted one building into St. Lazare House. With all-day care, residents receive physical and behavioral health services, participate in education and training programs, and gain the life skills necessary to become independent and productive community members. Depaul USA is inspired by the values of St. Vincent de Paul, a major social reformer in 17th-century France.

Donations are sought for the program in St. Louis. Visit www.us.depaulcharity.org or send a check payable to DepaulUSA at 2912 Arsenal St., St. Louis, MO 63118.

A sanctuary for homeless young adults

For Akiah Booker, St. Lazare House is a sanctuary.

Before she arrived in November, she was homeless on and off since 2013. She fell into depression twice after her mom died, and she couldn't care for her young daughter. She overstayed her time at various homeless shelters, meant as temporary housing, and was sleeping at a bus stop. When a health care caseworker told her she was set to get in the Depaul USA's apartments, she didn't believe it.

"If it wasn't for this program, I don't know where I'd be," Booker said. "It was an awakening to me that there's people who'll help youth who are homeless."

She was willing to work, but the instability of her living arrangements made it impossible to get hired.

She works at a large retail operation, purchased a car and is about to move into an apartment with her daughter, who has been living with a relative. Being in a stable place helped her overcome her problems.

Rose Jones is a new resident at St. Lazare House but has impressed the staff in a short time. The apartments "give us a chance to improve ourselves by living on our own," Jones said.

She'd been kicked out of a place where she was living, put in jail, found another place and was no longer welcome there. She called churches but couldn't find a place that would take her. Jones turned her fate over to God, "and He blessed me with this," she said. "God has a plan for each of us, and we just have to keep pushing through the storm."

She relates all she went through to various stories in the Bible. "It was different tests He (God) was sending me through. He wasn't going to leave me out there alone. I kept getting thrown out and didn't know what I was doing wrong." 

An open house will be held from 11a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, April 19, at St. Lazare House, 2912 Arsenal St. in south St. Louis. 

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