Chronically homeless veterans in St. Louis city could find themselves with a place to live as early as tonight as part of an unprecedented federal program to end homelessness for vets by 2015.
"Until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our streets, our work remains unfinished," says Mayor Francis Slay. "Our volunteers and city staff will go to the places where homeless people live or might live, identify veterans and immediately offer them help."
The city started looking for veterans to help on Wednesday during the annual homeless census, where dozens of volunteers record the number of people on St. Louis' streets to inform public programs. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sent representatives with the census takers to match veterans with housing assistance, substance-abuse treatment, health care, transportation and food.
Non-veteran homeless won't get the same special treatment, which is funded with federal dollars.
"A veteran has a real advantage in terms of addressing needs, especially housing," Bill Siedhoff, director of Human Services, tells Daily RFT. "There's more attention being paid to [homelessness in veterans] nationally."
Siedhoff says a veteran he knows from years of working with the city's homeless was matched up with the VA representatives at a church Wednesday, and "hopefully he will be in housing tonight."
The VA estimates that there are more than 60,000 homeless veterans in America.
In St. Louis, last year's census showed a decrease in the number of homeless to 1,423 people in 2013 from 1,506 in 2012. Siedhoff says he hopes this year will bring another reduction, although more homeless people are traveling from surrounding counties to St. Louis to access social services.
"We have such limited resources, and what we find is that the people we are serving in the city of St. Louis aren't city residents," Siedhoff says. "It's just an indication that obviously there is a growing need in surrounding counties, yet, in terms of resources, the other counties -- except St. Louis County, to some extent -- aren't really playing a part at all and really should. It would make quite a difference in our ability to end homelessness, as we want to do."
This winter has been particularly difficult for the homeless. The polar vortex brought temperatures so low and lingering that the city has already opened its emergency overflow shelter 32 times. Tuesday night, 112 people stayed at the shelter.