There may be fewer homeless people in St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren counties in 2015 than in recent years but the issue hasn’t disappeared as the economy has improved.
Homeless people, literally and figuratively, may not be out of the woods yet, said Dottie Kastigar, family initiatives program manager with the Community Council of St. Charles County. The council works with social service agencies, foundations, churches and other organizations including local governments from the tri-county area.
Every year at the end of January, Kastigar helps to coordinate what has become an annual “point in time” homeless count. It is a “one-day snapshot” of homelessness in the tri-county area, Kastinger said of the recently released data.
Teams of volunteers canvased the three counties, visiting shelters, motels, outdoor camping areas and other locations, and checking on individuals, families and children to identify sheltered and unsheltered persons. Similar counts are held throughout the country with the findings ultimately reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This year, 803 people were identified as homeless, either living in a shelter or unsheltered, in the tri-county area. That number is down from 896 last year and continues a decline that began in 2012 when 1,023 tri-county residents were found to be homeless.
The count and numbers that the council continues to compile throughout the year point to good news as far as homelessness locally, but the data also raise warning flags.
“We have noticed an improving trend in homelessness. Our homeless numbers have been dropping since 2012,” Kastigar said. “It’s kind of lag with the economy and that was our peak year.”
Kastigar said the reduction in homelessness, by 10 percent in the last year and 21 percent since 2012, is mostly through the rapid rehousing of individuals and families by agencies, churches and other groups.
“We’ve gotten good at rapid rehousing, literally fast-tracking them into an apartment, getting them into a place as quick as we can,” Kastigar said.
The council’s research has found that about 70 percent of the persons who received rapid rehousing stayed there for at least six months. The average stay in permanent supportive housing is two to three years.
People need housing stability before many health and education issues can be addressed, Kastigar said. She said there remains a shortage of affordable rental housing and landlords to work with housing providers in the area. There also is no county funding to help poor adults other than brief assistance, according to the Community Council.
To better coordinate aid efforts by social service agencies, churches and other providers, the council has been working to develop a new community information sharing system.
Some of that information indicates that persons and families between ages 18-24 were the fastest growing segments of the homeless population in the tri-county area, according to this year’s count.
“We’re seeing a bump with the 18 to 24 age group,” Kastigar said. “I think it’s more like 18 to 30 – those early forming families and individuals are really struggling to get a foothold on the economy. They’ve stayed constant while overall improvements are occurring.”
The count also shows that many homeless can move in with friends or family and don’t end up in the street, or in motels or apartments. In January, 934 people were identified as “doubled up,” either staying with a family member, friend or someone else. That’s an increase from 733 in 2014, but down from totals of more than 1,000 persons each year between 2011 and 2013.
“We’re seeing high doubling numbers, which is our early warning system,” Kastigar said. “So our families are not out of the woods.”
They have found somewhere to sleep, in a basement or on a couch, Kastigar said, but she doesn’t see those doubled-up numbers coming down.
The number of households staying in and out of area motels dropped from 314 in 2013 to 160 in 2015, but the number is still significant, Kastigar said.
She added that many St. Charles County residents don’t realize that homelessness remains a significant issue in a county that is one of the most prosperous in Missouri.
“Awareness is a constant challenge in a community like this because it (homelessness) is not as visible,” Kastigar said.
Another sign of poverty creeping up can be seen in the numbers of children enrolled in free student lunch programs in area elementary schools, she said. The homeless count turned up 437 sheltered and unsheltered children in the three-county area in January this year, the highest total in recent years.