Honing in on homelessness

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Katie Harder, the Major Gifts Manager at the St. Louis chapter of Habitat for Humanity and its liaison to SLU, thinks you would be surprised by who seeks help finding affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity in St. Louis.

“We have medical assistants, bus drivers, police officers, security guards, teachers assistants, a lot of home healthcare workers,” she said. “[And these are] jobs that you’d think would make a steady income, [but] even on that, it isn’t possible to pay the bills.”

Indeed, these were the issues hashed out at the panel discussion held on Sunday, March 22, in the basement ballroom of College Church: homelessness and affordable housing issues in St. Louis. Harder was joined by Jonathan Belcher, a project manager at the St. Patrick’s Center, and a handful of SLU students and members of the community at the discussion, where both Harder and Belcher talked about their work and answered questions from the group.

For both Harder and Belcher, the important thing to realize, they said, is that homelessness and affordable housing issues are often what prevent people from addressing other, more personal problems that they might have – like drug addiction, mental health complications and missed educational opportunities. Therefore, both institutions – Habitat for Humanity and St. Patrick’s Center – offer a comprehensive approach to mitigating the problem of homelessness.

“We truly believe that homeownership is a goal for families, and we want to truly prepare them for the life-long commitment that it is,” Harder said. “So [our housing applicants are] taking mandatory classes on financial management, insurance, [and] home repair and care before they are even allowed to purchase their home through the program.

Talking about the HERO Project – Housing, Employment, Recovery and Opportunities – for homeless veterans, Belcher said that “we put people into apartments, and then we wrap services around them, provid[ing] case management for up to two years … Our main goal is to get somebody into permanent housing and help them maintain that housing.”

Harder and Belcher also both went into detail about what their work entails and what sort of societal issues they are facing in St. Louis as they work to help the homeless and poor. Harder, for example, emphasized the importance of Section 8 housing opportunities, but she pointed to a statistic that shows that work still needs to be done: Out of the 27,000 people who applied for Section 8 this past July, only four – as of March – filled out the application correctly, she said.

And, Harder added, since rents are rising faster than incomes, wage hikes are needed – and not just to $9 or $10 an hour. To afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market price in St. Louis, she said, you need to make at least $15.65 an hour.

Both Habitat for Humanity and St. Patrick’s Center are working to alleviate these problems, and this is part of their shared comprehensive approach to housing-related issues.

Habitat for Humanity requires “Volunteer Sweat Equity,” a system that involves people building their own homes and their neighbors’ homes. St. Patrick’s Center helps people build a résumé and find a job or seek mental and physical help. They also have utility assistance to support people if they struggle to pay their water, electric or other bills.

All of these services stem from a belief shared by both institutions about the role housing plays in recognizing the dignity of each person.

“Housing is a basic human right that everybody needs,” Belcher said. “Once [people are] able to get into housing, all those other things that they’re working on … all that stuff – [they’re] really able to focus on that rather than ‘where am I going to sleep tonight?’”

For SLU students who want to help, the best place to start is to become aware of these societal problems.

“In my opinion,” Harder said,  “… there is a lot of segregation in this society – and I think in St. Louis … I think it is really easy to live your life without seeing the other side. And so when you don’t see it, it doesn’t become real to you, and when it’s not real to you, then you don’t care about it.”