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Messenger: Cut to St. Louis re-entry program could make homelessness worse

Messenger: Cut to St. Louis re-entry program could make homelessness worse

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Gov. Greitens delivers first State of the State address

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens delivers his State of the State address at the State Capitol in Jefferson City on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Anthony D’Agostino works with clients who have found their “rock bottom.”

As executive director of Criminal Justice Ministry, he and his staff of case workers help veterans, ex-cons, drug addicts and the homeless find a way to stay off the streets. Some of his clients have been all of those things at the same time. Some of the case workers have been, too.

It’s a tough job. Many of the men who walk into the nonprofit’s offices on Park Avenue in the LaSalle Park neighborhood show up there after long stints in prison.

CJM’s mission is to provide for clients’ basic needs and help them re-enter society, find jobs, obtain housing, stay clean and stay off the street.

The job just got harder thanks to a budget cut announced by Gov. Eric Greitens.

The news was so jarring, D’Agostino remembers the moment he received the letter.

It was 3:13 on Jan. 17, just a few hours before the new governor was to give his first State of the State address.

Among $146 million in budget cuts the governor was making because the Republican-controlled Legislature passed an out-of-balance budget was the last $150,000 the state provides for the nonprofit’s re-entry program. D’Agostino was shocked by the cut. In previous years when governors had withheld state money for the re-entry program, there was some warning, and it was clear the money was being held back temporarily.

But Greitens’ letter said the program’s money was being “terminated,” he said. Now the organization — founded in the 1970s by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis and the St. Vincent de Paul Society — is planning on dipping into its savings and seeking other sources of funding just to maintain the services it offers to current clients.

Without a new source for the $150,000, about 20 men will be turned away for housing, and an additional 300 could lose access to basic services such as bus passes, food and clothing.

The result, D’Agostino says, will cost the state much more than the re-entry program does.

“Out of all the service programs that get money from the state, ours has one of the best success rates,” D’Agostino says. “It’s a no-brainer, financially.”

When men get out of jail, prison or drug rehab and end up at a ministry such as CJM, without help getting started again to become productive, taxpaying members of society, the potential to end up back in the criminal justice system is strong.

A University of Missouri-St. Louis study that examined the program indicated that CJM saved the state $2 for every $1 spent, mostly because when offenders end up back in prison, the costs to house them are significantly more expensive.

“The area around St. Louis is not going to get any safer if we’re just turning people away,” D’Agostino said.

Indeed, the cut comes at a precarious time for the downtown homeless population.

Driven by complaints from downtown residents, the city is in the process of trying to shut down New Life Evangelistic Center, a facility for the homeless operated by the Rev. Larry Rice near the Washington Avenue loft district.

Rice has long been in violation of his city permit and doesn’t play well with others. Unlike CJM, for instance, he’s not a part of the citywide Continuum of Care, an umbrella group that helps coordinate services for the homeless in St. Louis.

But whatever one’s opinion of Rice, closing New Life will have real repercussions for the homeless people downtown . Without a workable and funded plan to provide beds for the estimated 150 to 200 men who stay there most nights, conditions in downtown could get worse, not better.

The same is true if CJM can’t find a replacement for state funding.

On Wednesday, D’Agostino drove to Jefferson City to walk the halls of the Capitol and plead his case with lawmakers. He stopped by the governor’s office, too, he says, but Greitens wasn’t there, and nobody on the budget team could meet with him.

“I understand budgets,” D’Agostino says, “but we had no warning. Losing that money really puts us in a bind. Without services, these guys are going to go back to their old ways. These are people who have nowhere else to go.”

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