ST. LOUIS It was the timing of unfortunate circumstances that threw Wayne Landers into homelessness back in 2017. First, he lost two jobs within two months, after his warehouse job relocated to another city and the popular bar spot he worked at shuttered. Then, the north St. Louis County trailer park he was living in closed, leaving its residents adrift. Landers found himself relying on the kindness of relatives and friends to finance his stay at a motel. He felt lost and depressed.
“I didn’t know where I was going to be from week to week,” Landers said.
Landers remained in effect homeless for three months, until his sister told him about nonprofit Assisi House. Now, he has been living at Assisi 1, one of five low-cost shelters born of the efforts of a group of longtime volunteers working with the homeless. Landers lives in a room with a lock, a place for his personal possessions, and a community of other men in situations similar to his.
“It’s very quiet, very peaceful,” Landers said. “You can get your feet on the ground and see where you go from there.”
The Assisi House nonprofit has opened a new site in different St. Louis neighborhoods every winter since 2014, including Baden, Hyde Park and Tower Grove East. They start as temporary winter shelters from mid-November until mid-March, during which time they house roughly 15 to 20 individuals. After that, each new house is transformed into permanent low-rental housing for 10 to 13 people. The first and second houses, opened in 2014 and 2015, were men’s shelters; the third and fourth were women’s shelters. This month, the fifth Assisi house has opened to low-income men.
“One of our guys had been sleeping in a cemetery before he came here,” Assisi House board member Jerry King said. “When you come from that kind of an environment, just knowing you have a pillow and a warm bed and you know where you’re going to be every night makes a huge difference.”
‘We could do more’
The idea for the Assisi House started with the hardy group of volunteers who regularly drive the streets of downtown St. Louis on frigid nights looking for homeless people who need a warm shelter to sleep in. Years ago, the volunteers, led by Teka Childress, began encouraging churches to open their doors as emergency shelters when temperatures dropped below a certain point.
“Even at that, we all felt like we weren’t doing enough and we could do more,” King said. “So five or six years ago … a visioning committee started talking about doing an all winter shelter where people would not have to walk or stand in line and be unsure of whether they had a place, and we formed Assisi House.”
The very first Assisi House was originally a convent on Queens Avenue, attached by a courtyard to North City Church of Christ. The house has several small bedrooms on the first and second floor, communal bathrooms, a kitchen and a common area at the center of the house.
Twenty-seven men were moved into that location for the winter of 2014-2015. In addition to rent-free housing for four months, the men were provided with two meals a day, overnight supervision and bus passes. But instead of closing the shelter at the end of the winter, the organization renovated the house to make it suitable for permanent living for a dozen men.
To cover some expenses, a modest rent is charged: $250 a month, plus $10 for supplies. The residents don’t pay utilities.
“I don’t know if you’ve tried to rent a room in this town, but even renting a room in a lousy neighborhood is $450, $500 a month,” King said. At Assisi, “We don’t have any credit checks, we don’t have criminal record checks, we don’t require security deposits. We try to make it as easy as possible for people to come in and start paying rent.”
Still, not just anybody can live in an Assisi House, board member Deborah Sheperis said. The houses have rules, including not having any drugs or alcohol inside, and they are enforced.
“We select guests who are able to live well in community, because there are some folks who just can’t,” Sheperis said. “I think we’ve done an extremely good job selecting our residents. This year we’ve had more stability than in each previous year.”
A yearning to be settled
Most of the Assisi House residents have jobs but couldn’t afford rent as well as meeting their other needs. One resident who didn’t want to be named was homeless while working a service industry job and making tips. Two residents said they couldn’t work but received a meager disability check each month, and moved into an Assisi House after crowding into a relative’s apartment became unbearable.
The Assisi House model has worked well for Quinton Adams, who was thrown for a loop a couple years ago when he was out of work and then he and his girlfriend broke up. It was hard to provide for himself, his girlfriend, their 2-year-old daughter and her other daughter when finances were tight. But since Adams moved into Assisi 1 nearly two years ago and got a new job, the low rent has allowed him to save money and make plans for his future.
“Right now I’m working on my credit to bring it up from past times,” Adams said, “so I can actually find a house to buy or rent to own. … I just want to be settled. I want to have me a place where me and my daughter could live for maybe the rest of our lives, have somewhere to call mine.”
The Assisi House nonprofit is entirely privately funded, King said. The organization runs on the steam of a handful of determined volunteers who do everything from repairs on the houses to bringing in supplies to connecting residents with job resources. A couple of dentists volunteer to do free work for Assisi House tenants, and volunteers connect residents with health resources.
It’s demanding work to coordinate everything, King, who is 77, acknowledges. He and his wife, Marty King, have been doing this kind of volunteer work for almost 40 years.
“The life that I’ve changed the most is my own,” King said. “Getting to know these guys and being in relationship with them has changed my life.”
The work doesn’t go unappreciated, either.
“I look at the way Jerry does things around here,” Landers said, tears coming to his eyes. “I sent him a text that said, ‘just when you think you’re too old to have a role model, you meet people like you.’ (Jerry and Marty King) are getting up in years, and they’ve done so much over decades. So if I can give back a little bit, that’d be great.”
For more information, go to assisihouse.org.