It was shortly after 5 a.m. Thursday, and Rich LaPlume spotted a woman walking in the middle of Ann Avenue in Soulard.
He pulled his minivan over. LaPlume and Rebecca Harpring got out.
“What’s going on?” said LaPlume, who recognized the woman, Tiffaney Edwards, from his 25 years of working in homeless services in St. Louis.
“Seeing if they got a room to stay,” Edwards said, nodding toward the nearby AmeriCorps shelter.
Harpring asked Edwards if she would be willing to take a survey. Doing so would help determine what services are most needed for the homeless, said Harpring, with Vincentian Mission Corps, a yearlong program for young adults that focuses on serving the poor.
Edwards, 41, nodded and answered all 20 questions.
Each year, cities and counties that receive federal funding for homeless programs are required to do a census. Doing so determines how much money is distributed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. St. Louis receives about $11 million a year from HUD for homeless services.
The count came as the city struggles to find a spot to open a permanent, 24-hour facility for the homeless that would replace an evening shelter run out of the 12th and Park Recreation Center and a day program at Centenary United Methodist Church.
The city had hoped to have a solution by the end of 2015. But finding both an affordable place and one that will be acceptable to neighbors has been a challenge, said Human Services Director Eddie Roth. Still, the city is working to have a place operating by July 1, he said.
In previous years, agencies in St. Louis have based their annual homeless count on “hot spots” where homeless typically gather, most notably downtown, said Tony Hilkin, program manager with Places for People. But for this year’s count, the entire city was searched.
“We want to get the most accurate count possible,” Hilkin said. Groups of three and four took one of 22 districts and spent the morning driving down alleys, walking through parks and looking in vacant buildings. The searches were limited to those living on the streets. Shelter counts are done separately.
“The idea is to give us a good sense of the barriers they face,” said Irene Agustin, the city’s chief program manager for homeless services. “It could be the first time we’re exposed to someone so we can help them.”
Included on the survey are questions about military service, mental illness and drug abuse. Demographic information includes gender, race and age. Those surveyed also were asked how they became homeless and how long have they been in that situation.
“About … a long time,” Edwards said, pausing. “About seven years.” Lack of work left her homeless, she said.
Those living on the street are a small portion of the city’s homeless population. For example, last year’s point-in-time count, as it is called, totaled 1,312 people, with all but 112 people either in an emergency shelter or in transitional housing.
The results of the most recent count will not be available for a few days, but as of 8:30 a.m., 60 people were listed as “unsheltered.” The count this year was moved to early morning from early evening. Hilkin said the idea was to get a better sense of where the person had slept the night before.
LaPlume and Harpring were part of a group that canvassed neighborhoods just south of downtown including Soulard, LaSalle Park and Benton Park. They stopped to look around the shuttered Shepard School near the old Lemp Brewery, on warehouse docks near the city’s riverfront and in the emergency room at St. Alexius Hospital on South Broadway.
They found Odell Caldwell outside Soulard Market. He said he has been homeless on and off since 2012, sometimes staying with a friend who lives nearby. Caldwell, 56, said he works security at the market.
“Be careful. It’s dangerous out here,” Caldwell said.
LaPlume, a program director with Depaul USA, drove down First Street, which runs along the Mississippi River.
“If we find someone down here, they don’t want to be found,” he said. There are some homeless who reject services, often because of a mental illness.