Even before the pandemic, there were dozens of homeless teens and young adults waiting for a shelter bed in the city of St. Louis.
But over the past year, demand has surged, putting pressure on one of the few facilities set up to serve them.
Covenant House Missouri offers short-term and transitional housing for people ages 16 to 24, as well as on-site services including medical care and job training. Since the pandemic began, the number of people on its waitlist has more than doubled — and the vast majority of them are experiencing homelessness for the first time.
“We never want to be in the position where we say business is booming,” said Colleen Daum, director of advancement for Covenant House Missouri. “This is not a business that we hope to continue to grow.”
Located along a tree-lined stretch of Kingshighway Boulevard in north St. Louis, the nonprofit has provided shelter to homeless and at-risk youth since the late 1980s.
The demand for services has often far exceeded capacity, with the shelter only able to provide a bed for 1 in 5 people who contact it, but the need has grown in recent months. Just before the pandemic began, there were 76 young people waiting for a shelter bed at Covenant House Missouri. By the end of 2020, the waitlist had mushroomed to 161.
The staff also began noticing a troubling new pattern: The overwhelming majority of young adults contacting the facility, more than 80%, were seeking services for the first time.
“It was pretty astounding,” Daum said. “The number of first-time callers has been more than we’ve ever seen before, and that is a trend that has continued throughout the pandemic.”
Half of the shelter’s 40 beds are designated as emergency shelter spaces available on a first-come, first-served basis. The rest are part of the facility’s transitional living program, which provides apartment-like housing for up to two years.
Shelter staff have noted an uptick in the number of homeless teens and young adults leaving unsafe homes or living situations that became too crowded while families sheltered in place last year.
The staggering increase in demand, Daum added, is also closely tied to the wave of pandemic-related joblessness. Even now, as some industries begin to rebound and jobs become more widely available, the job market has become more competitive.
“Young people who lost their jobs are starting to compete with housed individuals who were working in industries that shut down,” Daum said. “There’s this bit of competition between individuals who have a long employment history and young people who maybe don’t have extensive job experience competing for some of those entry-level jobs.”
The economic hardships of the pandemic have also created a fresh set of challenges for clients at Almost Home, a transitional living facility in St. Louis that cares for young moms between the ages of 16 and 21 and their children.
Demand for services has stayed relatively steady over the past year, said Executive Director Reona Wise, but the facility has seen a jump in the number of now-housed mothers seeking assistance.
The nonprofit offered support to two or three former residents in years past, she said, providing rental assistance, child care support or food.
“In 2020, we were well over 25 people,” Wise said. “There were so many different reasons that they needed support. They were in a good place, you know, ‘I was doing better and I felt like I had it, but then this pandemic changed it all, and I feel like I’m going backwards again.’”
These women have worked for years to move into stable, independent housing, she added, and they’re concerned they might lose it all.
Many nonprofits and homeless service providers in St. Louis have applied for emergency pandemic funding to better meet the needs of the populations they serve.
Last October, Covenant House Missouri received nearly $600,000 in federal funds through the City of St. Louis to add 18 shelter beds. The expanded shelter space will include a separate wing for young men and another section for survivors of sex and labor trafficking.
Construction on the project will begin in the coming weeks and should be completed by June 2022.
Despite the challenges of the past year and the never-ending need, Daum said, small victories have driven them to keep moving forward.
“Even during the pandemic, we’ve seen young people gain full-time employment, earn their high school diploma, move into permanent housing,” she said. “We have the power in our little corner of the world to make sure that we are bettering the lives of those who are here every day.”
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