ST. LOUIS — Disappointed so many times by bureaucratic red tape, a ragtag group of 50 homeless veterans were suspicious from the start of an effort Wednesday to place them all into furnished apartments.
Some were used to waiting years for assistance that never came, not mere hours for actual delivery. Still, they gathered downtown at 9 a.m. at the foot of Soldiers Memorial for the chance.
In a news conference, Mayor Francis Slay told the crowd that it was a “shame” that military service is often taken for granted.
“Today, it’s about helping those men and women who helped us,” Slay said, garnering cheers.
If they qualified for the pilot program, the veterans could get free rent, utility assistance and wrap-around services for other needs. The veterans soon snapped in line for hours of processing.
Nearly all were men and between the ages of 50 and 65. Esa Murray, 25, sporting thick glasses, light blue shorts and a buzz cut, represented the next generation of homeless veterans.
The former Army private did base security near Tikrit, Iraq, in 2009. He was sent home early from the deployment because of mental disorders. Not long after, he was discharged and living in a tent in southern Indiana with his new wife.
“I joked with her that we went camping on our honeymoon,” said Murray, inching his way through the line. “She never thought that was funny.”
He said he and his wife have children but are now separated.
In mid-June, after an outburst, he said, he was taken by ambulance from Indiana to Jefferson Barracks because it was the closest Veterans Affairs inpatient psychiatric ward that had an open bed. Medications stabilized him. After treatment, he said, the VA released him with contact information for several area nonprofits.
“They pretty much said, ‘Good luck,’” Murray said. “And you know what, I’ve had good luck. This city has been wonderful to me.”
He stayed a few nights at New Life Evangelistic Center and also slept on the riverfront. A caseworker at St. Patrick Center recently got him a short-term room at the Mark Twain Hotel downtown. The caseworker told him to show up at the event Wednesday to get an apartment.
Within an hour of waiting in line on the ground floor, Murray was taken to the top of Soldiers Memorial, where he was fed breakfast — coffee, quiche, biscuits and gravy — and placed in a new line.
The veterans said they felt like they were in the military again: Hurry up and wait.
Each needed to be processed by representatives of various support groups and agencies ranging from the Social Security Administration to the VA, which took the longest to get through. A bulletin board with pictures of apartments to pick from was the last station.
Murray was nervous he might not make the cut because of a loose requirement that the veterans have at least two years of military service to qualify; he was short five months.
U.S. Housing and Urban Development channels about $13.5 million each year to help homeless people in the Gateway City. Still, there is an unmet need for shelter.
According to data from the Housing Resource Center, 14,155 people requested shelter via a hotline between Jan. 1, 2013, and Nov. 30, 2013, in St. Louis and St. Louis County. Of those, 10,377 couldn’t be referred to shelter.
Advocates for the homeless are trying to focus on those deemed “chronically homeless.” It’s a particularly risky group that makes up about 10 percent of the homeless population but soaks up most of the funds to serve all homeless people. In a census taken in January, there were 112 chronically homeless people on the streets of St. Louis; 50 were veterans.
Wednesday’s effort to get the veterans into apartments was mainly funded by a $750,000 HUD “rapid rehousing” grant administered by the city.
“They especially need a stable place to start their recovery journey,” said Joanne Joseph, homeless program manager for the VA in St. Louis.
Though Wednesday’s initiative is funded for one year, program managers hope the vets will be slowly weaned from assistance as they become self-sufficient. If needed, they’ll be brought into long-term programs.
Antoinette Triplett, who is leaving her post as head of the city’s Homeless Services Division in August for a job in Tampa, Fla., said she came up with the concept of Wednesday’s program a few years ago. She said it was designed for about 50 people. If somebody missed the event Wednesday, and thinks they qualify, they can contact her office to be considered.
Triplett, an Air Force veteran, described the housing effort as a pilot program.
“We will share the challenges and successes with other cities around the country,” she said.
At intake on Wednesday, Murray shared details about his military history, four years of occasional homelessness and medical history. He said he’s been diagnosed with depression, intermittent explosive disorder and other conditions.
“I am afraid of paperwork and bureaucracy,” he told clinical social worker Toby Jones. “I am always afraid I am going to do something wrong.”
Jones told him not to worry, that he was off to a good start. Even though he was short a few months of military service, his file was pushed forward partly because he was recently treated at the VA.
“By the time we are done with him in a year, he should be able to walk away and sustain himself,” Jones said.
By 1:30 p.m., taps played over a loud speaker when the first van full of veterans was taken to apartments on Delmar Boulevard.
An hour later, Murray’s name was called out. He toted a bucket full of free cleaning supplies to a van he shared with four other veterans, all of them more than twice his age.
Like on a military base, the men were going be Murray’s neighbors in the 3100 block of Cherokee Street.
Triplett briefly ducked into the van to wish them well and apologize.
“I want to apologize on behalf of our nation that you are veterans and had to be homeless,” she said.
The reality of getting an apartment was setting in.
“Thank you, Jesus,” said Ronald Bibbs, 54, who has often been homeless since 1992. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Kevin Stradford, 55, somehow wasn’t convinced.
“I’ll believe it when I am naked and in my shower,” he said. “It’s always a big runaround to get anything with our system.”
But by 3 p.m., six hours after showing up at Soldiers Memorial, Murray’s group stood inside an apartment building in south St. Louis.
Representatives there told them that it would be up to the veterans if they wanted to stay in the program. There were rules to obey, services to participate in.
Each veteran was given a set of keys to an apartment that usually rents for $430 per month.
Murray nearly embraced the refrigerator and stove. He yelled with joy about the shower curtain in the pink-tiled bathroom. He sprawled across his new bed that had a stuffed teddy bear on it.
“This is real,” Murray said.