By SUZANNE KOZIATEK
For years, St. Vincent de Paul has worked tirelessly to help people living on the margins by offering food, clothing and access to services from the society’s outreach center in East St. Louis. Now, the group has its sights set on one of the area’s thorniest problems – caring for those who don’t have a place to sleep at night.
Many of those people are single men and women who don’t qualify for space in existing homeless shelters, says Executive Director Pat Hogrebe. In a 2018 homelessness survey, 63 people in St. Clair County identified themselves as “unsheltered,” according to the St. Clair County Homeless Action Council.
“If you came to me today without a place to sleep at night, and you didn’t have kids, or you weren’t a victim of domestic violence, there is no shelter I could get you into,” Hogrebe says.
Where do those people go at night? “They sleep outside, or they’re living in their cars. Some of them walk around all night because they’re afraid to stop somewhere.”
The consequences can be dire, especially in the kind of extreme weather the region has been seeing in recent weeks. Hogrebe describes two homeless men she works with who now must have their frostbitten toes removed.
And spending nights on the move saps the energy that people might summon to improve their situations.
“I’ve had a homeless man tell me, ‘How can I hold down a job if I can’t sleep at night?’” she says.
St. Vincent de Paul plans to address this problem with a new facility, to be built next to the current center at 3718 State St. in East St. Louis. It would serve as a night outreach ministry center, providing people with a place to come in out of the elements and rest and eat in safety.
The facility would not be a true homeless shelter, since it would not offer sleeping accommodations.
“No cots, just comfortable chairs, and safety and quiet and respite,” Hogrebe says.
She says the board of the Belleville Council of St. Vincent de Paul has approved the plan, which is estimated to cost about $200,000. It would have a capacity of 50 people, and serve as a drop-in center – people could come and go as they wished between 7:30 p.m. and 7:30 a.m.
“Many people, especially people with mental illness, don’t want to come to a place where they’re locked in at night,” Hogrebe says.
Those coming to the center would get a sack lunch and a hot drink and an opportunity to sit in a peaceful place to watch television or rest.
Hogrebe says that the center would hire security staff: “We know we’d need to have a lot of security measures in place, just because it’s open at night.”
In the morning, those in the center could walk next door to the existing St. Vincent de Paul center, where they can take advantage of the wide variety of services offered there: Food from the soup kitchen, showers for bathing, washers and dryers to clean their clothes, and a group of volunteers who help with paperwork to get more long-lasting assistance.
“We do it all – help them find housing, help with utility bills and budgeting,” Hogrebe says. “We’re trying to get people work, so we give them resume help.”
Some of the toughest and most important assistance the center gives is for people who lack personal identification. “Our PIP (personal ID program) is one of the most important things we do. We help people get copies of birth certificates and Social Security cards.”
“That can get expensive – it might cost $50 or $60, but it’s essential,” Hogrebe says. “Without it, you can’t apply for a job, you can’t even get on a Greyhound bus. You are immobilized.”
She estimates that the center processes 15-20 such personal ID requests a week.
For every person the St. Vincent de Paul center helps, the situation might be different and require complex interventions and supports.
“We try to meet every person individually, one on one, where they’re at,” Hogrebe says. “We’re trying to find the solutions, trying to see the face of Christ in everyone we serve.”
The resources for all of this assistance come from a combination of volunteers and donors across the Diocese of Belleville. This year, the St. Vincent de Paul Society Belleville Council will receive its first funding from The Catholic Service and Ministry Appeal.
“We also rely on the generosity of our parishes and they’ve always come through,” Hogrebe says. She notes that with financial support, donated materials and union labor, St. Vincent de Paul recently was able to complete a $900,000 renovation of its existing center. And Hogrebe believes that the resources needed for this new project will be raised somehow as well.
“I believe we operate through divine providence,” she says. “That’s how we got through our last project and God has led us to this point. I know in my heart that God will provide what we need to do what we’re supposed to do.”
For more information about St. Vincent de Paul’s programs in the Diocese of Belleville, visit the society’s website at svdpsouthil.org