In the spirit of the season, the poor and homeless among us are getting some help through local charities that are funded by County taxpayers.
It’s part of a year-round effort to help those struggling who can almost seem invisible in the midst of an affluent county, says Captain Justian Corliss of the Salvation Army.
“I would describe them as your neighbor,” says Corliss as clients browse the organization’s food pantry in O’Fallon. “You never know who’s struggling to make ends meet.”
In some ways, the pantry clients may be the lucky ones. Many still have a car, a home, a job. Hundreds of others in the county don’t have a house—they’re living out of tents, cars and hotel rooms, Corliss says. They’re out of sight and out of mind, leading many in St. Charles County to believe there aren’t any homeless here.
“I would say the same thing Jesus said—the poor will be with us always,” says Corliss. “No matter where you’re going—whether it’s Beverly Hills or St. Charles County—there are homeless people in every community.”
Nearly 300 homeless people living in St. Charles County were counted during the most recent census of the homeless conducted by charity workers. And those are just the ones workers could find—advocates say others are likely living where they’re harder to spot. Meanwhile, many others live on the brink of losing their homes.
A dozen local charities work to help people who are homeless or at risk, supported in part by funding from the St. Charles County Community Assistance Board (CAB). The citizen-led board distributed more than $200,000 in homeless prevention funds to partner charities in 2023.
“It’s far cheaper to keep someone housed than to rehouse someone after they’ve become homeless, so homeless prevention is key,” says Donna Tobin, development manager for the Sts. Joachim & Ann Care Service, one of CAB’s partner charities. “For a lot of families, it doesn’t take much. We get calls saying ‘I’m a single parent and I was sick for two weeks. So I lost two weeks’ wages and now I can’t pay rent.’”
CAB partner charities help county residents prevent or recover from homelessness through utility and rent assistance, income-based housing, emergency shelter, financial counseling and employment assistance. Clients include people of all ages and backgrounds, including many who don’t fit typical stereotypes.
Clare Pontello, a social worker at the Care Service, says two of her clients are elderly women who were forced to leave stable homes because they were victims of domestic violence.
“They stuck together and had to move into a hotel, but they’re both medically fragile. We worked really hard to get them into their own housing,” Pontello explains. “You would never think they were homeless if you saw them at the store. They just want to live a normal, happy life.”
Nearly 22,000 people in St. Charles County have income below the federal poverty threshold, according to U.S. Census data. Even with the help of local charities, those who fall into homelessness still struggle to quickly find new housing. It takes an average of 221 days—more than seven months—to get them rehoused, according to the St. Charles County Community Council, an association of local nonprofit organizations.
High housing prices are partly to blame, but the St. Charles region also receives disproportionately low state and federal assistance compared to the number of homeless here, says Community Council’s Dottie Kastigar.
“There’s a myth that St. Charles is the land of milk and honey, that there’s a lot of money and no need,” Kastigar says. “But just because there’s a lot of affluent people in our community, that doesn’t mean there is no need. The resources we receive are insignificant compared to what neighboring communities receive.”
To help meet that need, the CAB uses several funding streams to distribute homeless preventions funds, usually ranging from $200,000-$400,000 per year to local charities. That money comes from a combination of sources: fees on real estate transfers and other documents recorded by the County Recorder of Deeds, federal grants, and donations from individual taxpayers.
“Allocating County funds for homeless prevention is crucial for community well-being, addressing the root causes of homelessness, and supporting vulnerable people and families in need,” says Pinar Turker, the Community Services Grant Administrator for St. Charles County. “From 2020-2022, CAB allocated approximately $1 million to nonprofit agencies, extending assistance to 7,860 individuals. However, this amount only met 62% of the requests from these agencies.”
“In recent years, we’ve seen a drastic revenue decline because a large part of our income is based on document recording fees from real estate sales, and the market has cooled tremendously,” Turker says. “There’s more need than ever for individual donations to provide crucial support for people in need.”
Every year, the County runs a collection program called Project CARE that asks residents to voluntarily donate an extra $1 (or $5 or $10) with their annual property tax payment. Donating is easy—just check a box on the tax bill or online form, then include that little bit extra in the payment.
If every person would donate just $1 on their bill, it could raise over $300,000, nearly doubling the amount of money CAB provides to help move struggling community members out of cars, tents and hotel rooms, and into safe, long-term homes.