NORMANDY • The recent life skills class at a new drop-in center hit on basic disciplines of etiquette — stand up and offer a firm handshake, maintain good eye contact, keep a respectable voice mail greeting on your cellphone in case an employer calls.
It all seemed straight forward enough, but the half dozen students in attendance, most of them teenagers from tough backgrounds, struggled at times to get through the lesson. Or take it seriously.
One young man with a “John 3:16” tattoo and a suitcase said he preferred the eastern tradition of bowing instead of shaking somebody’s dirty hand. A few more wisecracks, and he was dismissed.
A pregnant girl, who dipped free pizza in a bowl of ranch salad dressing, disappeared on her own.
Austin Stahlschmidt, still wearing a hospital wristband after being hit by a car a few days prior, stayed until the end. He’d sat through countless lessons like this one in years of youth development programs, but he wanted the award for attending: a two-hour bus pass to anywhere.
Stahlschmidt, who just turned 20, said he slept under a Mississippi River bridge and had been homeless for six years.
These are some of the people Epworth Children and Family Services is trying to reach with its new $1.7 million drop-in center at 7520 Natural Bridge Road.
“It’s kind of like a relief from the streets,” said Stahlschmidt. “Anything you need, you can get it here.”
The refurbished three-story building is an upgrade from a smaller facility that used to be in the Delmar Loop.
“Because the need is so great, we literally outgrew this facility in University City,” said Kevin Drollinger, head of Epworth.
Now they have 15,000 square feet to play with. There are programs for street outreach, foster care and case management. In the drop-in center on the first floor, there are new washers and dryers, showers and computers. There’s a ping pong table, television, large kitchen, and donated stocks of food and hygiene products.
It’s not a community center or day care. The facility is for youth ages 11 through 24 who are homeless, at risk of being homeless or in need of a place for assistance. It’s open afternoons, Monday through Friday.
Some people are walk-ins. Others get picked up in a couple of outreach vans. Transportation is one of the highest costs for a foster care program that brings youth to the center from all over the city and county by taxi.
Webster Groves-based Epworth, which started serving Civil War orphans, served 7,300 youth and families in 2013 through various housing and human development programs in the St. Louis area. The drop-in center, named after the late socialite Carleen Goddard-Mazur, whose estate was mainly bequeathed to the care of foster children, is the farthest push into north St. Louis County for the agency.
The location is right in the middle of Normandy’s beleaguered school community. In recent years, more than 30 percent of its students were essentially homeless and sofa surfing with friends and relatives; more than half of the student body moves each year.
On top of that, the center sits in one of nine ZIP codes the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund has targeted for having the highest concentration of youth poverty.
Julie Leicht, interim director of the children’s fund, which channels millions of dollars to service programs such as Epworth each year, said she encouraged nonprofits to be based in the communities they are trying to reach. They can get a better handle on the culture and overcome transportation obstacles, she said.
“Being close means bringing the barriers down lower,” Leicht said.
Terri Fox, director of older youth services at the drop-in center, said Epworth simply wanted to find a feasible building close to public transportation and with lots of room for services and parking.
Tray Hubbard (left), 20, and McKenzie ‘Mac’ West, 19, eat a dinner of sloppy joes after helping cook for teens at the drop-in center of Epworth Children and Family Services in Normandy on Friday, June 27, 2014. Photo by Robert Cohen, firstname.lastname@example.org
“It certainly has worked out well that we can be an important resource,” Fox said of the new area. “We want to get in the Normandy schools as soon as possible.”
Then there are the people who have more immediate needs than school.
For years, some of them have showed up a few blocks down Natural Bridge at the public library. Parkie Peck, who manages the library branch, said the easy ones to notice arrived in the morning with a suitcase and left at closing time.
“It’s always good when there are resources in your community that you can suggest to people,” Peck said. “Epworth, they have a very specific audience, and the location makes it one that we can tell people it’s right down the street. They can walk to it.”
For now, though, many come to the drop-in center from a distance.
Karon Coleman, 21, recently showed up after a rough morning.
“They were always telling me to stop by,” he said. “So I just wanted to stop by.”
Coleman said he had been homeless for a handful of years since his mother died. For now, he stays at Covenant House, a shelter for youth and young adults at 2727 North Kingshighway Boulevard.
Coleman, a Job Corps student, does construction when he can. He likes his trade so much that he wore a bright orange work vest on his day off.
He wore it to East St. Louis in the morning to hang out with some friends until a fight broke out and police showed up.
Coleman, not interested in the drama, said he took public transportation all the way to the drop-in center for a fresh view, for a break from the street.
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