St. Louis homeless center adds job-training to its menu

Tuesday, October 7, 2008 | 2:49 p.m. CDT; updated 5:45 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 7, 2008

ST. LOUIS — The St. Patrick Center provides more than hot meals to help the homeless: It opened a new small business incubator and trades training center on Tuesday with a goal of helping the homeless, or those at risk, find stable, good-paying work.

As the largest provider of homeless services in Missouri, the center in downtown St. Louis has been helping the homeless since 1983. For instance, its workers and volunteers served more than 150,000 meals to those in need in the last fiscal year. But it has transformed its fourth and fifth floors into space to launch new businesses and help the homeless learn skills in demand by area employers.

"When we talk about homelessness, I always say it takes more than shelters and soup kitchens," said Jan DeYoung, director of Project Begin, the name of the new incubator and trades training programs. "It's a new beginning for us, a whole new model for addressing homelessness issues."

The center isn't taking people off the streets and turning them into overnight entrepreneurs. Rather, the approach is to help people find stable housing and address health issues, and then, once approved by a caseworker, train them in new job skills, DeYoung said.

Originally, the center was to team up with a technical college to train program participants on-site. It was later decided that the center will work with individual employers who commit to the program, identify what types of skilled employees they need, and assist with the training.

The small business incubator space offers small, professionally outfitted offices for a low rent. But more than that, the businesses that are accepted into the incubator will be assessed to determine their areas of strength and weakness, receive guidance through a mentoring program, be able to share administrative services and learn from other entrepreneurs.

Other business affiliates may use the center's business address, facilities and services.

In turn, they or their vendors work to employ some St. Patrick Center clients. The homeless center is also opening a furniture construction and restoration program on-site.

The president of the Ohio-based National Business Incubation Association, Dinah Adkins, said while there are about 1,100 business incubators in the nation, she does not know of any others in the country focused primarily on the homeless.

She expected a small business incubator focused on employing the homeless might face unique challenges, because it would be working with individuals that might have mental health issues or other obstacles. But, she said careful screening should help to make sure those who participate are ready.

DeYoung said several culinary businesses are already working through the incubator, like an area pastry maker and a barbecue sauce business. He said businesses in construction trades, landscaping, health care, hospitality and security are all expected to be good fits.

The hope would be to establish up to 30 companies in the next four to five years, DeYoung said.

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