St. Charles, Missouri is just over 15 miles from Ferguson and less than 25 miles from St. Louis. Even with such little distance between – to put it in context, a half-marathon is 13.1mi – St. Charles County, which was recently identified as the richest in Missouri, can feel many worlds away.
Like any place, St. Charles has its share of residents struggling to get by. Pat Holterman-Hommes is President and CEO of Youth In Need, a nonprofit that serves 16,000+ vulnerable kids, teens, and families in six Eastern Missouri counties, including St. Charles.
Holterman-Hommes, who’s lived in St. Charles virtually her entire life, shares her perspectives on the issues, challenges, and potential she sees in her hometown.
What’s your connection to St. Charles?
My family (parents, siblings, in-laws) is here, as well as many friends, and because I was fortunate to find a job 25 years ago at Youth In Need, I’ve had the opportunity to build a wonderful career at an organization that is based in St. Charles and serves the entire region.
What issues in St. Charles really impact youth (up to age 25) and families in ways that aren't necessarily immediately visible?
Poverty and homelessness are at the top of the list. We’re statistically a wealthy county, but there are growing pockets of poverty and families in serious economic distress due to unemployment or underemployment and lack of affordable housing.
A serious barrier to employment for young people and families is the lack of adequate public transportation within St. Charles County, and between St. Charles and St. Louis. I’ve seen countless examples of people losing their jobs because they could not afford to maintain reliable transportation to and from work. I can think of so many young parents who work low-paying jobs and must choose on a daily basis if they will buy food, diapers, or gas.
These factors contribute to youth becoming homeless as they are “pushed out” at an early age because their families cannot afford to feed/house them, and because the family stress levels are so high that dynamics become very volatile.
Lack of adequate healthcare for “working poor” (including young adults) is a serious issue, and youth drug use is also a rather hidden problem.
Can you share an anecdote that illustrates what you believe ties, or divides, St. Charles and St. Louis?
The Blanchette Bridge is a symbol of what links St. Charles to St. Louis, and the river it spans is a symbol of what divides us. All my life, I have heard people reference “crossing the bridge” in a way that clearly connotes their negative views and overt fears of St. Louis, with obvious racial overtones.
Some years ago, a Youth In Need employee (an older African-American woman who works at one of our programs in St. Louis City) shared with me that every time she crossed the bridge coming to St. Charles to our administrative headquarters, her stomach would hurt and she would feel very tense. She was reminded of stories she heard as a child about “bad things that happened to Black people” in St. Charles.
I will never forget that, as it underscored the lasting effects of historical events and perceptions, and it has created a sense of urgency in me to try to make everyone feel comfortable and included.
In the time you've lived in St. Charles, what changes or developments have you observed?
St. Charles is slowly but surely becoming more diverse and inclusive. A particularly encouraging development was the “St. Charles Pride” LGBT event, held for the first time on May 30, on the campus of the well-respected St. Charles Community College.
In addition, there is a growing Hispanic population in the county, which adds cultural richness.
I believe there is more openness to differences, as well as a growing recognition that St. Charles is part of (not separate from) the St. Louis region.
If you could wave a magic wand and fix one locally consequential regional issue, what would that fix be?
I really believe that institutional, systemic racism is at the heart of everything that is wrong in our region.
For example, I believe that unconscious and conscious bias play a factor in why we don’t have public transportation between St. Charles and St. Louis.
If I could wave a magic wand that would open eyes (and minds, and hearts) to privilege and unconscious bias, I can only begin to imagine how different our region might become.
On Monday, June 8th, the Ferguson Commission heads over the Blanchette Bridge to meet at St. Charles High School. Gear up for that meeting in a casual city space by joining the Commission this Thursday at Venture Café STL, located at 4240 Duncan Ave.