On a chilly October night downtown, Wille's bedroll lay tucked beside a utility box beneath I-44, across the street from Morgan Street Brewery and Nelly's Extreme Institute. For a while he'd slept down by the river until one night the water rose and washed some of belongings away. Now he's been spending his nights here on this concrete island. He smirked, saying that he's had some success flying a sign that read "Too Ugly to Prostitute."
"I get people taking pictures all the time," he said. Even some police officers, he says, "took a picture with me and said it was the best sign they ever saw."
A woman who has known Wille for decades, whose younger brothers were friends with him in high school, sat smoking near the Lumiere's rear entrance. Kim (who didn't want to give her last name) said she reconnected with Wille four or five years ago and now bumps into him downtown — he's usually panhandling — almost daily. Kim said her husband, like Wille, struggles with opiate addiction.
"It's the devil," she said. "It's down here. It's out on Grand. In Maplewood. In Brentwood. Everywhere. If you're looking for it you'll find it wherever you are."
I asked her how many people she'd guess were out on the streets because of opiates.
"Thousands," she said.
"In St. Louis," I clarified.
"It's thousands. I mean I know of hundreds, so I got to imagine it doesn't stop there."
A few blocks toward the river, Casey (who also didn't want to give his last name) sat on a bench beside his dog, Lovely. Casey, who has been living without a home for the past six years, arrived in St. Louis a little over a month ago, after being pulled off of a freight train he'd ridden from Louisville. Since arriving in town he's taken part in the recent protests over the Stockley verdict, has spent a night in jail and was kettled at Washington and Tucker, pepper sprayed and chased down an alley by police.
"People don't understand that yeah, I'm homeless, but I'm not a drug addict," said Casey, who's originally from San Francisco. "I never touched drugs. It's sad because so many people think that the homeless are criminals or drug users, but if you've never sat down to talk to one you don't know where they came from, who they are."
When Casey asks for food, many people say no, that they don't want to be an enabler.
"No drug dealer is going to take food as payment for anything," Casey said.
Casey's friend Darren added: "Yes, a lot of homeless people use drugs, but there's a percentage who don't."
In addition to a meal, Darren said he needed money to buy a coat and gloves.
"Here we are going on to winter," he said. "And a lot of us don't have warm clothes."