Residents of Tent City Sue St. Louis to Stop Park Evictions

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Update: Police and city sanitation workers went to the camp this morning where they were met by residents and activists. At one point, sanitation workers followed their supervisor's instructions to move in and start removing items. However, they were quickly confronted by the crowd, including people who stood on tarps. One man in the crowd pulled off the supervisor's mask during a brief, tense moment. Workers backed out shortly after.

People living in a tent city across from City Hall are suing the city, hoping to head off plans to evict them during the middle of the pandemic.

On Wednesday, the city issued eviction orders to the 50 or so people in the encampments, telling them to vacate the parks by 10 a.m. today.

In response, the nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of the residents this morning, asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order against the city.

The suit argues the city has falsely claimed it has enough individual shelter beds for all the people in the camp. In reality, a representative of the city Department of Human Services told members of the St. Louis Continuum of Care that the city was over capacity and had a waiting list of 98 people.

"It is impossible for an individual to follow a 'Stay at Home' order when he or she is experiencing homelessness and cannot access a shelter bed," the suit says. "Instead, an unhoused person has no choice but to make do and seek shelter in public spaces, often in violation of laws related to park curfews and sleeping in tents."

Since March, two camps have continued to grow in city parks on the north side of Market Street, west of Tucker Boulevard. The eastern camp, directly across from City Hall, is known as the "family camp" and another to the west is primarily for single people. Over the weeks, outreach workers and volunteers have delivered supplies to people in both camps, and residents have established a quasi-government structure, sharing resources as much of the rest of the city has shut down around them.

During that time, the city has wrestled with ways to disperse the camps, arguing it is a public health concern due to little social distancing. On April 9, police and a team of parks workers surprised people in the camps with a 4 a.m. wakeup call. As the Riverfront Times reported, people living in the parks and volunteers who were on hand because they had heard rumors of a potential raid said police told everyone they had to clear out, but officers relented when residents refused and observers started filming the encounter.

The city later claimed it was not an attempt to force anyone out but an extension of the city's outreach. That changed Wednesday, when Mayor Lyda Krewson and the city public health director Dr. Fredrick Echols announced new orders, demanding people leave the camps or face legal consequences.

The lead plaintiff in the case, 39-year-old Ranata Frank, has tried through the city to get a spot in a hotel (the city signed contracts with two to house people during the pandemic) but has been yet to land a bed, according to the suit. Three weeks since her first request, she is still waiting in one of the camps, she says.

The lawsuit points out that the eviction order goes against recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, which warns that dispersing camps could deprive the people in them of services and scatter them across the city, potentially spreading COVID-19 to others. The CDC instead recommends supporting the camps with working bathrooms as well as access to running water, soap and towels so people can wash and dry their hands.

The St. Louis Continuum of Care — a coalition of government, medical and nonprofit entities tasked with dealing with issues of homelessness — has also pushed back against the city order. In a letter to the mayor, the coalition said it had not been consulted or involved in plans for the eviction and worried it would do serious harm.

"Because of this lack of planning and communication, we are gravely concerned that this move will generally traumatize individuals, cause people to regress in their mental illnesses, and it will diminish hard-earned trust between outreach workers and the unhoused population," the continuum's letter says.

One of the central points of contention is the amount of shelter space. The city says it has plenty, including the addition of 200 beds this week. But the lawsuit argues that's a statistical smoke screen. As shelters worked to enforce social distancing guidelines, they had previously reduced the number of beds from to about 315 from 515. So the beds added this week only return shelter space to normal capacity, leaving a conservative estimate of 500 people still on the streets.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected] or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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