Friday, January 29, 2016

Searching for St. Louis' Homeless Population, Deep in Old North

Posted By on Fri, Jan 29, 2016 at 6:03 AM

Volunteers search a vacant north St. Louis warehouse for homeless on Thursday morning during a city-wide count. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Volunteers search a vacant north St. Louis warehouse for homeless on Thursday morning during a city-wide count.

At 4:30 a.m., the abandoned Greyhound bus station in Old North St. Louis is exactly the kind of place the searchers want to go. Empty beer cans and shattered bottles cover the ground outside. A space in the wall, already pried open, reveals nothing but early morning darkness.


“OK. The entrance is over here,” Lamont Kollore tells the small group. “So let’s go in and see if they’re here.”

About 80 volunteers, divided into teams of two to five, have woken well before dawn on Thursday and fanned across the city. Their task is to find and survey as many of St. Louis’ homeless as possible. The annual census or “point-in-time count” is required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.

Nelson Perez (right) and Kara Born carry gift bags for the homeless out of Places for People shortly after 4 a.m. on Tuesday. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Nelson Perez (right) and Kara Born carry gift bags for the homeless out of Places for People shortly after 4 a.m. on Tuesday.

It’s not an easy job, and it is not without consequence. HUD will use the data collected by these bleary-eyed good Samaritans as it decides the city’s share of federal dollars for homeless services. The federal agency typically funnels between $10 million and $11 million through the St. Louis City Continuum of Care to dozens of organizations that work with the city’s most vulnerable residents.

The volunteers recorded 1,312 homeless people last year, including 112 living outside or “unsheltered,” and those numbers are surely low. If there are in fact more unsheltered homeless in the city, it would be good to find them — money for services will follow.

And so the searchers are tasked with finding people who are hiding. To do it, they must scour the skeleton of St. Louis’ former glory: Forgotten schools with crumbling roofs, abandoned houses, overgrown lots. They go early in hopes of finding people before they’ve risen and disappeared into the day’s traffic.

The ultimate goal is to figure out who’s out there and what they need to find regular place to stay, says Irene Agustin, chief program manager for the city’s division of homeless services. Stable housing, especially when coupled with supportive services, can cut down on a web of health and social problems that are aggravated by the stress of looking for a bed each night.

“And if you look at it from a dignity standpoint, it’s a lot more dignified,” Agustin says.

click to enlarge A mural covers an upstairs wall inside a vacant north St. Louis warehouse. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • A mural covers an upstairs wall inside a vacant north St. Louis warehouse.

Volunteers were to meet at 4 a.m. at Places for People, an organization that targets mental health problems and its myriad ramifications, such as chronic homelessness. Piles of blankets and gift bags stuffed with socks, hand warmers, toothbrushes and snacks await them. They’ll use these as goodwill offerings during their early morning encounter.

This year’s count committee chair, Tony Hilkin of Places for People, advises them one last time to stick together, do their best and be kind.

“Be as person-first as possible,” Hilkin says as the volunteers head out the door.

The old Greyhound station is the first stop for the Old North City team. The five members click on their flashlights and squeeze between wall studs into the first floor.

“Hello,” calls Nathan Dell, a 26-year-old Places for People outreach specialist.

Collapsed ceiling panels and debris cover the carpeted floors. In an upstairs room, they find bedding tucked away in a corner. A ball cap and a few personal items are arranged on a counter, but whoever stayed here is already gone.

Undeterred, they head off for a string of abandoned buildings along North 14th Street. They again find signs of squatters — plywood boards that have been pried off doors, gloves on a porch — but no people. A quick search among leftover railroad trestles stacked in the weeds across from Interstate 70 turns up a cache of pints but little else.

At 6 a.m., the crew heads to Sunrise Ministries on North 13th Street near Cass Avenue to meet Hilkin and a half-dozen other volunteers. Men are just leaving the shelter, and the volunteers offer them coffee and donuts as they begin their surveys. Some of the men brush past.

“I want to go home,” an older man in a hooded coat says.

Leroy Johnson, 45, pauses to talk and sip some coffee. He’s staying at Sunrise while he tries to save up enough from his Social Security benefits to rent an apartment. Alcohol has been a problem in the past, he admits, but he says he’s been sober for a month and a half.

“I go to classes — A.A.,” he says.

He’ll spend the rest of the morning at the St. Patrick Center, where he’ll eat breakfast and maybe take classes or talk to a counselor. He wants an apartment, but he’s managing, he says.

“It’s OK,” Johnson says. “You just have to be good and not get into trouble.”

Leroy Johnson is staying at Sunshine Ministries shelter while he tries to save enough for an apartment. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Leroy Johnson is staying at Sunshine Ministries shelter while he tries to save enough for an apartment.

Dell announces the old Pruitt Igoe site will be the team's next stop. Committee members had considered asking police to fly over in a helicopter to take stock from the air because of trepidation over what may lie in the wooded ruins. Instead, Dell and 38-year-old Nelson Perez of Guardian Angels Settlement Association, have arranged to meet two plain clothes officers and walk in on foot.

The grounds were once home to the city’s most infamous housing projects, a nightmare complex that was eventually blasted to the ground in the mid 1970s. It’s now an urban forest, interrupted only by the hum of an on-site electrical station and fading stretches of broken concrete. Dell, Perez and the officers follow footprints through the brush in the morning’s first light.

“It’s so weird,” Perez says as he passes over a forgotten manhole cover. “There used to be like 32 buildings out here. I feel like I’m in a Mad Max movie.”

If there are long-term campers out here, they’ve hidden themselves well. The footprints and an occasional tall boy can are the only signs of people.

About 7 a.m., several groups meet up at a pair of vacant warehouses north of the Edward Jones Dome. The former homes of McGuire Moving and Storage and Community Tire Retreading were supposed to be the city’s next entertainment center — the Bottle District. But while the artist lofts and high-end apartments proposed more than a decade ago have never materialized, that doesn’t mean the buildings are unused.

Floor after floor is covered in empty juice bottles, discarded clothes and spray cans. Graffiti artists have covered interior walls in murals. Glassless windows offer million dollar views of the city at sunrise.

But the warehouses look more like party spots than crash pads. Searchers find maybe three makeshift beds among the rubble.

Nathan Dell (left) and Nelson Perez search an abandoned school in north St. Louis. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Nathan Dell (left) and Nelson Perez search an abandoned school in north St. Louis.

Dell and Perez head back through an alley toward Dell's 1990 Crown Victoria, pausing where the words “OUT REACHER” are painted in an old loading bay.

“They’re used to us,” Dell says with a laugh.

They decide to make one last stop at an abandoned school. All morning, the only homeless people they’ve seen have been outside Sunrise, and it’s looking that might be it.

The school is a disaster. The towering wooden doors have fallen or been pushed in, leaving a mess of wood beneath a beautiful arched, brick entrance. The floors of former classrooms are covered in plaster and lath from fallen ceilings, and the hallways are covered in graffiti.

The last room at the end of the hall is different. They find a blanket hung across the doorway.

“Hello,” Dell calls. “Outreach. Good morning.”

The room is set up like a small apartment. Three beds made of scavenged couch cushions are laid out along the floor. Shelving holds canned food, a first aid kit and toiletries, including toothbrushes standing in a cup.

In the last bed, they find a young man, maybe 30 years old. Dell and Perez apologize for waking him.

“It’s OK,” he says. “I need to be woken up anyway.”

He agrees to answer their questions. Yes to a head injury. Yes to frequent doctor’s visits. Yes to being a victim of past abuse. No to drug use. Yes to a little drinking.

He rubs his eyes and thanks Dell and Perez for reaching out. Dell gives him a card and asks him to call or visit their office if he needs help. They walk past a small Christmas tree and a poster of King Lear as they leave.

Finally back in the car for the ride home, they are still thinking about the guy. They run through the different scenarios of how their agencies might be able to help — if he calls.

“I hope he contacts,” Perez says.

“Me too,” Dell says.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at doyle.murphy@riverfronttimes.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.

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