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Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Will St. Louis' Pile of Federal Money Reach Unhoused in Time?

Posted By on Wed, Dec 22, 2021 at 5:04 PM

click to enlarge Kevin Ricks says he is hoping to find somewhere more permanent to stay. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Kevin Ricks says he is hoping to find somewhere more permanent to stay.

On a recent Friday afternoon, with a drizzle falling and temperatures a few degrees above freezing, a familiar ritual of St. Louis was underway — the annual scramble to accommodate the surge of people seeking shelter from cold, dangerous weather.

"I love summer, hate the winter," says Kevin Ricks, 56, as he sits by a window in Il Monastero, an events center at Saint Louis University temporarily repurposed to accommodate cots and dinner service for people coming in from the streets.



Thirty-four people had already claimed the pop-up safe haven's 40 cots by mid-afternoon, and organizers were working to secure more beds for what was expected to be an overflow crowd by nightfall. Every year, a network — formal and informal — rallies to plug gaps in the city's shelter system. The pandemic has made finding enough spots even more difficult, given that a number of churches that opened their halls in past years now consider it too much of a risk for elder parishioners, says Tim Huffman, an associate professor at SLU and the faculty contact for the Il Monastero safe haven.

Huffman and others who work to help unhoused people in the St. Louis metro had hoped this year would actually be easier. Many who had been frustrated by the response of former Mayor Lyda Krewson (and Francis Slay before her) were optimistic that Mayor Tishaura Jones would solve some past problems. That optimism only grew when she appointed the well-respected Yusef Scoggin as the new director of the city Department of Human Services. Maybe the greatest reason for hope was that the city now had real money to put toward a variety of projects thanks to nearly a half-billion dollars in pandemic-recovery funding coming to St. Louis through the American Rescue Plan Act.

click to enlarge Il Monastero opened as a temporary safe haven as cold and rain hit St. Louis. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Il Monastero opened as a temporary safe haven as cold and rain hit St. Louis.

In September, the city put out a request for proposals, promising to disburse $21.4 million of that money for emergency housing projects. Dozens of organizations hustled to hit the October 22 deadline, and then they waited. And waited. By the time last week's cold snap hit, organizations that had hoped to have at least the promise of funding were still unsure if they'd have the money to operate this winter.

Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, who has helped out at Il Monastero, says the Board of Aldermen approved the pool of money this past summer in hopes of heading off the yearly scramble.

"Winter usually happens, same time every year," she deadpans. "And with as much money as the federal government gave us, money is not the issue this year. ... There's just no sense of urgency in terms of making decisions on those applications and getting funding out the door."

Huffman says that delay has created havoc for those trying to plan for the upcoming months.

"I have respect for Mayor Jones, and I have respect for Yusef Scoggin, but if that funding can't get ironed out really quickly, we're going to be in the situation of trying to open shelters while other organizations are shutting down," Huffman says.

Mayoral spokesman Nick Dunne points out that the Board of Estimate and Apportionment — the city's chief financial body — approved nearly $6 million last week for unhoused services. The city has processed about half of the RFPs it received, prioritizing emergency shelter, he says.

"Mayor Jones has confidence in the Human Services team who will be overseeing operations this winter," Dunne says in an email, noting the appointment of Scoggin, who built a stellar reputation while working for the county. "He and the Mayor's office have made regular communication with organizations and advocates a priority to ensure that everyone can be as prepared and coordinated as possible."

The Board of E&A is expected to work through the remaining proposals for its meeting next month, and Dunne says even without the federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, the city has more shelter beds than it did before the pandemic.

But all beds aren't the same. Audra Youmans, a twenty-year-old SLU junior helping coordinate operations at Il Monastero, explains that the safe haven differs from many shelters in town, because it had been set up as what is known as a low-barrier facility. At many shelters, strict rules, such as prohibitions against re-entry at night, keep a lot of people out. Often, referrals are required as well. Beds for walk-ins are in short supply.

But Il Monastero opened for 24-hour service, allowing people to come and go as they please with relatively few rules.

"We don't need to be super over-bearing," Youmans says, adding, "Everyone that's chipped-in has followed that same mindset of, 'If you're a person, you deserve shelter.'"

click to enlarge Walk-in beds are in short supply in St. Louis. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Walk-in beds are in short supply in St. Louis.

Il Monastero was originally opened to run for six days as a stopgap, but organizers chose to extend that into this week as the cold hung around. Along with volunteers, a collection of organizations, such as Tent Mission STL, linked up to gather supplies, which grew in part thanks to nightly donations by area restaurants. Faultless Linens washes the bedding for free, and Americorps volunteers run back and forth to pick up and drop off sheets and blankets. Youmans says they were eventually able to find another dozen beds and allowed a few people to sleep on the floors because it was so cold over the weekend, but they still had to turn people away.

Ricks says he found the safe haven after calling United Way's 211 helpline. He had been in Illinois, but says shelters there were overcrowded. In need of two hip replacements, he uses a wheelchair and needed a bed.

"I can't get down on the floor," he says.

Eventually, Ricks is hoping to find a more permanent solution, but Il Monastero was a great option in the short term. Behind him in a large hall, people stretch out on cots and watch The Matrix on a pair of projection screens. As he sits near Youmans next to the admission table, he sifts through jackets left as donations and finds one he likes.

"Kevin, my mama brought that from my home," Youmans tells him.

"She did?" Ricks says. "Thank your mama for me."

Correction: Tim Huffman's name was misspelled in the original version of this story. We regret the error.

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