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After an East St. Louis Homeless Camp Is Evicted, the ‘Houseless’ Seek a Home of Their Own 

Robert Gibson and Orlando "Unc" Giles are the last people to leave the homeless camp along the Mississippi River in East St. Louis.

They were slow packing up. Gibson, 59 years old with a long gray beard, had lived there more than three years and considered it home — a place with neighbors, regular routines and a sense of belonging. Giles, 51, arrived less than year ago but shared his friend's appreciation for the place. Rather than bouncing between shelters, imposing on relatives or sleeping on the streets, they had been able to settle in and control their own lives.

But the collection of tents and wooden huts, which had sprawled into two camps, had grown too big and too public in recent months. Both camps were on private land, and when the owner decided it was time for everyone to go, the nearly two-dozen residents saw no choice but to clear out. A 30-day order to vacate was followed by a seven-day extension. In four hours, at midnight on February 26, the extension will expire, too.

"You see how hectic it is," Gibson says, juggling phone calls from supporters checking to make sure he's OK. "We're trying to get things done."

During the final days, Pastor Tina Crawford drove the men and two other camp residents back and forth across the river, trying to pin down driver's licenses and arrange appointments with service organizations. The bureaucratic untangling may pay off in benefits, but that is still in the future. The immediate concern is how to get their things out of their old home and into somewhere else.

The way other residents moved out irritates the two men. They lived in the camp closest to the road, on a cracked concrete slab they call simply "the platform." The back camp, an intricate collection of homemade wooden huts with a communal kitchen at its center, was set out of sight in the woods. Residents supported each other, sharing food and chores. But in the stress of the order to vacate, people scattered in all directions and tempers spiked. Second- and third-hand accounts of who is getting help from which organizations ran rampant. Rumors of slights spread.

"We supposed to be like a family," Giles says, "but when people get their places to go, they start downgrading us."

He and Gibson decided to stick together. They spent the first part of the day pushing wheelbarrow loads of their stuff to their new place, a windowless cinder-block building that is a five-minute walk from the camps. A friend put down $25 to rent the space for Gibson.

"It's not the Taj Mahal," Gibson says, leading the way to the new place, "but it's better than a tent."

The one-room structure is small and dirty, and living there surely violates some sort of building ordinance. Gibson has killed eight brown recluse spiders by his count, smashing them against the walls with his thumb. But there is an honest-to-God door with a lock. The walls are not at risk of collapsing in a strong wind, and there is enough head space to stand up and even stretch your arms overhead without hitting tarp.

"We're going to make it, ain't we," Gibson says to Giles.

Gibson's twin bed is pushed against a wall, and an Army cot for Giles sits on the other side of the room. A single light bulb dangles overhead from an extension cord, powered by the generator chained up outside. There are still piles of clothes, tools and furniture to move from the platform, but that will have to wait. The men are worn out. They sit sipping 24-ounce cans of Milwaukee's Best Ice, gingerly flexing sore knees and shifting in their seats every few moments to realign aching backs. The air is filled with the smoke of Show-brand cigarillos.

"We're chilling," Gibson says. After five weeks of stress, tonight feels like their first opportunity to relax.

"Last night, I went into my tent, I sat down on the bed, and I just cried," Giles says.

The place has potential, but there are already signs of trouble. Relatives of the landlord chastise Gibson for inviting visitors to the space, and he says they seem bothered after spotting Giles moving in. As long as the rent is paid and he is not causing problems, Gibson says, he should be able to do as he likes.

"Come on, people, get your thumb off us," he fumes.

The mood lightens as the hours pass. The two men soon fall into old tales of life in the camps, which often include wildlife encounters. Giles, a part-time DJ and natural storyteller, recalls the night he was walking back to his tent from the East St. Louis MetroLink station when a massive buck, brandishing a menacing set of antlers, stepped out of the fog and stared him down. Gibson has heard the story, but he still laughs out loud as his friend describes freezing in fear and then racing home when the buck finally sauntered away.

"I ran in the tent," Giles says, his eyes going wide as he recreates the fright. "I put the lock on. I jumped in the bed fully clothed. I was shaking like a leaf."

They have arranged a pair of folding chairs around a propane heater. A battered stereo sits on a small table near the wall. After a while, they pop open new beers and smoke more cigarillos. It is 1 a.m. when they finally turn out the light.

"What it all boils down to," Giles says. "We — Orlando Giles and Robert Gibson — we went down with the ship."

The next morning, the landlord orders them to move out.

From left, Taron Williams, Orlando Giles and Robert Gibson discuss their impending exit from the camp. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • From left, Taron Williams, Orlando Giles and Robert Gibson discuss their impending exit from the camp.

The East St. Louis waterfront always seemed like a place to build.

Acres of empty lots offer panoramic views of the Arch and St. Louis skyline. Amiel Cueto, a wealthy and crooked lawyer, bought a 32-acre rectangle of former railroad property there in the mid-1990s. The Casino Queen riverboat had just opened nearby, and investors envisioned a gleaming entertainment district along the scraggly eastern shores of the Mississippi. By 1998, the New York Times was reporting on the promise of a gambling-fueled economic revival in East St. Louis, highlighting proposals for a hotel, bank, golf course and Casino Queen expansion onto land.

A Democratic power broker, Cueto was perfectly positioned for the wheeling and dealing to follow, except for one thing — he was sentenced in 1997 to more than seven years in prison for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government. In court records, federal prosecutors revealed his role as a guard dog for Thomas Venezia, a longtime friend, business partner and strip club owner who ran an illegal video-gambling operation supported by bought-off politicians and Cueto's aggressive tactics.

When the two men suspected federal investigators were getting too close, Cueto ferreted out and publicly exposed a state liquor-control agent who was working as an FBI informant and then worked with Venezia and former Washington Park Police Chief Bob Romanik (best known these days as a hate-spewing radio shock jock) to discredit the informant and block the investigation. All three men were convicted or pleaded guilty to federal charges.

Venezia, who was convicted of racketeering and illegal gambling, emerged after seven years in prison stripped of his power. Battling throat cancer in 2005, he murdered his young girlfriend and then killed himself, authorities say.

Cueto tried to return to business. The disbarred attorney hoped to cash in on his riverfront property by flipping it to a developer for $8 million. But the deal to build "Grandview Plaza and Towers" cracked apart like so many other proposals along the river. Cueto would later allege in a lawsuit he had been defrauded. The suit was still going on when he died in 2012.

Today, the Casino Queen's fenced-in campus sits like an island between a Cargill grain elevator and Bunge-SCF Grain. The golf course, bank and a separate hotel discussed in the Times never materialized. Instead, there are parking lots for truckers and acres of undeveloped land lying under thick brush and mature trees.

Cueto's property — now in the hands of his widow, Elaine Cueto — is a short walk north of the casino at the northeast corner of Front Street and West Missouri Avenue. Fire-insurance maps from around the turn of the twentieth century show it was once the site of the old Baltimore and Ohio Southwestern Railroad's freight houses. All the structures have since been scraped away, but a long, concrete slab — what Gibson and Giles call "the platform" — runs parallel to West Missouri. It offers a few key advantages to homeless campers in that it is level and sits slightly higher than the surrounding ground, making it less likely to flood.

Over the years, the occasional homeless person would pitch a tent on the platform for a bit before moving on. Gibson arrived in about 2015 and stayed.

At first, it was him and another man, named Walt, who had arrived first. Soon, others began to arrive, sometimes in the dead of night with nothing. Gibson and the other campers would take them in, maybe help them set up their own place. The platform was still partially out of sight at the time, shrouded by weeds and brush along West Missouri, which was a dirt road at the time. But the slab was still too exposed for some, and so even as the front camp was growing, other squatters began constructing a second camp behind it in the woods. The front was mostly tents strung side-by-side, but the back camp was set up more like a village. Residents lived in small wooden huts arranged along a lane that meandered like a stream through the trees. Because this camp was on low ground and prone to flooding, the huts were built atop pallets or wooden platforms.

The front camp sat atop a long concrete slab residents called "the platform." - DOYLE MURPHY
  • The front camp sat atop a long concrete slab residents called "the platform."

In a sense, the two communities were the reincarnation of a series of river camps that previously dotted the shore on the St. Louis side of the river. Gibson was one of the builders of Hopeville, an encampment that the city forcibly evicted in 2012 after a murder. Neighboring camps, including one called Dignity Harbor, were also forced to close.

The enigmatic architect of Dignity Harbor, a man who goes by O.G., eventually migrated across the river as well. It was O.G. who guided construction of the huts in the back camp. Residents also built a large communal kitchen and food pantry, the shelves stocked with canned goods.

"I'm always going to have a kitchen," O.G. explains.

Standing at the edge of the platform on a cold morning, one week before the final deadline, O.G. talks grandly of millionaire backers, women heroically rescued from the streets and a history of high-powered jobs. The details are impenetrably vague, leaving listeners to take his word — or not. But the ingenuity of the camps clearly demonstrates a talent for survival. Gibson, who says he spent his career as a diesel mechanic before being laid off, has also shown himself to be industrious and clever, erecting a hybrid wood-and-tarp tent that has withstood raging winds, snow and ice for three winters. Generators power electric lights, and the back camp has large clean-water tanks, filled from a source that O.G. declines to discuss publicly.

Residents of the two camps also managed to navigate the even trickier terrain of being highly visible without getting kicked off private land. Their existence was no secret. Church groups, social workers, cops, homeless advocates, college students, truckers and reporters had visited repeatedly over the years. Inhabitants invited them into their self-made homes, or at least to chat around the fire pit.

The working theory was that transparency did more good than harm. Visitors could be a lifeline to crucial supplies — food, fuel for generators, building materials.

But that was not the only reason for welcoming them in. Camp leaders also knew they were facing stereotypes that could lead to them being evicted if unchallenged.

Left to speculate, the outside world was likely to assume people in the camps were heroin addicts, violent and dangerous. Instead, residents showed outsiders a tidy community that co-existed in relative harmony under dire circumstances. Gibson's wooden "No Place Like Home" sign was fastened above the door to his tent. "I'm not homeless," he liked to tell visitors. "I'm houseless." Out front, he posted a mailbox. It was a joke, but it added a homey touch and made the community seem more approachable.

On any given day, you might find pastors in blue jeans and work shirts hanging out on the platform or a handful of Saint Louis University students seated around the fire. In 2017, Gibson was baptized in a plastic kiddie pool outside his tent and later kept the certificate above his desk.

"I was messing with [Gibson]," recalls Pastor Eddie Witt, who did the honors. "I told him I was going to hold him down until the last bubble."

The visitors became part of the extended community, but any romantic ideas of a homeless Shangri-La were undercut by the realities of brutal winters and blazing summers. A pregnant young woman lost her baby while living in the front camp, residents say. Witt tells of another couple that he helped move into an apartment, only to see them return to the camp a few months later.

"It broke my heart," he says.

For many, the camps were preferable to shelters, which they say are dangerous and chaotic. But they were still living full time in a shanty town with no plumbing. Even Gibson, who considered the camp his home, stops short of saying he was happy. "I was content," he says after a pause.

The last six months had seen the camps slide. The number of residents had ballooned to nearly two dozen, almost double what it had been a year ago. Some of the newcomers had little interest in the orderliness that old timers believe had protected the communities from trespassing complaints. Trash and hoarded belongings began to pile up. It was becoming a mess.

When the order to vacate was pinned to Gibson's mailbox in January, it was unexpected but not a huge surprise.

Along with two assistants, Phil Berwick (right), the artist behind the Merferd character, moves a resident's belongings into Berwick's tree-trimming truck. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Along with two assistants, Phil Berwick (right), the artist behind the Merferd character, moves a resident's belongings into Berwick's tree-trimming truck.

There are plans for the East St. Louis waterfront once again.

Over the past three years, a partnership between government, casino and nearby granaries has completed a $7 million project to rebuild Front Street along the western edge of the camps and improve B Street, a new section of which now bisects Cueto's property east of the camps, creating a bypass around the Casino Queen for the near-constant stream of tractor trailers on their way to Cargill and Bunge-SCF Grain. West Missouri, which runs the length of the southern edge of the front camp, has been paved to accommodate traffic that sometimes tops 1,000 trucks a day.

In a news release, the St. Clair County Transit District boasted that the Front Street project had "opened up several hundred acres of undeveloped, newly accessible ground that is already sparking interest from other agribusiness and distribution companies and will help to attract new jobs along the East St. Louis Riverfront."

It is not hotels and golf courses, but it is something. "It's progress," Gibson says with an air of resignation.

The curtain of weeds and scrawny trees that once buffered the front camp from the road was cut away during road construction. A blacktop bike lane now runs parallel to Front Street on the western edge. The two parcels of Cueto's remaining property are listed for $6.75 million.

When Gibson left for the cinder-block building, he planned to return to the camp to collect more of his belongings, including his desk and more clothes, from his old tent. Now that he's been told to move out, he is not sure how to do that. The sudden eviction from the block building has thrown everything into chaos. He and Giles are alternately distraught and furious.

The expulsion from the camp, while stressful, was understandable. The men consider Elaine Cueto generous for letting them stay as long as she did, and she gave them more than a month to make new plans. But the eviction from the block building is maddening and leaves them scrambling to find a new place.

"I'm about to tear my hair out, and take a knife and cut my throat," Gibson says.

"I'm about to kick somebody's ass," Giles says.

They have just hours to vacate and no backup plan. Gibson says the landlord told them the person who arranged the rental with Gibson's friend did so without his permission. When a commercial tenant nearby complained about homeless moving in, the landlord decided to throw out Gibson and Giles, the men say.

A pastor friend arrives shortly after noon with a pickup and trailer to help them move. Out of ideas, they decide to gamble on a risky location. (The RFT has agreed not to disclose identifying details.) They have a nine-person Coleman tent to set up on the new site but will have to work quickly and stealthily if they want to be in before the sun sets. Over the following hours, they race to load and then unload the trailer at the new destination.

The pastor has to go, but another of Gibson's friends, a man named Jim who lived in the back camp for about two years before finding a landscaping job and moving out, pulls up to help. The three men work together to unfold the tent and then assemble the confusing set of poles, cords and stakes. It is 4 p.m. by the time they are able to raise it into a functional, if slightly leaning, shelter.

"Watch, we'll get run off here by nightfall," Gibson says.

But Giles is more optimistic. They are hidden here and away from prying eyes. "Out of sight, out of mind."

They spend another 40 minutes carrying their belongings — furniture, tools, clothes, plastic tubs, bicycle and a gas generator — from a pile twenty yards away into the tent. Gibson suddenly realizes his "No Place Like Home" sign is missing. He has accidentally left it in the block building.

Gloomily, he keeps going. The sun is falling, and the weather is already turning colder. The last thing they move is the generator, 128 pounds even without fuel sloshing around in the gas tank. Gibson and Giles each grab a side and lift, awkwardly shuffling to the edge of the tent. They are both out of breath by the time they finally lower it onto a pallet. Giles bends over and puts his hands on his knees. "Oh, God," he groans. This is the third time they have moved all of this stuff in three days.

They set up Gibson's twin bed along one wall of the tent, Giles' Army cot on the other. In between, they place the folding chairs and drag the propane heater in front of them, like a little living room. Finally, they collapse.

They make it through the night and the next night, too, without anyone finding them. On their third day, a winter storm rains enough ice to close schools, but the tent holds.

It is different being on their own away from the old camp. Gibson, who says he has a bad heart, had hoped to live the rest of his life on the platform. But things change. Maybe this will be a good spot.

After they finally get everything moved in, Gibson catches a ride over to the block building and snags his "No Place Like Home" sign off the half wall. It is sitting under his bed. He has not quite figured out where to put it.

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