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

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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.

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