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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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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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