For St. Louis' Homeless, Winter Was a Perfect Storm 

Homeless people in St. Louis have gotten by this winter any way they can.

NICK SCHNELLE

Homeless people in St. Louis have gotten by this winter any way they can.

Only the top of the St. Louis skyline is visible from the collection of tents and homemade sheds huddled together on a slab of concrete just east of the Mississippi River.

From here, on the edge of Illinois, inhabitants of the camp can see the smoke rise from the stacks of an old brick factory on the far banks. A slash of neon pink traces the outline of the Four Seasons Hotel in the Lumiere Place casino complex. And beyond the barren tree branches, the spidery trusses of the Martin Luther King Bridge point the way back, should they have any interest in going.

The people here — most of them, anyway — have taken their turns sleeping in St. Louis' streets and homeless shelters, and they have decided this is a better alternative. They at least know where they will be tonight. They will not be rousted out of their sleeping bags for violating a city curfew. They have no waiting lists to join, no hotlines to call.

"You don't have the people over there bugging you," Will Painter, 45, says, nodding toward the far side of the river.

St. Louis has in recent years tried to overhaul the way it coordinates services for people who are homeless. The goal is to shift so completely toward putting people in homes right away that only a small number of shelter beds will be necessary, and then only for short amounts of time.

But while nearly everyone agrees that is the right direction, St. Louis has not proven capable of pulling off the arrangement yet. The coldest winter in years has combined with the forced closure of New Life Evangelistic Center, previously the city's largest walk-up shelter, to overload the system with emergency cases. So far, at least two people have died in the cold — one in a dumpster and the other in the downtown port-a-potty where he was apparently living. Concerned church leaders opened "pop-up shelters" to fill the gap.

Weeks later, they continue to pack their halls night after night with folding cots. Some of their volunteers have not spent a night at home in weeks as they struggle to feed and house the overflow of people in need.

For anyone not lucky enough to get into a city shelter, the pop ups can be a godsend, even if they sometimes end up across town from where they started. Otherwise, they find themselves sleeping outside or simply wandering until the sun comes up and they can try again.

Robert Gibson started building a homeless camp two years ago on the east side of the Mississippi after he got fed up with St. Louis. - NICK SCHNELLE
  • NICK SCHNELLE
  • Robert Gibson started building a homeless camp two years ago on the east side of the Mississippi after he got fed up with St. Louis.

Robert Gibson, the founder of the camp near the river, is happy to be away from all of that. Two years ago, he and a friend were walking nearby when they spotted the slab through the trees. They cleared away the brush and debris until they had a clean flat space. Gibson, a former diesel mechanic, built a shed out of scavenged and donated plywood, siding the walls with roofing tiles.

Other refugees from the city soon followed, until a half-dozen tents and hybrid wood-and-tarp structures appeared on the slab. A second, even larger camp sits back in the trees. A dirt footpath curves through the forest camp around a series of plywood huts, one a communal kitchen where the residents cook, keep a pantry and sometimes hang out around a wood-burning stove.

"I got tired," Gibson says of his time in the city. "Every time you turned around there was a police officer saying, 'We'll throw your butt in jail for 48 hours.'"

He is 58 years old and suffers from a bad heart. His "winter beard" is in full effect, and he wears a T-shirt that says, "At my age I've seen it all; I've heard it all; I've done it all; I just can't remember it all." Between his camp and the one back in the trees, twenty or so people now live within the two communities. Many, like Gibson, have fled St. Louis in frustration. Dee Dunn, 50, says she lived with her son and daughter-in-law until the son "got a little violent with me." She slept on friends' couches for a while but says she needed at least a temporary bed.

"I called all the shelters in St. Louis, and they just kept giving me numbers and numbers — and they were the same numbers I was calling," Dunn says.

She eventually hopes to qualify for disability benefits and move into an apartment, but for now, the camp is home. Gibson clearly prefers it out here to what he saw in the city, but he cuts through any "off the grid" romanticism. Living through a dangerous winter without reliable heat, power or even running water is treacherous, he says as he limps around below a sign that reads, "NO PLACE LIKE HOME." Another camper tackled him into a pair of bicycles several weeks ago — what he says was the camp's first dispute in two years — and cracked six of his ribs. His list of chores for the day includes finding fire wood; the pallets they were burning to keep warm are all gone. The weather is freezing even during the day.

"You got to have it up here," he says and points to his head. Then he points to his heart. "You got to have it in here, because you can die out here real easy."

The camp on the east side is just one of many solutions that local homeless people have cobbled together this winter. - NICK SCHNELLE
  • NICK SCHNELLE
  • The camp on the east side is just one of many solutions that local homeless people have cobbled together this winter.

St. Louis is capable of ending homelessness.

Talk to enough of the social workers, police officers and outreach workers who confront the problem day after day, and you will hear this. Every year, volunteers go out at 4 a.m. on a day in January and count as many homeless people as they can find. The 2018 numbers are not in yet, but a total of 1,336 were recorded in 2017. The majority are tallied at shelters and transitional housing, but about 140 of those are described as "un-sheltered" — basically, people found living on the streets. And while the count surely misses people who are couch surfing or hidden away from the volunteers in St. Louis' warrens of vacant buildings, city officials say it suggests a number that is manageable.

"We have the resources," says Irene Agustin, the city's director of human services. "We have the heart to do it, but we need to be coordinated."

The city is trying to centralize what has often been a cluttered, sometimes redundant collection of stand-alone services. The most visible part of that effort is Biddle Housing Opportunities Center on the north end of downtown. Opened in August 2016, it was designed to be not only a shelter but literally the front door to a network of services available through the city's Continuum of Care, a partnership of more than 60 organizations that work against homelessness in myriad ways.

The center is operated for the city by nonprofits St. Patrick Center and Peter & Paul Community Services, and the idea is for Biddle House's 98 shelter beds to see less and less use as the service providers drain the need by rapidly moving people into permanent housing — or better yet, preventing them from becoming homeless at all with some well-timed, well-placed assistance.

It is part of a "housing-first" model. In the past, people who were homeless might start on a multi-step path of programs with an end goal of landing an apartment or house. Housing-first moves finding a permanent home to the front of the path and then attempts to follow it with support services. Officials say it is much easier for someone to, say, follow a regimen of prescribed medications if they do not have to constantly pack up everything they own and worry about where they will sleep each night.

Across the country, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has pushed similar priorities by setting conditions on funding. An $11 million HUD grant funneled through the city and distributed by the Continuum is required to go toward permanent housing, not shelters.

The problem is that St. Louis still needs shelters. That was made plain this winter, as people have massed outside of an overbooked Biddle House. On nights when the temperatures drop below 20 degrees (or 25 if there is snow or sleet), Biddle goes into emergency mode and sets up extra cots, doubling its occupancy to nearly 200. The volunteer St. Louis Winter Outreach program also kicks in, sending teams to scour the city in search of people they might coax inside or at least persuade to accept a few extra blankets. The city has partnerships with emergency shelters in churches and social organizations that open on those nights, too.

All of that helps blunt the worst of the problem, but there are still plenty of frigid nights when temperatures are dangerously low but do not quite trigger the emergency measures. On those nights, Biddle has repeatedly turned people away after hitting capacity, leaving them to scramble for a bed elsewhere. Churches and a handful of freelance volunteers have taken it upon themselves to pick up people outside the shelter and shuttle them in vans and personal cars to anywhere that has an opening. One of those volunteers, Kimberly-Ann Collins, says there are nights when it is below freezing and 30 to 40 people are shut out.

"The city is not taking accountability," she says. "You see the residents, you see the community — we're stepping up to take accountability."

Critics argue that the city might have better weathered this winter if it had not forced the Rev. Larry Rice to shut down New Life Evangelistic Center. The mammoth building at 14th and Locust streets offered more than 200 beds for men, women and families. And although many social workers questioned Rice's methods and the shelter's safety, they concede that in a storm, it was at least a port.

Forced to shut down his shelter in April, the Rev. Larry Rice is now "homeless with the homeless." - NICK SCHNELLE
  • NICK SCHNELLE
  • Forced to shut down his shelter in April, the Rev. Larry Rice is now "homeless with the homeless."

New Life Evangelistic Center is now an empire in exile.

With the church's St. Louis headquarters locked in a seemingly endless legal battle with neighbors and the city, Rice and his followers convene every Friday morning at the base of City Hall — just below Mayor Lyda Krewson's office window. They set up long folding tables and hand out bus tickets, along with clear plastic bags filled with sandwiches, cans of tuna and chips.

"We're homeless with the homeless," Rice explains. "We're out on the street with them."

At 9 a.m., it is fifteen degrees, and a line of 40 or so people snakes from the building's steps to the sidewalk. The bus tickets are the main draw. A 30-minute walk on a day like today can be painful, and even if you have nowhere to go, the bus is at least a warm place to hang out for a while.

Rice distrusts the Continuum of Care and has refused to join, frustrating a succession of city officials over the years. He says New Life's building was targeted to clear the way for further gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood. The city says his building was unsafe — not to mention lacking permits — and neighbors blame him for lawlessness in encampments that once lined the sidewalks near his building.

When New Life closed in April 2017, Rice predicted the ousted residents would flood downtown, camping all over the place. The effect has not been quite that dramatic, but it is not invisible either. Rice points to the death of Grover Perry, a 56-year-old man found dead in December. The headline in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after his body was discovered read, "Homeless man dies in the downtown St. Louis port-a-potty where he was living."

There are some questions about whether another man later found dead in a dumpster was really living on the streets, but Perry was clearly homeless and in trouble. By most accounts, he was an alcoholic who had shrugged off offers of help, probably because he was mentally ill.

"He would drink and holler and holler and holler," one woman told the daily. "He'd just be screaming like he was tormented or something. I guess in the soul."

Rice says Perry had stayed at New Life and was one of dozens of people who struggled after it closed. Ray Redlich, the ministry's soft-spoken vice president, says that in more than 40 years of outreach work, this is the first when he cannot tell people he has a warm bed for them.

"This year, emotionally, it's the hardest for me because of that tension," says Redlich, who routinely travels the city and even into the Illinois camps, handing out sandwiches. "If I find someone who needs to come in, where do I take them?"

If New Life was still open, maybe Perry would have gone there instead of the port-a-potty. Maybe he would not have. Humans are complicated.

"I think the hardest part of all of this is homelessness is a really complex issue," says Tammy Laws, chair of the Continuum, the consortium of groups that partners with the city. "I think there are a lot of folks out there who think we should just have a shelter for them or we should just do that, and the reality is we have to do all of it."

Chris Ohnimus checks for anyone inside an abandoned building near the vacant Carr School building during a winter patrol outreach on February 8. - NICK SCHNELLE
  • NICK SCHNELLE
  • Chris Ohnimus checks for anyone inside an abandoned building near the vacant Carr School building during a winter patrol outreach on February 8.

Striking the right balance between emergency shelters and plans for long-term fixes is particularly difficult. With the bulk of funding geared toward permanent housing, Laws says organizations that depend on those grants can be left with limited flexibility. That's one reason the organization she works for, Gateway Housing First, accepts relatively little government funding.

"That allows us to go to the bus stop and say, 'Hey, do you feel like moving into an apartment? Let's go see your apartment,'" she says.

The housing-first model works, Laws says. But not every organization has the same flexibility, and this winter highlighted gaps that had to be filled by church leaders who moved rapidly to open their doors.

"Those groups that have stepped up over the winter have been awesome," Laws says. "What I would love to see — and we've talked to some of these groups already — let's come to the table and come up with a more feasible plan for next winter."

Joel Mixon moved his family into a 'pop up' shelter this winter at St. Peter AME Church in north St. Louis. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Joel Mixon moved his family into a 'pop up' shelter this winter at St. Peter AME Church in north St. Louis.

Joel Mixon, his wife and their twelve-year-old son landed in the Carousel Motor Hotel on North Kingshighway Boulevard after an eviction.

He says they were staying with a woman, paying rent to her, until one day she told them to keep an eye on the place while she went out of town for a few days. It was only when the landlord showed up that he realized she'd been pocketing the money and had skipped out ahead of the eviction.

"The way she played me...," Mixon says.

A towering figure who goes by Slim, Mixon is wearing his work uniform from Bill & Dan's Transmission Service under his sweatshirt. After a brief stay in the motel, he and his family moved into St. Peter AME Church in north city's Penrose neighborhood. His wife had tried calling the city's housing number, but they were told there was no room, he says.

This is his first time being homeless. He plans to find a new place as soon as possible, and being able to save money instead of spending it on a motel should speed the process, he says. On a recent night, he and his family are among 45 people staying the night at St. Peter.

"It's all a blessing, regardless of what we're going through," he says.

Mixon's family has its own room, but the majority of the men will help clear the floor of the church hall and arrange cots across the hardwood. The Rev. Steven Shepard opened the church in early January for the first time as an overnight shelter. Some nights, they have had almost twice as many people. Shepard captains the kitchen, turning out huge pans of chicken marsala, Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and salad for this evening's dinner. For dessert, he makes bread pudding.

Opening the church is the right thing to do, he says, but he is furious with what he sees as the city's lack of support. In an open letter to Mayor Krewson, he writes, "Madam Mayor, it seems to me that your only concern for the people of this city is the gentrification and the economic prosperity of the central corridor in which you served as the alderperson. This becomes more apparent to me each day that you refuse to show-up at the churches that have opened their doors to house the 'homeless' in our city, a job that the city receives local, state and federal dollars to do."

Krewson did not respond to several requests for comment, though her office did connect the RFT with Agustin, the city's human services director, to talk about the bigger picture. Agustin says that resources are limited and figuring out the best way to deploy them can be complicated. For example, some of the operators of the pop-up shelters have suggested the city help out with utility bills. Mandates on how the funding is used make that impossible, she says. "First of all, we can't just give them the money," she says. "And second, we have to see how it fits into the partnership."

She praises the churches for getting involved but says now everyone needs to determine the best way to work together. That could mean instead of taking on the mammoth effort of running emergency shelters, churches might serve as a place to connect people with existing services. A number of the people arriving at the new shelters are there because their utilities have been shut off. Could the group work together to connect those people with heating assistance and keep them in their own homes? With the help of the Continuum, she hopes they can shift the mindset of providing services toward more lasting and efficient solutions. She is reviewing multiple ideas, including the feasibility of creating a respite center in the future.

Still, she concedes the long, cold stretches this winter stressed the system, and that has "shined a light that on the street level more services are needed."

Pastor Michael Robinson of Destiny Family Church in the Greater Ville neighborhood has converted the day center he runs with Bridge of Hope into a night emergency shelter. He says the city should have seen the problems coming long before the freezing cold arrived.

"They're not prepared to handle that, and they're being very slow at being prepared," he says.

The burden has taken a toll. At St. Peter, Shepard says their utilities have skyrocketed and some in his congregation have stayed to oversee the shelter every night since they opened on January 4. Robinson and his volunteer staff have been forced to close a couple of nights because all of them were sick with the flu. He understands there are restrictions on the money the city receives for homeless services, but he would like to see some of the same urgency and ingenuity that is devoted to other projects deployed on behalf of people sleeping outside.

"If you can create a funding structure for [Major League Soccer] and Amazon proposals, surely you can create a funding structure to take care of human beings," Robinson says.

Outreach worker Alvin Ferguson of St. Patrick Center and St. Louis police Officer Larry Dampier work with the homeless every day. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Outreach worker Alvin Ferguson of St. Patrick Center and St. Louis police Officer Larry Dampier work with the homeless every day.

Alvin Ferguson drives south, scanning the parks and bus shelters.

"I sort of feel my way around the city," he says.

An outreach worker with the nonprofit St. Patrick Center, he has been doing this work for nearly eighteen years. His SUV is loaded with care packages, hats, gloves, hand warmers and even shoes. He is someone who believes St. Louis could wipe out homelessness with the right strategies and resources, but he also recognizes the sometimes maddening complexity of each person's situation.

As he reaches Soulard, he drives past temporary plywood counters set up in anticipation of Mardi Gras and makes his way to Soup Alley, literally an alley behind Trinity Lutheran Church where volunteers serve hot meals through a window like a pedestrian-friendly drive-thru.

A handful of men are milling around, and Ferguson pauses to check in with each one. He's known some for nearly twenty years. He asks how they are doing, maybe where they are staying and asks after other regulars who are missing today. Dennis, a charismatic "homeless farmer," says he is going to have to have brain surgery, probably in the summer.

"And you still want to be outside?" Ferguson asks.

"It's in my blood," he replies.

A man with long hair is facing into the church wall when Ferguson rolls up beside him.

"Do you need any gloves?" Ferguson asks.

The man turns when he sees who it is and begins to speak in formal, almost mechanical sentences: "I do possess some gloves, but at present they are not readily accessible."

Each interaction goes a little differently: Joke with some, cajole others and know when not to press too hard. The number of people who are chronically homeless in St. Louis may be small compared to other cities, but it can begin to seem large as Ferguson moves from one complicated universe to another.

Police Officer Larry Dampier says Ferguson has taught him everything he knows about working with people who are homeless. He was first assigned to focus on the population six years ago. He began by dutifully writing bunches of "quality of life" summonses but quickly recognized that was not solving anything.

"I realized I was dealing with the same population, sometimes the same person, two or three times a week," he says.

A sergeant suggested he reach out to advocates and service providers. Most of the social workers were suspicious, given that many of their clients were routinely ticketed and jailed for offenses that amounted to not having a proper bathroom or a place to sleep at night.

But Ferguson took Dampier under his wing, the two of them riding together night after night. Instead of writing tons of tickets, Dampier learned to ask people about their case workers or doctors and keep logs so that he would know who to call if he later found that person in crisis. His commander, Captain Renee Kriesmann in the city's Fourth District, has a small unit of about a half-dozen outreach officers. All do the job their own way and have their own strengths, but she says Dampier stands out for his patience, experience and intense interest in working with people who are homeless.

"Larry has the best qualities," she says. "If I had six of Larry, it would be helpful."

Dampier and Ferguson are now like partners. They trade information about programs and available beds.

"He says I'm more the social worker than he is now," Dampier says.

On this day, Ferguson is riding solo. After Soulard, he sweeps along the riverfront. Dozens of people used to live here in encampments until 2012 when the city bulldozed the shacks and tent sites. Now, it is mostly empty. He eyes the upper reaches of an overpass that people begging for money on the roadways above sometimes use as a hangout. He spies a neatly stacked pile of blankets on an abandoned loading dock, but whoever was sleeping there has already gone.

By late morning, he is making another circuit through downtown when he passes the city morgue.

"I got to deal with these guys, too," he says. More times than he can remember. Right now, he has the funeral bulletin of a veteran he was working with clamped to the front of his clipboard. He has helped some people sort through all their paperwork for benefits only to learn they died within days of moving into a new apartment. Others die in the streets or go to the hospital and never return.

"They tell you in those social work schools not to get your feelings involved," he says. "I don't know who wrote that."

Shortly before lunch, he drives along Martin Luther King Drive in north city's Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood. He soon sees a man stop on the far side of an intersection, scoop up a flattened beer can and drop it in a bulging trash bag.

"This guy might tell me to take a hike, but I'm going to approach him anyway," Ferguson says.

He whips a U-turn and pulls up alongside him. The man's tan pants are shredded at the cuffs, and he's wearing a pair of slides better suited to summer.

"You need some shoes?" Ferguson asks.

The guy says he does — size ten and a half.

"Well, you might be in luck."

Ferguson roots around in the back of the SUV and finds a pair of sturdy low-tops with dark rubber soles and leather uppers. The man turns them over in his hands.

"Oh, wow! Wow! These are awesome!" he says.

Ferguson chats awhile about programs. Before the two part ways, Ferguson tells him to stop in at Biddle to get set up with some services.

"I see a guy like hustling like that, I got nothing but respect for that," Ferguson says as he drives away. It is almost noon, and the man is still on his mind as he steers the SUV past collapsing buildings and vacant houses.

"That just made my whole morning," he says, suddenly grinning. "I'm good."

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