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

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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
  • 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
  • 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.


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