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

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