More Shelter Beds, But Will It Be Enough For St. Louis' Homeless This Winter?


St. Louis' mayor hopes adding beds in a city shelter will cut down on people sleeping outside this winter. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • St. Louis' mayor hopes adding beds in a city shelter will cut down on people sleeping outside this winter.

Heading into another winter, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson hopes opening another 50 beds in a city-owned homeless shelter will keep people safe from the cold.

Two people died — one in a dumpster, the other in a Porta Potty —  during last year's chaotic, dangerously cold winter. The city had shut down New Life Evangelistic Center, the largest walk-in shelter, earlier in 2017 for a long list of code violations. And although officials promised St. Louis would be able to absorb the 200-plus people who stayed there some nights, it soon found itself overwhelmed when one of the worst winters in recent years forced people out of tents and vacant buildings.

On Wednesday, the mayor announced Biddle Housing Opportunities Center will add an extra 50 beds every night until nearly the end of March and another 25 on the worst nights, bumping total capacity to 175, when temperatures drop to twenty degrees, or 25 degrees if there is snow or sleet. Biddle House typically holds about 100 men.

"Everyone who we know of or who the outreach workers see is approached and asked to please go into shelter," Krewson told reporters. "Unfortunately, there are people who decline to go into shelter, and those are the people we are working the most with to persuade them, frankly, to go into shelter."

Along with Biddle, the city relies on a network of volunteers and organizations to help house people. St. Louis Winter Outreach sends volunteers out on the worst nights to find and shuttle people to emergency shelters.

Krewson says there are about 700 beds available between the city and county and another 200 to 300 beds on bad nights.

As to whether it is enough to prevent anyone from dying in the cold this winter, the mayor says the city and its partners are trying their best.

"We are working every single day and every hour of every day to make sure that doesn't happen," she says.

Mayor Lyda Krewson asks people to call 211 for services. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • Mayor Lyda Krewson asks people to call 211 for services.

In addition to the planned shelters, a number of churches decided on their own last winter to open their halls, gym floors and kitchens when they heard Biddle was routinely hitting capacity and had to turn people away.

The Rev. Steven Shepard of St. Peter AME and members of his congregation served big meals to the dozens of people who stayed nights at their church in the Penrose neighborhood. A core group of volunteers put in twenty-hour days for weeks, and some stayed around the clock.

Shepard was a vocal critic of the city, blasting officials for leaving gaps in the system that were only filled because churches like his stepped in. In a phone interview, he says the city responded by trying to force him to file a safety plan and obtain a hotel license to continue to let people sleep in the church.

"I understand all that, but I think there comes a time when we have to say one person dying in a Porta Potty from the cold isn't worth trying to make someone get a hotel license," Shepard says.

He says the conflict was eventually worked out with the help of Rep. Bruce Franks (D-St. Louis) and 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad. This winter, St. Peter is partnering with Wayman AME church in the Academy/Sherman Park neighborhood of north city to share some of what became a crushing amount of work.

"I don't want to do it where we don't have the resources and personnel to help the people we need to help," Shepard says.

Wayman will make room for as many as 150 men in its gym, while St. Peter plans to house women and families. Where necessary, they're also working to connect people mental health and general healthcare providers.

"We've seen it all — opioid addictions, suicidal folks," he says. "We've had people who were dealing with sexual assault."

Shepard says they hope to be up and running by the second week of December.

Krewson says one of the key benefits of Biddle House is the ability for people to meet with caseworkers and begin working toward permanent housing. Since the beginning of last year, 509 people who sought services at Biddle have moved into their own homes, she says.

"That is the ultimate solution," Krewson says. "No one can get their life together from the sidewalk, and it's very hard to get it together from an emergency shelter bed."

After a few warm weekend days, the temperatures are forecast to drop back into the 30s next week in St. Louis. Krewson says emergency shelters have already had to open several times on particularly cold and snowy nights.

She says the network of shelters should have capacity ensure that anyone who wants a bed can get one. She also urged anybody staying outside or anyone who sees someone living outside in the cold to call 211, the number to the United Way's helpline. People having trouble paying their heating bills can contact Heat Up St. Louis.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.

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