An unhoused resident of Interco Plaza gathers the contents of his tent as city workers clear the encampment.
In a move that advocates say was unannounced and unnecessary, City of St. Louis employees began clearing a downtown encampment Friday and offering to move residents to what a city official described as "supportive housing" with individual spaces.
But the scene at Interco Plaza appeared not as a rescue mission, but something closer to eviction. Without notice, residents were forced to pile their possessions into black trash bags. At about noon, city employees began dragging tents — some still filled with belongings — to a larger dumpster.
In a press release sent Friday 1:30 a.m., advocate group Tent Mission STL claimed the city's decision to clear the camp came without warning and that the group had learned of the plan "through the community, and, only via pressure, was able to confirm this with the Mayor’s administration."
About twenty people lived in the camp, advocates say. As residents sorted through their tents on Friday, several complained that they had nowhere to go, or that they would refuse to relocate to city shelters because they had already been kicked out of existing programs for minor infractions.
Technically, the clearing of Interco Plaza was not an eviction. In an order from the city's Department of Health, acting director Dr. Frederick Echols wrote that the department had found the encampment to be "a plain and continuing nuisance."
Included in the order was a list of the park's health conditions, including "serious sanitation issues," non-functioning bathrooms and hand-washing stations, gatherings of people without face coverings, blocked sidewalks — all factors that have "created the threat of increased communicable disease."
The order concluded, "These nuisance conditions are hereby declared a nuisance and a danger, and it is hereby ordered that such conditions be immediately abated."
But the city has had weeks with which to address those health challenges and provide resources, argues Lisa Winter, a volunteer with Tent Mission STL.
"What's frustrating is they’ve known this is what they want," she says, watching a team of workers from the city's Streets Department use pitchforks to dump piles of bedding into the maw of a Bobcat dirt-mover. "Why have they not been down here for the last couple weeks and helped get people housed?"
As the work of clearing the camp got underway, Winter and other advocates stood in front of tents and told workers that the occupants would likely return to collect their things. The workers focused on picking up trash and loose items from the ground.
However, shortly after noon, city employees began carrying the tents to a dumpster. One resident complained that his tent had been thrown away along with a bag of important documents and IDs — city workers were eventually able to find the bag in the dumpster and return it to him, but others appeared to lose clothing and personal items still in the tents.
Nick Dunne, a spokesman with the office of Mayor Tishaura Jones, insisted that efforts to clear the park included resources to relocate the residents. He said the people who lost their tents were being offered alternative shelters.
"Our intention is not to forcefully remove people," Dunne said. "This is providing them with alternative options where they can find indoor shelter, locations that are more sanitary and free from the violence that has been occurring lately."
Dunne clarified that the unhoused residents of the camp were not the source of the violence, but rather it had been committed by "outsiders from this area who were coming in.
"No one deserves to live in those conditions, housed or unhoused," Dunne repeated. "Our priority was to ensure that people got into a safe space or into conditions that were free from violence and unsanitary conditions."
That violence claimed one of the camp's residents just a few days ago. DeMarco McNeal, known as "Streets," was shot and killed on Sunday. The shooting prompted Square Inc. to close its neighboring headquarters
on Monday and Tuesday.
During the city's action to clear the encampment on Friday, several friends of McNeal gathered on the sidewalk to construct a memorial. One man described McNeal as a "good dude" who had struggled with mental health issues and "didn't know how to get out" of the conditions that led him to live in the encampment.
"He never liked crowds, so he would just walk the majority of the day," the friend said. "Then at night he would come here, and get him a rest."
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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