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

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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."

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