The second time I met Jimmy Wille he looked significantly worse than the first time — when he'd looked pretty good for a guy who'd been homeless and flying signs for the past five months in the spring and summer sun. Now, fresh scabs pockmarked his nose, and instead of walking up and down the highway on-ramp he sat hunched over on a particularly thin stretch of sidewalk along Grand Boulevard in Midtown. There was so little room for him that his bedroll and bag lay on the street. He would get more money, he said, if he walked up and down, back and forth, but he didn't want to be aggressive. He doesn't like when people who ask for money are. Plus, he just wasn't up for the extra effort.
He said his injuries were from a fight a few nights ago. He paused, before adding, "Not a fight, really. I got beat up." His assailant saw him talking to a girl, and one thing led to another. He raised his arm to show an open sore, which he blamed on cheap deodorant given to him as part of a care package.
At the time, Wille lived and worked on a stretch of Grand that runs roughly from Saint Louis University Hospital to SLU — an area that both the city and the Jesuit university have big plans for. But Wille moved to the area simply "because that's where the dope's at."
During one of our first conversations, when we spoke for an hour not far from the Grand MetroLink station, we witnessed at least a dozen open-air drug deals.
"There they go again," Wille said, pointing. Two young men with backpacks and visibly dirty skin jogged briskly down a small side street perpendicular to Grand, following a car that Wille said everyone knew belonged to a dealer. White buyers, black buyers. Buyers who could have passed for, and maybe were, college students. Buyers who looked pretty far gone. A pair of buyers who, if you met them at a party, you might think were siblings. Another two who moved in tandem like only a pair of significant others can.
"Every half hour [dealers] pull through," said Wille. "They look for us. They pull up and if they see you sitting here, they'll pull down the alley."
To a driver passing by it would have looked innocuous enough: like a car making a slow, uncertain turn down a side road, like people hustling to catch a bus or maybe the MetroLink. The transactions themselves were done far enough from Grand to be out of sight, and the dealers' cars were unremarkable.
"See that guy over there," Wille pointed again. "He's just coming back from getting high in the little getting-high spot."
The part of Midtown immediately around SLU is built-up and bustling. Same goes — to a lesser extent — for the area around the hospital. But the two circles of development are not quite concentric, and the strip in between is populated by empty fields and under-utilized or abandoned buildings. According to one development document produced by SLU, there are more than 650,000 square feet of vacant industrial and manufacturing buildings in the area between Chouteau and Forest Park avenues. Wille guessed that on Grand from Interstate 44 to roughly Lindell there were at least 50 people like him, scraping together what they could, living as they could in places like the nearby foliage. Some people had habits that might have been as expensive as $100 a day, Wille said. His own habit is more modest, he insisted, maybe $10 a day. He doesn't spend all the money he gets on dope, he said. Some of it goes to food, some to methadone.
Those who drive through the area rarely are much more likely to give, Wille said, as opposed to the SLU students who see the same people on the same sidewalks and intersections every day. Two students I talked to said they didn't particularly mind the people asking for money and that they had never encountered what might be called aggressive begging. Maya Taylor, a first-year student who was on campus for several weeks prior to fall semester, said that having people hanging around on Grand "wasn't a big deal" and the people who solicit donations "don't seem hostile and are very with themselves." A SLU spokeswoman said that some students have reported incidents of "drug use and aggressive panhandling." But, she said, "there have been no incidents of violent crimes."
On Sunday evening in the first week of August, a tall, slender man was having what seemed to be a loud and sustained psychotic episode. He shouted and flailed his arms. He buried his face in his hands then raised them to the sky. Not far away, two male students carried a futon into Reinhart Hall. The man on the sidewalk was impossible to miss, but the two students gave little indication of noticing.
At the time, Wille said, a shift was underway. On the north side of the bridge that runs atop the Grand MetroLink station a fence had recently been erected — Wille suspected it was to make it harder to congregate under the Highway 40 overpass. The night before, Wille had been standing outside Reinert Hall, using the building's WiFi (something he'd done all summer). Officers from SLU's Department of Public Safety arrived, saying there had been a call (which Wille doubted) and that he needed to leave.
"This last week they've really cracked down on this shit here," Wille said. "They don't want you on their property. They don't want you waiting on their property. They don't want you using their WiFi. They've been going out to the woods in their cars, going in and checking it out. And they've been taking people to jail for trespassing." He added, "They got these little bits of property. See that little strip there? That's SLU property. That whole field and that strip. People are going there to get high."
Wille said that the authorities don't hassle him all that often because he looks clean. "But for the hardcore homeless," he said, "it's every day."
A spokeswoman for SLU said the fence Wille referred to was actually put up by the owners of the adjacent private property. As for handling trespassers, the spokeswoman said, "As a private university, our campus is private property." She added that it is its Department of Public Safety's policy "to give warnings only to those who trespass on university property. For those who continue to trespass after being given a warning, SLU does often involve city police in an effort to stop repeat offenders."
The crime logs that SLU DPS makes public only showed two records of trespassing and aggressive begging in all of August, five in September. However, Wille was correct about a sea change being underway.