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Hopeville: Home or way station for homeless?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 30, 2011 - The drizzle and overcast skies last Thursday morning seemed to match the desolate mood hanging over Hopeville, the collection of rain-soaked shacks and colorful tents that about 75 people call home.

Not far from the area where the churning Mississippi River rolls past the encampment sits a gold Chevy pickup that turns out to be the bedroom of camera-shy Matt Henne, 53. He literally lives in his truck. Sitting behind the steering wheel at dawn, he works a simple crossword puzzle as he speaks softly about ending up here after losing a home to foreclosure. Even so, he says he's comfortable living in ironically named Hopeville and seems determined to stay.

"They've trying to push us out," he says of St. Louis housing officials, "but it hasn't happened yet."

Perhaps that is the reason city Human Services Director William F. Siedhoff visited the site Thursday evening and tried to bring a little hope, a roadmap out of Hopeville. Some people say there hasn't been enough transparency in Siedhoff's plan and not enough information about how the city would find housing for those who are displaced. Even Siedhoff conceded that the city doesn't yet have all the answers, that his is a work in progress that can be improved with input from people outside of city government.

The camp is one of two -- the other is called Sparta -- situated near the point where Mullanphy Street meets the churning Mississippi River. On a rainless Thursday evening, Siedhoff held a meeting with Hopeville residents and others, announcing that the city had no plans to force the occupants from the property. Instead, he appealed to them to help the city find ways to keep pace with its goal of ending chronic homelessness by 2015.

Five years into that 10-year plan, St. Louis is able to boast some progress toward its goal. More than 400 new units of permanent housing have been built since 2005; the number of beds to accommodate chronically homeless people has risen to 217 from 70; the number of homeless people in general has dipped by nearly 12 percent, to 1305 from 1485; and the chronically homeless population dropped by 20 percent, to 169 from 210.

The city continues to win major competitive federal grants of at least $8 million a year to finance its homeless programs. Though the number of chronically homeless people is relatively small, the drop in that population is significant; it shows that the city is making headway in dealing with the segment of the homeless that poses the greatest challenges -- people who have lived in the streets for years, set in their ways with habits that are difficult to change.

But the good news that Siedhoff brought to Hopeville was tempered by a violent incident earlier this month. A camp resident, Adrian Henderson, 36, was stabbed to death. The suspect was another resident, Robert Boether, 50. Near the entrance to Hopeville, a cross covered with stuffed animals has been erected in Henderson's memory.

In response to the killing, city officials hinted that the camps might be eliminated by the end of summer. A few days after the stabbing, three aldermen representing parts of downtown sent Mayor Francis Slay a letter arguing that a "take it or leave it" plan might exacerbate the problems. They urged him to include elected officials, community and business leaders and the homeless in the city's search for solutions to camps of homeless people on the riverfront.

The aldermen noted that the issue didn't begin on Slay's watch and that a lasting solution had eluded mayors before him. The three Democratic aldermen who drafted the letter were April Ford-Griffin of the 5th Ward, Kacie Starr Triplett of the 6th Ward and Phyllis Young of the 7th Ward.

"The proper approach must be delicate and allow the voices of those directly served and represent the population to be present at the planning table," the letter said.

By Thursday evening, Siedhoff seemed to have extended the city's timetable for city action on the camps. He called the city's approach a work in progress, saying he was visiting the area to get suggestions and ideas for dealing with homeless issues.

Although he said the city had no plans to evict people, he also told the campers that the city felt it could help them move to better places.

"We are going to take as long as we need to do this right," Siedhoff said. "We want feedback as to what is needed to help you in the best possible way."

He also brought to the session information about three city programs that he said could assist some campers who were facing various housing, mental-health and substance-abuse challenges. Two of the programs resonated with some campers because the programs didn't require proof of city residency, a requirement that has kept some from finding housing.

The goal, he told them, was to help individuals have a place to live "not in emergency shelters, not in the streets, not in doorways, not in any place not fit for human health and habitation."

While some in the audience applauded during various parts of Siedhoff's presentation, others argued that the city could help depopulate at least some of Hopeville by changing some policies.

Danny Gladden, a social worker who says he showed up Thursday to "make sure everyone's voices are heard," said the city could win over some campers by allowing unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples to qualify for temporary shelter programs.

"The barrier is one reason people choose to live in Hopeville and Sparta so they are not separated," he says.

Others are upset over long-standing rules against pets in shelters. That's one question that Bobbie O'Grady, a Hopeville resident, raised at Thursday's meeting. She has a cat and was disappointed that the rule against pets would not be relaxed.

"This is heart-breaking because my cat is homeless, too," O'Grady says. "He had been abused, and I'm not going to let anybody abuse him again or turn him over to strays." She adds that the city's position meant she'd remain with her cat in Hopeville for now.

Another big issue is that services for the homeless don't always match the needs. And the proof of residency issue that might require a utility bill can be a huge barrier for someone who is chronically homeless.

"If you are a sojourner and you're carrying all your stuff around, could you five years from now pull out an old utility bill to show where you lived?"

Some Hopeville residents didn't bother to attend the meeting with Siedhoff, which ended with food and live music. The no-shows clearly regard the camp as home. One was a man who would only give his name as Lee. He says "nobody is starving around here" because groups donate plenty of food. In addition, he says his wife has found a job as a cashier but that he has been unable get work as a trucker.

He busied himself, raking the little piece of real estate on which the his small camper sits.

"You may be homeless," he says, "but that doesn't mean you have to live like a pig."

Funding for the Beacon's health reporting is provided in part by the Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization that aims to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.