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'We Do What We Can Do': Volunteers Care For St. Louis' Homeless During Summer Heat

Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis opens its doors on weekdays and during weekend services to provide a place for the homeless to escape the summer heat.
File Photo | Nicholas Telep | St. Louis Public Radio
Christ Church Cathedral in downtown St. Louis opens its doors on weekdays and during weekend services to provide a place for the homeless to escape the summer heat.

With temperatures expected to climb into the 90s this weekend, volunteers are stepping in to care for the city’s homeless population.

People who live on the streets are likely to become dehydrated and experience heatstroke — because there are few places they can find relief from the heat. Religious organizations and other nonprofits in St. Louis fill the gaps in homeless services, providing meals and opening their doors to the city’s unhoused population.

There are about 1,000 homeless people in the city of St. Louis, according to a January 2019 citywide survey — a volunteer-led effort that tallies those living in emergency shelters, transitional housing, Safe Havens and on the street during a single night.

Of these, about three-quarters were African American, and 20% were categorized as “chronically homeless.”

Certain areas of St. Louis have become gathering places for the city’s homeless, including Christ Church Cathedral downtown.

In the past eight months, the number of homeless around the church has grown, said the Very Rev. Kathie Adams-Shepherd, priest and dean at the cathedral.

The cathedral feeds about 130 people every Saturday — more than double what it was two years ago, said Adams-Shepherd.

Unlike some other churches in the city, the doors of Christ Church Cathedral remain open on weekdays to provide a refuge from the heat and cold.

Adams-Shepherd estimates the church spends at least $10,000 to $15,000 per year to cool the building, but she says it’s an expense they’re willing to shoulder to keep people safe.

“I don’t know how we can all walk by people outside when we’re rushing to our cars to cool off,” she said. “Why should anybody be outside when we wouldn’t be? Plus, it’s dangerous.”

In the winter, Christ Church Cathedral also provides emergency shelter for up to 14 people two nights a week as part of the St. Louis Winter Outreach program.

Adams-Shepherd calls the lack of a permanent 24-hour walk-in shelter for the homeless the “largest gap of all" in city services.

Advocates have repeatedly called for the opening of a walk-in homeless shelter, even staging a sit-in at City Hall in January.

“When I leave work at night and see people tucked in the nooks and crannies and they’re outside, it just breaks my heart,” Adams-Shepherd said. “But I can’t singlehandedly house everybody. We do what we can do.”

If you or someone you know needs shelter in the city or county, call the St. Louis Housing Helpline at 314-802-5444. To be connected with resources in the city, visit St. Patrick Center at 800 N. Tucker.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.