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As weather turns chilly, St. Louis prepares to expand homeless services

Piles of belongings stacked near a homeless encampment near the McGuire Moving & Storage building in January, shortly before residents were evicted.
File photo / Shahla Farzan
St. Louis Public Radio
Piles of belongings are stacked near a homeless encampment near the McGuire Moving & Storage building in downtown St. Louis in January, shortly before residents were evicted.

With winter fast approaching, St. Louis city officials are working to expand services for people experiencing homelessness — an effort made possible through a multimillion-dollar infusion of federal funding.

St. Louis has allocated more than $43 million toward homeless services and housing support, about one-fifth of the total funding awarded to the city through the American Rescue Plan.

The Board of Aldermen approved the spending plan in August. Since then, organizations that work with homeless residents have submitted more than 50 funding proposals to the city. Some advocates in St. Louis are asking the city to expedite the process, as temperatures continue to fall. But officials say these programs must be carefully designed to ensure they provide long-term benefit to homeless city residents.

Hundreds of people have signed an online petition in recent weeks, calling on city leaders to take “direct and immediate action” and offer expanded services for those experiencing homelessness, including more emergency shelter beds.

Yusef Scoggin, director of the St. Louis Department of Human Services, said officials are working to get projects off the ground as quickly as possible. But he added, the key is “not just bringing the services online, but also making sure they’re coordinated.”

“You don't open up a health care clinic without making sure that the appropriate pieces are in place, and the same goes for the service of our unhoused,” said Scoggin, whose office began reviewing project proposals on Friday. “These folks’ lives matter, and the support and care provided there matters. We should not take that lightly.”

The city released its wintertime operations plan for homeless services Monday, including shelter bed availability and shuttle schedule. There are currently 598 city shelter beds available citywide, with an additional 45 overflow beds available next month.

Beginning Dec. 1, the city will also offer a nightly warming bus that will pick up residents from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the corner of Chestnut and North 13th streets in downtown St. Louis. The bus will shuttle people to shelters in St. Louis through February 2022.

A citywide survey recorded nearly 1,000 homeless residents in St. Louis earlier this year, though the actual number is likely higher. Some people without housing live in their cars or couchsurf, complicating efforts to get an accurate count.

Residents at an outdoor encampment in downtown St. Louis meet with volunteer outreach workers in January.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Residents at an outdoor encampment in downtown St. Louis meet with volunteer outreach workers in January.

For those who live outdoors, winter is an especially dangerous time. At least five homeless people froze to death last winter in the city of St. Louis — a minimum of one per month from December 2020 through March. It was the deadliest winter on record for homeless city residents since 2014, according to data from the city medical examiner.

The city has allocated $1.3 million in federal funding for a 24-hour walk-in shelter that would be open to anyone in need. Known as safe havens, the shelters are intended to shelter those most likely to die outside during cold weather, including people struggling with substance use disorders and mental illness.

Officials also plan to create at least one managed, outdoor encampment where residents can access services, though they have not yet released details about when or where it will open. Allowing people to reside in city-sanctioned camps is a way to reaffirm their “dignity and humanity,” Scoggin said.

The city’s first intentional encampment, dubbed Camp Cole, opened in August in a downtown warehouse and provided shelter for 40 people — some of whom had been evicted from an outdoor camp in St. Louis’ Interco Plaza.

St. Patrick Center staffed the intentional encampment, which was funded through a mix of private donations and closed in early November.

The city has set aside $1.25 million for operating managed, outdoor encampments, according to the final spending plan. There is an additional $750,000 in city funding available for constructing the encampment, according to a spokesperson for Mayor Tishaura Jones.

“We want to meet people where they are,” Scoggin said. “Forcing people within a particular structure has not been the most beneficial. We want to really create an array of options that provide us an opportunity to engage people, so as to reach a place in which permanent housing is an option.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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