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It’s taken 2 winters to open St. Louis’ 24/7 homeless shelter despite federal money in hand for it

People living in St. Louis tent encampments face dangerous conditions as colder weather sets in.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
People living in tent encampments face dangerous conditions as colder weather sets in.

After two winters, a 24-hour shelter for people without housing is set to open in St. Louis by the end of the month, according to City of St. Louis officials. But volunteers and providers say the shelter’s opening halfway through winter is “unacceptable.”

That’s because a dangerous deep freeze in December forced volunteer shelters to turn away people without homes because they had no room left. It’s also because millions of dollars in federal recovery money through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) for homeless services in St. Louis remains unspent.

“Frankly, it's disgusting,” said Nicole Warrington, a volunteer with STL Winter Outreach. “At this point, no more words. Show us actual results. I don’t want to know when it's going to be open. I want it to be open.”

St. Louis' homeless waited two years for a 24-hour shelter. What took so long?
Listen to NPR Midwest Newsroom investigative reporter Kavahn Mansouri on "St. Louis on the Air"

In August 2021 the city set aside roughly $16 million in ARPA funds for projects to serve people without homes. So far, St. Louis has spent $4.8 million of those funds with most of it devoted to emergency sheltering.

According to the city, emergency shelter funds go toward supporting existing shelters in the city, which provide roughly 380 beds. However, those shelters do not typically run 24 hours a day.

St. Louis director of human services Yusef Scoggin told St. Louis Public Radio in August the city expected to open the Safe Haven before this winter. In a follow-up interview with St. Louis Public Radio in January, Scoggin said issues with the proposed locations for the $1.3 million project delayed its opening.

He declined to specify what contributed to the delay, but said the city was “not at fault.

“The city of St. Louis has done its due diligence and worked diligently to bring this project to fruition,” Scoggin said.

Sereena Harrington, 54, sheds a tear while explaining she has fallen in and out of stable housing since her 7-year-old son, Aaron Alexander, was shot and killed in the city when she was in her late 20s
Brian Munoz
Sereena Harrington, 54, sheds a tear last May while explaining she has fallen in and out of stable housing since Aaron Alexander, her 7-year-old son, was shot and killed in the city when she was in her late 20s, on Monday, from her tent under an Interstate 44 viaduct in downtown St. Louis. “I try to not think about this stuff because it hurts so bad,” Harrington said. “There are no places for us to go.”

‘A life or death need’

Warrington is one of many advocates and providers in St. Louis frustrated by a perceived lack of urgency by the city to complete ARPA-funded projects for homeless services — mainly the city-funded safe haven.

“There’s not an acknowledgment that this is a desperate need — a life or death need,” Warrington said.

During the coldest nights of the year, Warrington and others seek out homeless people who need aid in hopes of preventing hypothermia and frostbite.

Sydwell Hajicek, the volunteer with Lifeline Aid Group, said he brought three unhoused individuals with severe frostbite to area hospitals during December’s cold snap.

He blamed those injuries on city officials, who he said aren’t doing enough to provide beds for people without housing.

“The amount of human suffering being caused by the city’s inability to provide enough space for people is ghastly. There’s no other word for it.”
Sydwell Hajicek, Lifeline Aid Group

The city chose St. Patrick Center, the city’s largest non-profit provider of homeless services, to run the safe haven in mid-2022. The nonprofit proposed four locations, the final of which is ready and awaiting approval from the city.

St. Patrick Center chief executive officer Anthony D’Agostino declined to provide the location of the proposed safe haven but said it fulfills the city’s requirements for the project.

St. Patrick Center and other providers converted Murphy's Grill in the nonprofit's first floor to house homeless people during February's freezing temperatures. The grill has been shuttered for the past few years. Taken on Feb. 12, 2021.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Patrick Center in February 2021. When it eventually opens, the center's CEO Anthony D'Agostino said the Safe Haven Shelter will operate 24/7 per the project’s outline and provide housing and food for 25 to 40 people in need at a time who will be cared for by trained professional staff members.

According to the city’s website, the facility will operate as a 24/7 facility for those without homes who are hard to reach, may have a mental illness or may have substance use disorders.

Before choosing St. Patrick Center, the city agreed to fund the project through the nonprofit City Hope, but the deal fell through when City Hope could not offer a 24-hour facility. City Hope Executive director Kelli Bragg said she worried the safe haven wouldn’t be open before winter.

Scoggin called fulfilling the request for proposals for the safe haven a “complex” process. He said if the city rushed the project, the $1.3 million expense could fall short of expectations.

“We can’t shortcut the process because we just want to get something online,” Scoggin said. “Something may fall very short of what was outlined in the (request for proposal)and fall very short of what people expected from this project.”

D’Agostino said the safe haven’s expected opening by the end of January misses the initial deadline St. Patrick Center set out for last Monday. He said the nonprofit awaits final approval from the department of human services and otherwise is ready to open the new shelter.

When it eventually opens, he said the shelter will operate 24/7, per the project’s outline, and will provide housing and food for 25 to 40 people in need at a time who will be cared for by trained professional staff members.

Trina Scott, 43, listens to speakers during a demonstrators advocating for more support for the unhoused and a stop to sweeps of encampments
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Trina Scott, 43, listens to speakers during a demonstration advocating for more support for people experiencing homelessness and a stop to sweeps of encampments on May, 2, 2022, in St. Louis. Scott is currently facing housing instability and is a member of an encampment near the Mississippi riverfront.

‘The need is not a secret’

In recent years, volunteer groups and non-profits like St. Patrick Center, Tent Mission STL and others created temporary safe havens during dangerously cold months. But providers have repeatedly turned away those seeking shelter from the cold.

“The need is not a secret. (More shelter) might keep people from freezing to death or from losing toes and fingers due to frostbite.”
Nicole Warrington, STL Winter Outreach

While the city helps fund a handful of the shelters, providers have long complained there isn’t enough space to shelter the city’s estimated 600 homeless people.

Warrington said opening any new shelter should be a priority of the city, as homeless people are turned away from the many volunteer-run shelters in the city every time temperatures drop below freezing.

And even when the safe haven opens, Warrington worries the $1.3 million project’s capacity will fall short of what the city’s homeless need. She said the city needs to urgently fund more winter shelters, especially as forecasts indicate a winter storm may hit St. Louis on Wednesday.

“It's not enough,” Warrington said of the Safe Haven. “It's needed, yes. Open yesterday, please… but it's still too little too late.”

Kavahn Mansouri is an investigative reporter with the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including St. Louis Public Radio, KCUR, Iowa Public Radio, Nebraska Public Media and NPR.

Kavahn Mansouri is the Investigative Reporter for the NPR Midwest Newsroom based in St. Louis.