St. Louis clears City Hall encampment, leaving some wondering where they will go
St. Louis officials have cleared out dozens of people who have been camping in tents outside Mayor Tishaura Jones’ office window at City Hall and Poelker Park.
About a half-dozen neon orange dump trucks filled the streets around City Hall on Tuesday evening. Forestry and Streets Divisions workers, with the help from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and some advocates, dismantled, bagged and tagged a smattering of tents and belongings left from the encampment.
Workers put up dozens of metal barricades around the footprint of the City Hall encampment and around Poelker Park — a popular gathering space for the homeless community across the street from the municipal building. Signs were affixed to the metal fixtures that read: “PARK CLOSED FOR RESTORATION.”
William Clay, 50, stood along the sidewalk near his wife, who is seven months pregnant, as he watched workers tear down the last of his belongings and shove them into black garbage bags. “I'm angry, I'm upset, I'm disappointed. My anxiety levels are really high,” he said. “Now, I'm going back to the shelter where we started from, and it's just not a good place.”
Clay said he felt the mayor and the local government said they wanted to help the homeless community but instead are kicking people out of the spaces where they reside. “Do they really care about the people? You already know the answer to that,” he said. “This is why this world is so, so messed up. People have no heart or care for the next human being.”
Earlier in the day, city outreach staff and others approached some of the remaining members of the encampment in attempts to relocate them from City Hall to temporary housing including tiny homes. Several people boarded a white bus branded with “Mom’s on a Mission” — a Dupo-based nonprofit organization that deals with, in part, people living on the streets.
Mayor proclaims success
Ahead of the encampment being cleared out Tuesday night, St. Louis Department of Human Services Adam Pearson told members of the media the city secured 50 beds at transitional homes, hotels or shelters to help house people in need. But residents and advocates said there are numerous obstacles to receiving assistance.
“There's not the urgency, the expertise and the drive within the city office to get this done themselves, and then they maybe sort of pass the ball to these other providers,” said Sydwell Hajicek, with Lifeline Aid Group — an organization that works with the homeless community in the St. Louis region.
The mayor’s office ultimately postponed the first clearing attempt during the early hours of Tuesday morning. Officials in the mayor’s office also cited fights, drug overdoses, 50 police calls over the past month and a half and other medical emergencies as reasons for disbanding the camp. There was speculation the encampment sweep was due to the Democratic National Committee hosting its fall meeting in St. Louis later this week, but a city spokesperson said there was no connection.
Board of Aldermen President Megan Green said in a Tuesday night interview it was important to note there was not a plan in place Monday night, when disbanding the encampment was first proposed, which would have led to mass confusion among residents of the encampment and providers.
“Had the encampments been broken up last night, there was not a plan for where people would go,” Green said. “Had those service providers not stepped in today and got creative, in some instances, to be able to get appropriate housing, I think a lot of folks would simply have been moved from one encampment to another.”
Despite the criticism, Jones’ administration claimed success in the tent clearing, saying the move will “save lives and protect people.”
“My administration navigated this complex situation to connect dozens of unhoused residents to shelter and resources while addressing a growing public safety hazard,” Jones said in a written statement. “This is a testament to the collective work of City employees as well as the major investments the City has made to improve access to shelter and double our number of tiny homes.”
Several public officials have been critical of the Jones administration’s lack of communication related to the clearing of the tent camp.
The first attempt at clearing the encampment came just after members of the Board of Aldermen’s progressive wing announced “Unhoused Bill of Rights” legislation that would decriminalize panhandling and loitering and require the city to create “safe camping areas” with areas for toilets and showers.
“Until there is an actual long-term strategy for housing folks and for the removal of encampments, all we are doing is moving people around,” Green said. “So I think the path forward has to be passing the ‘[Unhoused] Bill of Rights.’”
State Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-St. Louis, said the communication between the mayor’s office and those outside it has largely been disappointing. The state legislator opened the Kennerly Shelter, a 24/7 homeless shelter in the Ville neighborhood, last December. But, she said, there has been no communication from Jones with her about collaboration.
"We may hear from the local government when there's attacks [on the] City of St. Louis from the Republican state legislature," Collins said, adding she disagrees with the widespread use of barricades to keep people from public spaces. “We use [barricades] to block the streets when we have street events, when you don't want people to come through. So, this gives a signal we don't want you here, you're not welcome.”
Sherresse Jackson, 39, of south St. Louis, has lacked housing stability for more than a year around the region. Jackson let out a sigh of relief when she was reunited with her tent, now dismantled, in a black trash bag and said she was happy it wasn’t stolen — like many of her belongings over the years. But, she said, there’s still work to be done for her community in regaining her dignity and the community’s basic rights.
"I think after this, maybe people will actually come together more, because people are at their wit's end,” she said. “They're tired. They don't ever want to do this ever again. Nobody wants to ever go through this ever again."
St. Louis Public Radio's Sarah Fentem and Andrea Henderson contributed to this report.
See photos by photojournalists Tristen Rouse and Brian Munoz below: