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Cold Snap Inspires New Homeless Shelters And A Push For Policy Change

Homeless people huddle over steam grates near the Enterprise Center as extreme cold temperatures have arrived in St. Louis on January 30, 2019.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI
As extreme cold temperatures have arrived in St. Louis, homeless people huddle over steam grates near the Enterprise Center on January 30, 2019.

When Akash Munshi and other Pride St. Louis board members saw the forecast of below-zero temperatures last week, they started planning.

Within two hours of meeting, they decided to keep the organization’s LGBTQ resource building, Pride Center, open overnight for homeless and low-income people. They gathered volunteers, and several community members began collecting money to help pay for the Pride Center’s gas and electrical utilities.

“It’s very important for us to have a safe space mainly catering toward the LGBT community, because we don’t have other spaces,” said Munshi. Many other warming centers, like public libraries or homeless shelters, may not feel welcoming to LGBTQ people.

As Pride St. Louis and other organizations opened pop-up shelters for people needing reprieve from the record-breaking cold last week, activists and elected officials called on the City of St. Louis to develop new procedures for helping the homeless during harsh winter weather.

Prompted by phone calls from citizens and activists, President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed urged the city to “reevaluate all of the winter-outreach practices” in a letter to Mayor Lyda Krewson.

“We reevaluate every single year,” said St. Louis director of human services Irene Agustin. Agustin said her department has to balance funding emergency services and long-term housing with a limited budget.

“Let’s work together to figure out how we optimize those resources,” she added. “What we have now doesn’t have to be what we have in the future.”

A 24-hour solution?

Reed’s letter asked the city to open a permanent 24-hour walk-up warming shelter, to raise the temperature at which St. Louis Winter Outreach — an independent group of churches and nonprofits — opens shelters and to expand the services of the city’s existing 24-hour shelter.

His concerns echoed those of activists who have said that the city urgently needs to open a 24-hour walk-up shelter to replace New Life Evangelistic Center. City officials forced the closure of that shelter — then the biggest in the city — in 2017. Biddle House, the 24-hour shelter opened to replace some New Life beds, does not take walk-ins.

Teka Childress runs St. Louis Winter Outreach, the independent group of churches and nonprofits that provide shuttles and shelters in cold temperatures. The group and other partners provide the city’s emergency overflow beds.

She said that Winter Outreach could not change its outreach practices without more volunteers and more resources.

“If you want to change the city’s protocol, you need to provide something,” Childress said.

Agustin said that opening a walk-up shelter was “in consideration,” and that the department is “not close-minded to it.” The department has also considered mini-shelters, Agustin said.

Agustin said that the city is prioritizing long-term housing over emergency shelter, although both are necessary.

Pop-ups cost

Winter Outreach and a broader network of volunteers, churches and nonprofits opened 341 overflow beds for the homeless last week, according to the mayor’s office. The city relies on that shelter network for those extra beds. But running a pop-up shelter can be complicated.

Trinity Church in the Central West End also opened a shelter this week. They had 20 church volunteers, plus help from Winter Outreach, but found themselves understaffed, according to a church official.

“This is the first time we’ve done this,” said the Rev. Barbi Click, the church’s food outreach specialist. “We were flying by the seat of our pants and a whole lot of faith.”

Keeping the lights on for a few extra hours will likely cost Trinity some extra money, but “the cost of not doing it would be so much greater,” Click said.

Click noted that she’s worried about churches that have less income.

That includes Destiny Family Church, whose senior pastor Michael Robinson made a public plea for donations on Facebook. Robinson first opened his church as a shelter in December 2017, after New Life Evangelistic Center closed.

This year, he said that gas and utility bills went up an extra $1,000 — to $1,500 — last month because the church stayed open for extra hours, including overnight, from Wednesday to Saturday.

In past years, trash pickup, paper goods and food added thousands more to the church’s overall costs, according to Robinson.

He said the church and shelter rely completely on donations.

Board president Reed said he asked Ameren to give some warming shelters, including Destiny Family Church, a break on electrical utility bills.

“We’re not talking about a major infusion of capital,” Reed said. “In some cases, $1,000 would make a difference as to whether they can continue to operate or not.”

An Ameren spokesman said the company’s community liaison officials will meet with Reed’s office.

Robinson said that he thinks the city needs more beds, so that churches like Destiny Family can help the city by volunteering and donating — instead of scraping for resources to run a shelter themselves.

“I probably would not [open a shelter] if there were adequate amount of bed space within the city,” he said.

Agustin, the human services director, said that the city plans to continue distributing its limited resources to support affiliated pop-up shelters with cots and blankets. As director, she said her priority is designing a better system to end homelessness and decrease the city’s need for emergency shelter.

Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

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

Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.

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