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St. Louis' Homeless Population Faces Uncertainty During Coronavirus Outbreak

Julie O'Donoghue

While most people have retreated to their homes to shelter in place during the COVID-19 outbreak, the homeless population often doesn’t have that option. Chico Williams, who has been living in one of the tents downtown, is uncertain of where he’ll go next.

On April 6, the city leased part of the former Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home at 3225 North Florissant Ave. and announced plans to move in homeless residents. The building is said to have space for 125 people. Williams, who said the city has designated three shelters for the homeless to stay in, said they’re fitting in far fewer individuals. “They've only housed 20 in each one of them,” he claimed.

During Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Sarah Fenske talked to Alex Cohen, one of the leaders of the grassroots collective movement #TentMissionSTL. He said the city’s offer to house the unhoused is not all that it may appear to be. 

“The city has rented the building, but, to this day, they still only managed to sign a contract for 26 beds,” Cohen said. “That 26 beds is for men only without symptoms of COVID-19. Since then, the city has brought back online 75 [STL] Winter Outreach beds to prevent the un-sheltering of [those] 75 people.” 

Williams and his friends staying in the tents don’t want to stay in the shelters, because people would be spaced four feet apart, he said.

“They like their space,” Williams explained. “That’s what some of them are looking forward to in the community.” He added that many unhoused residents are looking forward to staying in a motel, although “that hasn’t happened [yet].”

Beyond that, in order to access the buildings, Williams said unhoused residents generally have to show up at 6 p.m. and leave by 6 a.m. the next day. “When you're back out in the street at 6 a.m. in the morning, you’re left with the dilemma [of] what you’re going to do,” he explained. “There’s nothing open. You can’t go to any of the outreach programs because they are all closed.”

For that reason, he said, he plans to stay in the tents.

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief John Hayden issued a guidance order to his department on March 25, telling officers to refrain from clearing encampments during the spread of COVID-19. People staying in the tents assumed they could stay put.

But then, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the city reversed course. On April 9, officers woke tent residents at 14th and Market streets at 4 a.m. and told them to leave.

“They really don’t want us there,” Williams said. “They are intimidating us to leave the park. I don’t feel that is right, because that’s the only place we have.”

Since then, Cohen said the police have given conflicting messages on whether the homeless should stay or leave the area.

“I think it’s confusing and hard to read the directive coming out from the mayor's office, because, on one hand, you have this directive from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the health department and the chief of police … and then you have lieutenants coming up and issuing this directive,” Cohen said. “Either the mayor is issuing directives against the CDC guidelines and her police chief, or there are rogue officers in her ranks, and neither one of those looks good. Neither one of those [scenarios] looks good in this pandemic.”


To support #TentMissionSTL and its mission to help the homeless, Cohen said people can donate to the TentMissionSTL Venmo account and follow the hashtag #TentMissionSTL on Facebook and Twitter for more updates.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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

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