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St. Louis has yet to open a 'safe haven' homeless shelter this winter, despite federal funds

Residents of a homeless encampment in downtown St. Louis pack up their belongings on Jan. 11, a few weeks before the region experienced a deadly cold snap in 2021.
File Photo | David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
Residents of a homeless encampment in downtown St. Louis pack up their belongings on Jan. 11, 2021, a few weeks before the region experienced a deadly cold snap.

The City of St. Louis has millions of dollars in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan — but has yet to open a no-barrier homeless shelter this winter, even as temperatures drop dangerously low.

Last year, five homeless individuals froze to death in St. Louis, and providers scrambled to open an emergency shelter known as a “safe haven” during below-freezing temperatures. This year, providers are yet again hustling to create a no-barrier shelter — without the promise of those federal funds.

“For someone who's profoundly ill, who's experienced a significant amount of trauma, who might be struggling with an untreated substance use disorder, they're gonna find jumping through programmatic hoops very hard,” said Tim Huffman, one of the pop-up safe haven’s organizers, during Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And so a safe haven is one of the lowest-barrier options for organizing their needs.”

St. Patrick Center, Tent Mission STL and volunteers created a temporary safe haven at a St. Louis University banquet hall in December. It reached capacity within hours of opening.

Also that month, city leadership approved $836,000 of federal funds for Bridge of Hope Ministries to operate a safe haven. But the contract is not finalized yet, so the nonprofit cannot access the funds.

Director of Human Services Yusef Scoggin says his office hopes to finalize the Bridge of Hope contract by the end of this week. He said the providers operating the pop-up shelter never requested funds from the city to run a future safe haven.

“If we could have brought on contracts with the snap of a finger, we certainly would have,” Scoggin said.

In October, the city sent out a request for providers to apply for American Rescue Plan Act funds. The application window for providers was two weeks, Huffman said.

Pop-up emergency shelter aims to fill gap in St. Louis amid cold temps

Perhaps because of that timeline, some providers opted not to apply. Some are already stretched too thin, and some didn’t think the city budgeted enough money to realistically run a 24-hour shelter, said Huffman, who also serves on St. Patrick Center’s board.

“It's not as simple as, ‘Oh, there's money there,’” Huffman said. “There also needs to be the imagination and the space and the staff and willingness, and [the] board's got to agree.”

And despite the quick turnaround for provider proposals, the city has since spent more than two months reviewing them. Part of the funding holdup is stiff structures in place that don’t allow city services to be more flexible, Huffman said.

“Lots of people are like, ‘Oh, the city doesn't care,’ but if we always blame it on emotions, and fail to recognize the structures, then you're not going to do the right advocacy,” he said.

To fill the gap, volunteers and organizers from St. Patrick Center and Tent Mission STL are operating the pop-up safe haven at SLU until this Sunday. And now they’re searching for a new space to house an emergency shelter, since a new safe haven won’t likely be up and running by the weekend deadline.

“People have been organizing at the community level to respond to radical poverty in St. Louis for probably as long as the city has existed,” Huffman said.

Still, Huffman said he has hope that Mayor Tishaura Jones’ progressive administration — flush with federal cash — can make some change for people experiencing homelessness.

Scoggin is optimistic too. He said around 35% to 40% of homeless individuals in St. Louis are chronically homeless, which means they have experienced homelessness for at least a year or repeatedly. The national average is 27%.

“The unhoused, oftentimes, are those who have fallen through every other crack, every other safety net, every other potential system that could have provided a better outcome,” Scoggin said. “So it is not without great challenge that our providers are conducting this work.”

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 Kayla Drake. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.