In 2008, meters that read REAL Change began popping up around the Central West End. The idea behind them was simple: the meters collected the change that would otherwise go to panhandlers and instead distribute it to social service programs. This way, residents who did not want to interact with panhandlers wouldn’t feel guilty.
The author of the measure was 28th alderman and mayoral candidate, Lyda Krewson. In January of 2015, Krewson told the Post-Dispatch, “There was a marked decrease in panhandling. I think it is pretty effective.” But the meters did not cause the decrease. Attached to Krewson’s REAL Change initiative was an ordinance, Board Bill 505 . The bill called for the criminalization of panhandling. One warning would be given to offenders after which there could be fines up to $500 and/or 30 days behind bars.
In 2008, when the ordinance was passed, Krewson told the Post-Dispatch, “Most aren’t interested in regular employment. Often panhandling is more lucrative.” Historically, 2008 turned out to be one of the worst years for unemployment this country has ever seen, and the Great Recession hit black and brown communities the hardest. The unemployment rate among black people peaked at around 16 percent in 2010, and has consistently been double that of whites. Krewson’s bill has cut disproportionately into the livelihood of black people in St. Louis, and her commentary fits into a longer history of politicians preying on the most vulnerable citizens in exchange for political clout and appeasing white business interests.
Backing her comments was Krewson’s partner, the president of the Central West End Association, Tracia Roland-Hamilton. In the same article, Hamilton told the Post-Dispatch, "They’re not homeless. They’re not hungry – this is their chosen career.” Krewson and Roland-Hamilton’s words express a lack of knowledge around the problems of poverty and homelessness. They also show a gaping absence of empathy.
Homelessness is caused by a lack of affordable housing options. As a city, St. Louis has underfunded its legally mandated commitment to affordable housing by around $2 million over the last four years and this coming year looks to be no different. And while the city underfunds affordable housing, Krewson has had no problem over-spending on TIF and tax abatements.
Her 28th Ward is a part of the Central Corridor which has received around 85 percent of all of the city’s development incentives. In order to receive these incentives, Krewson has qualified some of the wealthiest areas of St. Louis as “blighted.” In 2007, a year before Krewson called for the criminalization of panhandling, an 11-story luxury condominium tower was constructed at 4545 Lindell. The property, within Krewson’s ward, received a 10-year tax abatement despite its location in the Central West End being anything but “blighted.” Just last summer, a unit at 4545 Lindell sold for over $1 million.
Krewson’s primary concern seems to be the gentrification and economic future of the Central Corridor. This becomes more apparent in Krewson’s recent comments on the crisis around homeless shelter, New Life Evangelistic Center. NLEC has come under harsh criticism and media depictions recently. Krewson has campaigned hard for its closing, insisting the city “put a lock on the place.”
NLEC and its owner, Rev. Larry Rice, have been there since 1976. The shelter fills a void in the city as a place of last resort when others fill up or have restricted admission based on gender and age. But now NLEC is in the midst of a rapidly gentrifying Central Corridor. And Krewson, while calling for its closing, has yet to offer a plan to address the aftermath of doing so.
The issue of affordable housing and homelessness will likely grow in the coming years with a Republican monopoly on state and national levels. Missouri’s new governor, Eric Greitens, has cut $146 million off the state’s budget within his first week in office and has promised to cut $700 million in his first 18 months. Generally, a tightening of nationwide and state budgets means an increase in poverty and homelessness. That’s certainly what history tells us. St. Louis needs political leadership now more than ever that understands and empathizes with the root causes of poverty and homelessness.
Of the four candidates polling highest right now, only Tishaura O. Jones’ policy proposals adequately addressed homelessness. On the issue of homelessness, Jones supports a “Homeless Bill of Rights,” which would end the criminalization of homelessness and work to ensure St. Louis is aligned with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations. Her platform calls for more privacy and protection while attempting to ensure people are not targeted due to their lack of housing.
Jones said she would not call for the closing of NLEC until the city has a plan to help the people who depend on their services. Jones continued, “I would include the requirement to address homelessness in Community Benefit Agreements that would be part of any subsidy or abatement for projects like Union Station, the Jefferson Arms and the Scottrade Center.”
Homelessness and poverty, like all other problems in this city, will not resolve themselves. The status quo thus far has allowed them to fester and grow. A new attitude towards the issues is needed. In St. Louis, there has been a vacuum of political leadership for over a decade. Leadership is inextricably tied to empathy and action. As we vet our field of candidates, the stakes for the future of this city are high. Our mayor will be tasked with improving St. Louis in the midst of an incoming administration that is wasting no time clearing out the safety nets our citizens rely on. The times are urgent, and so is the need for change in Room 200 of City Hall.
Clark Randall is an editorial intern for The St. Louis American.