Advocates concerned about a COVID-19 plan for homeless in St. Louis City

Encampment community in downtown St. Louis share a meal gifted to them for Christmas in 2017. Photo by Lawrence Bryant 

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Deidra C. Thomas-Murray thought she and five children would be leaving her hometown for two days. 

Instead, the then-social worker for New Orleans Public Schools became homeless. She eventually found shelter at a hotel in St. Louis, arranged through St. Patrick Center. 

Now Thomas-Murray is the homeless and foster care liaison for the St. Louis Public School District’s Students-In-Transition Office. 

“Although it was 15 years ago, this pandemic took me right back,” she said. “It was almost like relieving old anxieties and trauma. Everyone lost their jobs. No one knew where the next check would come from. Now today, this pandemic just didn’t take one city under siege, it’s taken an entire world under siege.” 

Earlier this year, Thomas-Murray had identified 3,095 SLPS students as homeless. “I’m sure those numbers are much higher now,” she said.

This number doesn’t include the students’ family members. She believes two-thirds of the district’s homeless families are “doubled up,” or sharing homes with relatives or friends. About one-third are in shelters or motels. Unless homeless students are living in a shelter, they don’t fall into the federal government’s definition of homeless, which spurs funds for emergency shelter. 

According to the St. Louis Area Regional Commission on Homelessness (SLARCH), there are at least 780 people who do meet that federal definition of homeless currently engaged with St. Louis city nonprofit organizations, which track their data in real time. Outreach operations suggest that there are at least 200 more people without homes in the city. 

Normally, there are 518 beds available for the homeless in the City of St. Louis, according to SLARCH. However, with social distancing requirements, that has been reduced by 40 percent to about 308 beds. 

In response to the pandemic, there have been 101 additional beds that City of Hope is operating — 75 winter overflow beds that have been brought back online and 26 beds at the former Little Sisters of the Poor building on Florissant Avenue.  

Additionally, Steve Conway, chief of staff for Mayor Lyda Krewson, said the city has been working on finalizing contracts on 50 additional beds at hotels. And there is a potential of 100 more beds at the Little Sisters location, he said. 

Even with these additional beds, Thomas-Murray said, “This isn’t even realistic.”

Soon the families that are doubled up are going to quarrel because the needs will be so high — as she recalls from her own experience living in a two-bedroom apartment with five families. She went to stay in a shelter, and many others will too.

Thomas-Murray is also concerned about the “unaccompanied youth” who graduated from the district, went off to college and are now back in the city with no place to go. There are about 500-600 of these youth who aged out of the foster care system or were “runaways,” she said. 

“Those are the kids that couch surf,” she said. “They don’t have a leaning post.”

Advocates for the homeless say the pandemic is shining a light on inefficiencies that have caused a lag in the City of St. Louis’ response and ability to enact a plan as quickly as other communities. However, experts say that in the next 10 days, the St. Louis region will reach its peak in the pandemic and action needs to be taken immediately.

“The key is to focus even more so on vulnerable communities — particularly members of the long-term care facilities, the unhoused and immigrant and refugee populations,” said Dr. Will Ross, who serves on the city’s Joint Board of Health and Hospitals. “The next two weeks are where our efforts should be.” 

We need to pool our strengths’ 

SLARCH said that 40 percent of the homeless population will be infected by the virus, which Dr. Ross agreed with. The City of St. Louis has the highest homeless population in the region and will need 600 additional beds during the COVID-19 pandemic for isolation, quarantine and social distancing, according to SLARCH’s data. St. Louis County, which has a smaller homeless population, has already enacted a plan to have quarantine/isolation capacity of 300. The city, which currently has no quarantine beds, is referring all people without homes who are COVID-19 positive to St. Louis County.

“However, their capacity will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks,” according to SLARCH.

Conway said one of the barriers for getting more beds is that agency members that make up the Continuum of Care (CoC) — which consists of organizations, social service providers and individuals who aim to end homelessness — have not “stepped up” to staff the additional shelter locations.

“We’ve been begging people at the CoC to help us find someone to staff these operations,” Conway said. “We’ve asked three or four times. We are offering to pay good money to get things staffed. We can’t put people in place without that.”

However, Shanna Nieweg, chair of the CoC and executive director at Horizon Housing Development Company, said the accusation requires some context.

“We originally reached out to [the mayor’s office] before we got our first case in St. Louis and said, ‘We need to get together and come up with a plan because this is going to hit the city and our most vulnerable population is going to be targeted by this and we need to have supports in place,’” Nieweg said. “We were not involved in those conversations.”

Instead, she said the city started its task force with the departments of Health and Human Services. So the CoC — which includes 148 agencies — started its own task force. 

Nieweg said many people are confused about what the CoC is and does. Every year the CoC’s members voluntarily fill out paperwork required to ensure that the City of St. Louis is in federal compliance to receive HUD funds. However, the city receives the funds and disperses them, with some input from the CoC. However in other communities, CoCs receive the funds and disperse them, Nieweg said.

“The CoC is this magical box they can blame,” she said. “We do not hold the funds. We are doing the work.” 

So when the city’s pandemic taskforce reached out to these providers, she said, they wanted these agencies “who are already stretched thin with their own staff” to give additional support in a “minute’s notice.”

Nieweg said, “This isn’t feasible.”

SLARCH’s Timothy Huffman made an “important” call of action on April 14, during the aldermanic Health and Human Services Committee’s virtual town hall meeting on the unhoused.

By the end of the week, there needs to be a conversation that includes members of the city’s health department, the behavioral health and human services networks, the city’s Department of Human Services, and the CoC.

“You can’t just put a Request for Proposals out to the nonprofit community and say, ‘We need someone to run a quarantine shelter,’” Huffman said. “We don’t know how to hire staff and train medical staff, but the health department doesn’t know how to run shelters. So we need to come together and pool our strengths.”

Huffman said this is what has made St. Louis County’s response so successful.

Dr. Ross applauded the request and said, “I think that is the highest priority.”

 4 a.m. wake-up call 

At 4 a.m. on Thursday, April 9, the residents at the “women and families” tent encampment in downtown St. Louis were awoken by members of the parks and police departments. City officials said that they were there to provide information on resources. But residents said the officials encouraged them to disperse. The police department said the officers were ordered by the parks department. The American was never able to get a statement from the city on why the parks department requested the police to show up at 4 a.m. 

Jacob Long, spokesman for the mayor, said, “Parks employees were there to remind them that they are in a city park and they are violating curfew. We were handing out fliers” on housing options.

The CoC released a statement shortly after the incident, saying it was against federal guidelines to force encampments to close during the pandemic. 

Chico, a member of the encampment, said that people are looking for options but they want to stay with their encampment community. The encampment has a place to wash their hands and go to the bathroom. It’s away from the other encampment that has a younger, male-dominated population, he said.

“People put a label on homeless people,” he said. “They think you just want to drink and always want a hand out. We have a couple of residents who are security guards and work for security firms. They got jobs. But it’s not enough to make ends meet.”

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