In the midst of COVID-19 shutdowns and sweltering summer heat, there are no public or private cooling centers in the city of St. Louis for unhoused people to escape the hot weather.
Homeless advocates said in previous years, people seeking air-conditioned spaces would go to public libraries, recreation centers and charitable organizations like the Salvation Army. But those places have had to close their doors or limit their hours due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
A listing of cooling centers on the city’s website refers residents to the United Way’s 2-1-1 information line. The staff answering the phone at the 2-1-1 number said that there are currently no cooling centers in the city of St. Louis.
The city website lists several public libraries as cooling centers; however all of the libraries listed have reduced hours. The mayor’s spokesperson referred inquiries about public cooling centers for the unhoused to the city’s health department. A spokesman for the health department acknowledged that the only available public cooling centers are libraries with limited hours.
“The City of St. Louis has worked with the Saint Louis Public Library, which allows for some relief from the heat at its locations; however, due to COVID-19 precautions, the libraries' hours of operation are limited,” the health department spokesperson stated in an email.
With temperatures in the 90s this month and next, advocates and outreach workers worry about homeless people being forced to stay outside all of the time in the relentless heat.
“This is a huge health crisis, you can die from heat stroke,” said Tent Mission STL volunteer Delanie Muenchen. “It’s been extremely difficult trying to keep folks hydrated and now with the pandemic, there are very few outreach groups delivering food and water every day. So it’s making it more difficult to keep the unhoused hydrated and healthy.”
Tent Mission STL is a private volunteer outreach and service provider that works with the homeless to provide food, water and other necessities.
Advocates said that the city is not only failing to provide any places for the unhoused to cool off but is instead displacing the unhoused from the shaded areas they find to keep cool. Since the onset of COVID-19 in March, the city had disbanded at least five tent encampments the unhoused created to shelter in place.
Service providers said they have also seen a pattern of city police officers harassing and arresting the unhoused for riding the MetroLink to seek shelter and air conditioning and for gathering under trees in city parks.
“They’ve stopped them from even being able to sit in the shade at Market Street,” said Kathy Carmody, a volunteer with Tent Mission and St. Louis Homeless Winter Outreach. “There is just no place for people to go in the best of times, but in this pandemic, it’s even harder.”