Homeless residents and city workers

“The rushed actions of the City of St. Louis to pressure those in the encampment to move from their home is deeply traumatiz-ing,” wrote Dr. Laurie Punch, a BJC HealthCare trauma surgeon working on the COVID-19 crisis. “The residents have not had adequate notice of the time to evacuate and have not been given assurance of a safe and supportive alternative.”

Homeless advocates gave blankets to about 20 unhoused individuals in downtown St. Louis on the evening of Sunday, May 3, who slept on the ground in the parks around 14th and Market streets.

The night before, a majority of these individuals slept in tents.

On Sunday morning, City of St. Louis officials took down the tents, after a federal judge denied a temporary restraining order request on May 1 to prevent the St. Louis Department of Health from vacating the tent encampments downtown. The city also removed the hand-washing stations and restrooms they had previously placed near the encampments. Advocates said anywhere from 15 to 40 people were sleeping in downtown parks on a regular basis prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they started using tents at the beginning of April in response to the outbreak.

“Our friend who had a tent and came back after the eviction yesterday said, ‘‘I guess I’ll sleep where I’ve always slept but now without a tent again,’” said Alex Cohen, a member of the Tent Mission STL, a grassroots group that has been aiding the tent encampments.

During the federal hearing on May 1, city counselors told a federal judge that they had beds for everyone who wanted one. They argued that the reason they wanted to tear down the tents was because they posed a “high risk for the spread of COVID-19.” Homeless advocates and a medical doctor opposed the decision, saying that it went against federal health guidelines of keeping homeless encampments contained during the pandemic.

At about 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, volunteer advocates with Tent Mission STL compiled a list of six individuals who had their tents taken away that morning and were willing to go into shelters. Amy Bickford, the city’s director of homeless services, had requested that advocates compile the list, Cohen said. However at 3 p.m., Bickford told advocates that she and her team were done for the day and they wouldn’t be placing people, according to text messages sent from Bickford to Tent Mission STL members.

The St. Louis American reached out to Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards, who has been working closely with the Tent Mission STL group, and Steve Conway, the mayor’s chief of staff, for a response.

Conway said one of the people on the list was banned and two refused to go to the Buder Park Recreation Center, which is a congregate shelter in a gymnasium.

“The outreach workers placed everyone in the parks in housing, plus all others that just showed up from other encampments and otherwise,” Edwards told The American on Sunday night. “Placements today started at 10 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m. Everyone at or near the parks was placed prior to the workers leaving today. I was advised that a couple hours after the outreach workers left one of the parks, more folk showed up. Outreach will continue tomorrow.” 

Sharon Morrow is a member of the Tent Mission STL, who has been working as a volunteer for four years with several organizations that serve the unhoused year-round. Morrow said that Edwards’ comment that people came from other places to get shelter doesn’t take into account that these individuals are nomadic.

“Sadly, the city does not have many relationships with the folks on the streets,” Morrow said. “They have no idea who is where. It’s hard to have relationships if you are not present. And the city is definitely not present. The city seems to be more concerned that housed people see tents than for the wellbeing of the most vulnerable in our city.”

Edwards said that police would not arrest anyone who was sleeping in the park after curfew or have any encounters with those at the park, “so long as no tents are stood up.”

Morrow said Edwards’ description and timeline of what happened on Sunday was not accurate.

“We have worked tirelessly for weeks begging to work with the city,” Morrow said. “Instead, we are met with misrepresentation of the truth and PR stunts. These types of comments just perpetuate the mistrust between the city’s department of human services and outreach teams, as well as the unhoused.”

Mayor Lyda Krewson said this weekend 61 individuals were placed in shelters or hotel rooms from the encampments, during her Facebook live briefing on Monday, May 4. She said the volunteer outreach workers, who work year-round with the homeless population, were “so instrumental in assisting with this process.”

Krewson also said that the city is closing the downtown parks for cleaning and “restoration.”

“We’ve got to do some grass cutting and restoring of turf,” she said.

ArchCity files suit

         

Did the City of St. Louis violate some 50 unhoused individuals’ 8th Amendment rights when officials ordered the tent encampments to vacate?

On Friday, May 1 — the day the tents were ordered to come down — St. Louis city counselors and ArchCity Defenders attorneys argued this question in federal court. ArchCity Defenders asked U.S. District Judge Sarah E. Pitlyk to grant a temporary restraining order (TRO), preventing the city from removing the tents downtown along Market Street near Tucker Boulevard. During the hearing, ArchCity said that the city’s order to vacate criminalizes its client Ranata Frank’s status of being homeless, therefore violating her 8th Amendment right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

On Saturday, May 2, Pitlyk sided with the city and denied the request for a TRO. In her ruling, Pitlyk stated that the city is not criminalizing the state of being homeless or sleeping in public. 

“At most, the city is criminalizing sleeping in public in a particular location,” she wrote. “During times of public health crises, local governments have broad latitude to institute protective measures so long as those measures have a ‘real or substantial relation’ to the public health crisis.”

City counselors argued that the tent encampments downtown posed a “high risk for the spread of COVID-19” because it wasn’t “contained” like the encampments in other parts of the city.

This is the only tent encampment the city is attempting to vacate, though there are at least two others. Advocates for the unhoused said the other encampments pose the same risk as the one downtown, but it’s not in view of City Hall.

The notice and order to vacate that was zip-tied to tents downtown on April 29 said “nothing about criminal liability or penalties,” Pitlyk wrote in her ruling. 

However, during the hearing, Pitlyk asked St. Louis Health Director Dr. Fredrick Echols what the city plans to do if these individuals decide to sleep in the park, even without tents. Echols said the police would come and tell them to leave. Pitlyk asked what happens if they don’t move. Echols told the judge that they currently don’t have a plan for that scenario.

ArchCity Defenders argued that the order will end up being punitive, whether the city outlined that in the order or not. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, May 12 at 10 a.m. 

‘Do not clear encampments’

City Counselor Mike Garvin told the judge that the city has cabs ready to take unhoused individuals to “hotel rooms,” if the TRO is not granted. However, city officials on the ground said there were not enough hotel rooms for everyone. Some people will only agree to go into hotel rooms for various “valid” reasons, advocates said, including past trauma and fear that they will have less control of who they sleep next to and contract the virus. 

Cohen said the registration process Conway mentioned did not go smoothly.

“People were having emotional breakdowns,” Cohen said. “It was massive anxiety. It was horrible. The police showed up first.”

Every day, Cohen and other volunteers fill out the city’s Google form to request shelter on behalf of individuals at the encampments and in other parts of the city. 

Some have been waiting for a while to hear back from the request form, Cohen said. They’ve been told there is a 100-person wait list for shelter. 

During the hearing, Echols did not deny that there was a waiting list, but said that the city was prioritizing the individuals at the downtown encampment. Cohen was disheartened by this because it shows the city is prioritizing “by location and not by need or risk.”

“What is happening to everyone else who is high-risk, people who actually want to go in?” Cohen said. “There are at least 75 elsewhere who are unhoused. All those people outside of these camps, what is the update? The city has decided to prioritize 14th and Market not because of health risk but because it’s too close to City Hall.”

Dr. Laurie Punch, a BJC HealthCare trauma surgeon who is currently working at Christian Hospital with COVID-19 patients, submitted a dissenting declaration to the court about the city’s decision to vacate the encampments.

She pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) interim guidance on preventing COVID-19: “Unless individual housing units are available, do not clear encampments during community spread of COVID-19. Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers.”  

Punch wrote that in her professional opinion, the City of St. Louis is endangering unhoused individuals and the community if it does not follow CDC’s guidance. Echols testified the city is following CDC’s guidelines because there were roughly 95 beds available Friday morning for the roughly 50 people remaining at the encampment. ArchCity Defenders pushed back, asking how this could be true if there was a waiting list citywide?

“The rushed actions of the city to pressure those in the encampment to move from their home is deeply traumatizing and has not engaged with the residents in a constructive way,” Punch wrote. “The residents have not had adequate notice of the time to evacuate and have not been given assurance of a safe and supportive alternative.”

Punch recently provided medical outreach at the Market Street encampments.

“I have personally observed the unhoused residents of the encampment being approached by city officials in a way which was not trauma-informed including threatening those who agreed to go into shelter with loss of their bed if they did not remove their belongings from the encampment,” Punch wrote.

“I have seen a hand washing station placed at the encampment and then removed within one day to great disappointment of the residents. I have advocated for individuals to gain access to shelter beds, at times with success but at times without access to a bed. Residents have shared with me they have been waiting for beds but have not had access.”

Punch was emphatic as an expert witness with direct experience of the situation on the ground: “Clearing encampments of unhoused individuals without guarantees of sufficient individual housing is against the consensus of medical and public health officials.” 

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