Challenging population, economy complicate city's efforts to clear homeless camps
The 45 people that make their home in three camps north of downtown are invisible to most St. Louisans.
They lived nestled between the floodwall and the train tracks at the foot of the new Mississippi River Bridge with little city interference until January. That’s when a propane heater sparked a fire that torched three tents. Even more attention followed after one resident fatally stabbed another in May, and the city made the decision to clear the location. It's an already difficult task - made even harder by the stubbornly sluggish economy.
Christian rock music wafts from speakers set up at the edge of River Front Park four blocks from the Lumiere Casino as volunteers from Praise Tabernacle Church in Jennings dish out plates of franks and beans to anyone who needs the food.
Included in the crowd accepting the free hot meal is Jeffrey Mumford, who has lived in one of three homeless camps just north of the park for about the last year and half.
"I would rather be right down here than in a shelter because the shelters are so dirty and nasty," Mumford says. "Two days at Larry Rice (the New Life Evangelistic Center emergency shelter) and I'm sick."
Mumford, who's been homeless for about five years, ultimately wants a place of his own. So in May, he attended a meeting at the same park, where city officials outlined the services available to him and other camps dwellers.
But Mumford says he's not addicted to drugs or alcohol, and food stamps are his only source of income. That makes him ineligible for many of the homeless assistance programs the city discussed.
"Only thing they suggested for me is they can help me get into transitional housing," Mumford said. "And I'm like, why would I want to do that when I've got my own little house right here? If I do that then I've got to go live under somebody else's rules."
City human services director Bill Siedhoff says camp residents like Mumford - people with absolutely no income - are a small percentage of the people who remain in the camps. He can't give an exact number, but says about 45 people remain on the riverfront, down from 75 in May, when the city made its intentions known.
But it's just one of the many bumps in the road the city has to deal with on the road to clearing the site.
"The individuals that have left, I think they were probably the ones that had the capacity to be able to do this to some degree on their own," Siedhoff says. "As this number dwindles down, I think it's going to be more difficult to accommodate their particular needs. Many of the individuals there do have drug and alcohol addiction. Mental illness is very prevalent among the population there."
And Siedhoff says there is a certain population that enjoys the freedom that camp living provides. They want to maintain a lifestyle that often includes drugs, he said, and you can't use drugs in most shelters.
Decision to clear
Siedhoff and the city first started regulating the camps in January, after a propane heater touched off a fire than damaged three tents but thankfully injured no one. But incidents requiring police calls began to increase, and in May, one resident fatally stabbed another.
"It was a combination of things," Siedhoff says, "but primarily the fact that people are trying to live out of doors in really kind of inhumane conditions."
There were also tensions among the three camps, Siedhoff says. Residents at two longer-term sites - named "Sparta" and "Dignity Harbor" - resented newcomers at "Hopeville," many of whom, Siedhoff suspects, were directed down there by the Rev. Larry Rice.
"I remember last summer there were some times it was pretty precarious to be down on the riverfront in some of the tent cities, so I think that people are just trying to be proactive before it starts getting hot and tempers start getting short," the Rev. Kathleen Wilder, the executive director of the homeless outreach agency The Bridge, told St. Louis Public Radio in April.
The city stepped up its outreach efforts, trying to get people aware of the services available. It also secured nearly $30,000 in donated household supplies like bedding and kitchenware.
The city's using a "Housing First" strategy to clear the camps; the first step, above all else, is getting someone into a permanent residence somewhere. Social service agencies then provide whatever support is needed to keep them there, including mental health and addiction treatment, life skills training, and assistance with rent and utilities.
The task of getting the homeless to accept this help falls to those agencies' outreach workers like Emily Ludwig. who travels to the riverfront camps and several other locations around the city on a regular basis, trying to convince people to leave.
"These people are so resilient," she says. "They're not lazy, and they often do want to change, but they're so discouraged, or they've hit so many brick walls."
On a scorching August morning, her focus is a veteran named Ron Benson. A few weeks before, he and another veteran and camp dweller, Grady Blunt, agreed to go with Ludwig to a local outreach center. When she got there, they were already intoxicated and refused the help. They're several beers into the day already around 9:30 in the morning, and crack several more open over the course of an hour.
Benson's lived along the river for five months - he says he ended up homeless about a year ago, after someone at his workplace stole his identity and wrecked his credit. Like fellow camp dweller Jeffrey Mumford, he is bitter about the limits on available assistance.
"You have got to have a mental disease," Benson said. "You have got to have substance abuse, you got to be an alcoholic, and you've got to have income to get this permanent housing. I have never been diagnosed with any of the [explicative.] All I want is my VA card and what I was promised. Give me a job and I will get the hell out of your hair in a heartbeat." His voice breaks on the last words.
Blunt eventually asks Ludwig to bring him a bus pass so he can get to a job training program that AARP sponsors for veterans. She can come with him when he goes a second time. Benson, too, finally accepts Ludwig's help.
"I'll give you a chance. I'll give everybody one chance," he says. "Just one?" Ludwig asks. "Just one," Benson replies. "That's all you get."
It's a small victory, Ludwig says. "Just allowing them to vent can be helpful. They all want to work, you know?"
The general economic malaise is another factor that makes the city's task a tough one, says human service director Bill Siedhoff. It's hard for the chronically homeless to hold down much more than menial jobs even in the best of employment markets, and these days, those jobs are being filled by people without addiction or other mental illnesses. And more and more people are ending up homeless as the economic recovery drags.
But Siedhoff says the city is committed to making sure that no one spends another winter on the riverfront.
- Online Extra - Jeffrey Williams, in his own words
For the chronically homeless, getting off the street is not an easy task. Many struggle with both drug addiction and mental illness. Emergency shelters or transitional housing (highly supported living in an apartment or home) often place strict requirements on behavior, which can be a difficult adjustment. Failure is not uncommon.
Jeffrey Williams found himself homeless in the late 1980s after blowing a $30,000 inheritance on crack cocaine. But in 2008, he decided to sober up. The St. Patrick Center got him into a program for homeless veterans and in 2010, Jeffrey Williams, for the first time in two decades, had a place to call home.