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Dignity Harbor provides both for the 'homeless'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2010 - Mention the word "homeless" and images of people sleeping in door stoops, panhandling and pushing shopping carts loaded with their possessions are likely the first things to come to mind.

But such images are countered in St. Louis by "Dignity Harbor," a homeless camp of approximately 20 people just north of downtown that has been in existence for a little more than a year. Its leader says that the group is focused on being a safe haven for women and distributing supplies for other camps. Dignity Harbor receives assistance from dozens of individuals and organizations in St. Louis and all over the Midwest.

Camp "owner" and resident, who wishes to go only by "O.G.," said the name "Dignity Harbor" represents the two central ideas behind the camp.

"Homeless people have dignity," he said. "And we harbor women here. People bring abused women in here, and we protect them at all costs. "

A 2005 census by the St. Louis Department of Human Services found more than 1,870 homeless residents, a number that has shrunk to around 1,300 today. St. Louis DHS Director William Siedhoff attributes this reduction to a 10-year comprehensive plan targeted at ending chronic homelessness, a term used to describe individuals who have been homeless for more than one year or have had four episodes of homelessness within  three years.

Siedhoff said the chronically homeless constitute around 15 percent of the homeless in the city. The plan, implemented in 2005, will be reviewed at the end of this year to measure progress.

"Over that (five-year) period, we've seen a 30 percent reduction in homelessness, despite this horrid economy," Siedhoff said. "I was really anticipating in our last census our numbers increasing significantly, and it didn't happen for whatever reason."

As for Dignity Harbor, Seidhoff said, "There is some support provided by the city. We don't intervene, we don't tell them what to do or how to live. There has been, as I understand, some trash receptacles placed there by the refuse division. We try to give some minimal support, but it's not something we're actively engaged in. From the standpoint of our involvement, I don't think they really want it. They have never come to us really seeking out any kind of assistance of any sort, at least from our department. It's one of these things we don't endorse the idea, on the other hand, if they obey the law, then our attitude about them is they can remain there as long as they desire."

To help purchase supplies, the men of the camp sort, split and place firewood on pallets to sell to anyone who wants it. The wood, donated by three logging companies, arrives almost daily. Women in the camp make crosses out of wooden clothespins, which -- after being painted and decorated -- are also sold to buy necessities.

Laura Wilmes, a resident of Dignity Harbor since March, said she worked at an electronics firm in O'Fallon, Mo., for seven years before being laid off. A recovering alcoholic, Wilmes said she heard good things about Dignity Harbor while she was in a hospital and moved in on St. Patrick's Day.

She said while the camping lifestyle doesn't make for ideal living conditions, she likes the camaraderie among the residents.

"It's not bad living down here; it's like camping all the time," Wilmes said. "But if I never go camping again in my life, that'll be just fine with me."

Though Dignity Harbor sits on city-owned land, O.G. said city officials haven't given the residents much grief.

"The city won't touch us right now," he said, saying that several city employees assist the camp on a semi-regular basis.

Immediately west of Dignity Harbor sits the abandoned St. Louis - Southwestern Cottonbelt Freight Depot building, owned by Mark Schulte and Tom Tucker of North Riverfront Holdings. The building served as a haven for the homeless for many years, and though Schulte said he takes no issue with the residents of Dignity Harbor, as a property owner, he would rather the homeless camps not border that land.

"I worked personally, daily, for almost a year to resettle the homeless that washed up into my building," Schulte said. "I have a clear conscience about my involvement."

Schulte said he frequently visits Dignity Harbor and feels they're more organized than some other camps in the city, with greater communication and harmony among the residents.

It's this kind of atmosphere that attracts dozens of volunteers, like Dan Robbins, who has been helping out for the past six months.

Robbins, who lives in Farmington, regularly drives an hour and a half to assist with projects at the camp. He said he got involved with Dignity Harbor because he felt it was more of a working camp than some others in the area.

"We'll help anybody who wants to help themselves," he said. "I can sit there and relate to them and feel right at home and not judge them."

Robbins has been helping the camp construct wood huts for the upcoming winter.

Although able to connect the homeless to the proper service providers for whatever need might arise, Siedhoff said the DHS doesn't directly administer assistance.

"We really have an amazing services network here in the city," Siedhoff said. "I think we do a lot better job than most cities around the country."

Siedhoff added that the DHS would help make accommodations for the increased number of people who go to shelters as the weather gets colder.

O.G. said he's worried about the camp's supplies for the winter, having lost many tents and food items a couple months ago during a storm. Tents, vinyl tarps, propane heaters and blankets are but a few of the items the camp is working to acquire.

"We don't panhandle, we don't beg," he said. "People come here and ask us what we want. It's not what we want, it's what we need."

Although Schulte doesn't have a solution for the homeless problem, he says it's unfortunate that such communities have to exist.

"I think it's a failure of all of us," he said. "The churches, individuals and our common collective."

Nick Quigley is a freelance writer from Murphysboro, Ill., who started going to the camp in October.

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