Homeless St. Louis Residents Prepare For Looming Encampment Eviction: ‘We’re Human’
Updated at 3:45 p.m., Jan. 11, with additional information on encampment eviction and comments from city officials
Residents at a St. Louis tent encampment hurriedly packed their belongings into trash bags on Monday morning, in anticipation of a scheduled eviction.
But the trash trucks and law enforcement did not arrive, and it was unclear when they would.
For months, a small but growing group of residents have occupied about a dozen tents along the McGuire Moving & Storage building, a vacant warehouse off Interstate 44 in the city’s Columbus Square neighborhood. Another huddle of tents sits in a neighboring gravel lot, near the iconic Vess soda bottle north of downtown.
During the pandemic, the McGuire camp, as it’s known, has become a place for residents looking to set up a relatively stable residence — and until recently, it has faced minimal scrutiny from property owners. But late last week, a notice to vacate appeared on the side of the brick building, informing encampment residents to leave the private property by Monday morning.
Any possessions left behind would be “considered to be trash and will be disposed of,” the notice reads.
The building is owned by developer Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration, along with more than a dozen adjacent parcels, according to property records from the city. McKee acquired the site known as the Bottle District in 2012 with plans for a multimillion dollar mixed-used project. McKee and NorthSide Regeneration representatives could not be reached for comment Sunday.
The mood in the encampment was tense on Sunday, the eve of the scheduled eviction. Standing silently around a corrugated metal barrel, three men stoked a small fire with scrap wood and cardboard, as ash settled on their shoulders.
For resident Marquise, who would only talk to a reporter if his last name wasn’t used, it’s just the latest in a string of evictions he has faced over the past year.
The 33-year-old set up a tent along Market Street in downtown St. Louis last spring, but shortly afterward, the city disbanded the encampment. He then moved to another encampment beneath an overpass along Interstate 44, which was also disbanded — before ending up at McGuire.
These groups are more than a collection of tents, Marquise said — they become a kind of family.
“Everybody here, we all play a role in each other’s life,” he said. “We all look out for one another. People seem to forget that the people in these tents are human beings. I just want people to know that we’re human and we need help.”
Marcus “Biggie” Hunt, a community health advocate who has lived on the streets himself, said these repeated evictions feel like “watching your house burn down over and over again.”
“Every encampment community has a loose governmental structure, it has a loose policing structure,” said Hunt, known as the former mayor of an encampment on Market Street that city officials disbanded last spring. “This is not something that just popped up out of thin air. We've given them this community to belong to, we've given them the semblance of safety, just to take it from them.”
Despite the looming eviction, many of the encampment residents have made no move to leave.
That’s left volunteer outreach workers and service providers scrambling to connect encampment residents with necessary services and help them find a new place to live.
Encampment evictions are “extremely stressful,” for residents, said Sharon Morrow, founder of Tent Mission STL, a grassroots organization that formed in the early days of the pandemic to offer food and other supplies to people who don’t have a home.
“It creates a lot of trauma for people that live on the street,” Morrow said. “We often see a lot of people in crisis during this time, with behaviors that are harmful to themselves. Because people are scared to death, they have no idea where they’re going to go.”
Some may agree to go to a city shelter if there are beds available, Morrow said, but many are afraid of contracting COVID-19 at larger shelters with open sleeping areas. Certain rules may be untenable for others, such as requiring all residents to leave during the day or have a curfew, she added.
By 6 a.m. Sunday, Morrow was crisscrossing the city in her car, scouting for empty lots, vacant properties or parking garages where encampment residents might be able to go. “They are not criminals,” she said. “They did not do anything wrong other than be poor and have nowhere to be.”
But city officials maintain that encampment residents are not without options.
“For those willing to accept going into shelter, we continue to have space available,” a spokesperson for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson said by email. The spokesperson added that officials have provided outreach for the McGuire encampment “multiple times a week for the past several months,” including food, water, hand-washing stations, portable toilets and trash collection.
Scattering into the city
For outreach workers and those who provide homeless services, disbanding encampments — particularly in the middle of the winter — puts already-vulnerable people at an even greater risk.
Miles Hoffman, an overdose prevention coordinator for the T, a nonprofit that provides health services in St. Louis, has been regularly visiting the McGuire encampment to connect with residents who have substance use disorders. With the eviction looming, he said he’s particularly worried about the possibility of a spike in drug overdoses.
“Now that people are being displaced, they’re moving from place to place pretty frequently,” said Hoffman. “That also means that their drug supply is changing a lot, putting them at a higher risk of an overdose than if they were going through the same supplier.”
Some volunteers are also concerned that encampment residents may scatter, making it much more difficult to provide them with services.
According to federal guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, clearing encampments “can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers,” which can also increase the potential for infectious disease spread.
Without a stable place to live, it’s “almost impossible” for volunteers to find homeless individuals consistently, said Alex Cohen, a volunteer with Tent Mission STL.
“If we schedule appointments with people or we’re taking them to the doctor, we know where to find them,” Cohen explained. “All of that ends when it’s not centralized, when someone doesn’t have a specific location where they reside.”
Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan